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Pastor Criminally Charged for Helping Homeless: ‘I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This’

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A Christian pastor reportedly facing criminal charges for violating zoning laws is refusing to back down from keeping his doors open to help the poor and others in his community.

Listen to them on the latest episode of “Quick Start”:

“[Pastor Chris Avell is] facing 18 criminal charges for violating the city’s zoning laws,” a First Liberty news release read. “The city is going after him, because, earlier this year, Pastor Chris opened the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s seeking to serve homeless people.”

The statement continued, “In November 2023, the city sent a letter ordering the church to stop allowing overnight guests or face criminal prosecution. This past Sunday — on New Year’s Eve — police showed up at the church. They handed the pastor a packet of multiple charges and violations.”

Avell of Dad’s Place, a church in Bryan, Ohio, told CBN Digital why his church decided last year to open its doors around the clock.

“Through some things God had done and what we were seeing we decided that … it was time to do it so that people can come in day or night and find true rest,” he said. “[And] come in and pray at any time of day.”

Watch Pastor Avell tell the story:

Avell said the church had been receiving calls from police in the middle of the night to ask if the house of worship would take in people facing domestic disputes and other issues.

This is one of the reasons Dad’s Place decided to expand its operations. However, authorities began taking issue with purported zoning violations this fall, with the Bryan City Zoning Commission reportedly expressing concern just months after that decision.

Since the church doesn’t have bedrooms, the zoning commission said the house of worship could no longer house the homeless. Avell said, though, that he’s tried to work with the city to remedy any concerns.

Regardless, he said the results of Dad’s Place being open 24/7 have been deeply encouraging.

“We’ve seen many who — if we were not open 24 hours, this wouldn’t happen — come to faith in Christ,” the preacher said. “We’re a church, so that’s our thing … for us, that’s paramount.”

Avell said he believes people’s lives have been enriched, adding that “everyone who walks through the doors of the church walks out a better citizen.”

“You can’t walk in the place and not experience the love of Christ, even if you just walk through the doors for a few minutes,” he said. “It’s just what we’re called to be … the hands and feet of Jesus.”

First Liberty attorney Ryan Gardner said the city’s actions against Avell and Dad’s Place constitute a “head-scratcher.”

“The police were referring people to Dad’s Place and everything was OK until it wasn’t,” the lawyer said. “And what happened is, in November, they got a letter saying that they had to shut their doors and had to put these people with nowhere else to go on the streets.”

Gardner said the ministry serves the “most needy and hurting” and explained that the 18 criminal charges waged against Avell — who continues to keep the church open and defy authorities — is “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’ve seen cities come after churches in the civil context when it comes to zoning issues, but to try to hold a pastor criminally liable and even put him in jail for simply caring for the homeless.”

Gardner believes each charge could carry as much as six months in jail on top of a fine. Considering the church remains open at the time of this article’s publication, he said additional charges could be forthcoming.

As for why the police reportedly went from referring people to Dad’s Place to suddenly demanding it stop its activities, Gardner said he’s uncertain.

“It seems to me that somebody in the city is hostile to this ministry and doesn’t want it there,” he said. “The First Amendment protects the right of Dad’s Place to operate its ministry wherever God has called us to do so, and in this case, God has called Dad’s Place to operate exactly where it is.”

As for Avell, he said he was “humiliated” to learn of his legal problems with the city — a fact he said he learned through a friend.

“I first found out the criminal charges came because … a fellow a fellow pastor contacted me and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on with Dad’s Place?’” he said. “I was embarrassed because I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

That’s when he learned a story about the 18 charges was in the newspaper. Despite the challenges that have persisted, Avell said he has no plans to back down, calling the stalemate one rooted in “persecution.”

“It’s a blessing, because I truly believe what Jesus says and that’s, ‘Follow Him and there’s going to be persecution,’ and that’s a blessing,” Avell said. “And my responsibility is to respond with the grace of Jesus, to love my neighbors, to remember my battle is not against flesh and blood.”

He said he plans to let First Liberty handle the case and follow the Lord’s lead in the process.

“I simply can’t stop doing what I believe God’s called me to do,” Gardner said.

As for the Bryan Police, the chief told WTVG-TV the issues at the center of the dispute hadn’t been remedied before the charges were given down.

“A reasonable amount of time was given for both the tenant and property owner to fix the issues,” the statement said. “Due to the safety of all involved, the city moved forward with filing charges.”

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