Pastor Ryan Macdonald has been passionate about his work with the City Church food distribution program at St. Anthony’s on Liberty Street as it has grown the last four years.
He has attended every single bi-monthly event, he says, and can appreciate the importance these distributions have for the 200 to 300 Genesee County senior citizens and families that come for the free food.
So it is with that same passion that he has responded to a request from city officials to stop the distributions at the southside location.
“They told us there is no resolution, there is no compromise, there is no bending, the event needs to be canceled at this location. And when we asked for an alternative location, they basically told us, that's our problem,” Macdonald said Tuesday. “I asked, ‘What if we declined to move it or cancel it? (Public Works Director) Brett Frank from the city, made it very clear, that they would seek some type of legal notice against the church. And I said, so you're gonna legally pursue a church for handing food out? And he said, yes, if you don't move it from St. Anthony's, we will.
“We definitely believe this is an infringement of our religious ability to practice our religious values. Thirty families from our neighborhood, the most impoverished neighborhood in the city, walked to this event. That’s why we are extremely opposed to moving it. This is the first time we’ve been told to cancel,” he said. “We have no interest in any type of disagreement or litigation. We respect and support our city officials. We pray they will reconsider their position on our food distribution.”
This hasn’t just happened overnight, City Manager Rachael Tabelski said, and the city has offered to help find an alternative location for the distribution. Both sides met last Friday, and as far as the city was aware, a process was in place to locate another site. She and Frank also denied that he issued any type of legal threat for conducting the food distribution.
“The police chief and Brett are the ones who met with them and let them know that they would be more than willing to help find a location to better suit traffic flow so that all the individuals who need to get the food can get it. We've reached out to multiple partners for them. This was a United Way function that was done, and it rotated between churches during COVID,” Tabelski said. “So it hasn't always been at City Church. It's just they've been so wildly successful with their program … They've got so many people that have a need and come to the drive-through food location that it's a hindrance to our citizens and traffic. So, we're not saying it's bad, it's actually a great thing. It's just outgrown the location.”
She said there have been complaints about neighborhood residents being blocked in their driveways by vehicles waiting in line during the distribution, and safety concerns during school hours when kids are walking to Jackson Primary, which is on one end of the southside neighborhood.
The driving route had been revised at one point, and distribution participants were asked to use Sumner and Jackson to avoid the school, Macdonald said, while the remaining route is on Liberty Street. He said there are some 50 volunteers involved in the event, and some have been on the street to watch out for people blocking driveways. Someone even recorded a video at one point as proof that traffic wasn’t blocking driveways, per the apparent complaints, he said.
Meanwhile, there have been “different emails, different phone calls, over the last two and a half years” to City Council and staff members, Tabelski said.
“And they fear for their safety for crossing the street. They are blocked from getting in and out of their driveways at certain times when these occur. And then, like I said, the school has had traffic issues as well,” she said. “So we've brought it up. This isn't the first time we've had these communications with them. This is just the most recent meeting that we've had, where we've asked for it to be relocated so the neighborhood isn't unduly harmed as it is now.”
Tabelski said she looks at it as a positive: the event has become so successful, that it now needs a larger venue to accommodate all of the participants.
The food distribution stemmed from a United Way program, and the food comes from Food Link to City Church. The food is purchased from state funding, Macdonald said, and City Church has built up a network of names internally for people in need.
They are primarily senior citizens and families, and while the bulk of them drive to the pick-up, some 20 to 30 people walk due to lack of transportation, he said. He is most concerned about how those people would get food if the distribution was moved to outside the city.
Church member Todd Crossett also attended the meeting, and he said city officials asked that a new site be located one to one and a half miles outside of the city since anything inside would be too congested with the line of 200 to 300 extra vehicles.
He recalled that the discussion with city officials involved mention of potential code violations for a business that disturbs the neighborhood.
Crossett and Macdonald are hopeful that they can alleviate the past issues with clear communication and flyers handed out to participants to ensure everyone understands not to block driveways and be mindful of neighborhood etiquette.
For Tabelski, “The city is committed to helping find a more suitable location for the flow of traffic for the food drive and looks forward to working with City Church to do so,” she said.
“It’s just outgrown its footprint … and we've just gotten to the point where we really, we don't see any other successful solution, except to put it in a place that's meant to handle this type of traffic,” she said. “We want this food drive in Genesee County to be successful. As far as we know, they’re willing to work with us.”
She sent the note below to the City Council to provide an update about the latest meeting:
Over the past year the City Church bi-monthly food drive has caused legitimate traffic safety concerns in the Southside residential streets. It has grown to almost 300 cars in our neighborhood and is an issue, that we continue to get periodic complaints about. Complaints from residents have included blocking driveways, crossing safety, rude patrons, and school safety issues.
Chief Heubusch and Director Frank had a conversation with Ryan MacDonlad to let him know City Church cannot continue the food drive at the current location. They offered to help them find a new location.
For Crossett, “we’re trying to come up with solutions. We’re going to have somebody on the streets. We don’t want to upset the neighborhood.”
“The ones that are walking there, obviously, they're the most needy people, you know, they don't have vehicles, they don't have a mode of transportation. That's truly our focus, is them. And if we can resolve it, and not forget about them, that's our end goal is not to forget about those people who are walking in. Again, it's early talking about coming up with a resolution. But I think, my experience with the city is, we will come up with a resolution, and it'll work for both sides.” he said. “I would hope the city would not show up and say, ‘Here’s your citation.’”
Macdonald had offered to pay for a police officer during the event, but "the city said that's not an option," Crossett said.
As for Macdonald, whose mother at one point in life had to go to a government food store when his father lost his job, “I simply want to be able to hand out food,” he said.
And so be it.
“We will be holding our next food distribution Dec. 13,” he said. “And it will be held here (at St. Anthony’s).”