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Arizona city government forces church to halt feeding ministry, lawsuit says

Gethsemani Baptist Church in San Luis, Arizona is being forced to stop a feeding ministry, according to the church's pastor. Submitted photo

SAN LUIS, Ariz. (BP) — Pastor Manuel Castro was in tears. Sobbing, he told Baptist Press of his frustration and heartbreak at having to halt Iglesia Bautista Gethsemani’s food distribution ministry after the city threatened his arrest.

“I’m really frustrated. I’m really discouraged,” Castro told Baptist Press. “I never, never, never imagined to be in this position.”

For 25 years Castro said he has ministered to the spiritual and humanitarian needs of the agricultural town, just blocks from the Mexican border, including many seasonal workers with an unemployment rate of 28.1 percent. Many go elsewhere in search of work between the six-month farming seasons.

“It’s hard really,” he said, “because doing this work, helping people, loving people, serving a lot of families, praying with them, helping with the food, furniture, different kind of materials for the houses, handicap equipment, and different things. This is an integral ministry.”

The current San Luis mayoral administration under Nieves Riedel deems Gethsemani Baptist’s residential location a safety hazard, citing large delivery trucks and food storage, and has issued at least two citations to Castro. A third citation could mean his arrest, Castro said.

First Liberty Institute, which filed a lawsuit on Gethsemani Baptist’s behalf against Riedel, San Luis and two code enforcement officers, said the city’s treatment of Castro violates the U.S. Constitution, Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act and other statutes.

“Although the church had operated the food ministry in the same manner for approximately 23 years without complaint, the city suddenly turned hostile, bombarding the church with a series of accusations that the church’s use of its property and semi-trucks violate the City’s Zoning Code, and threatening to take enforcement action if the church does not cease its operations,” First Liberty said in its complaint.

“Although the church disclaimed that any of its operations were currently illegal, and committed to rectifying any potential issues moving forward, defendants refused to even discuss a solution that would allow the ministry to continue—even resorting to citing the church’s pastor for passing out food to just a few hungry people.”

Gethsemani Baptist has not distributed food since early February, Castro told Baptist Press. He has enjoyed a good relationship with the city.

“We participate in all of the city activities,” Castro said. “We participated in the Founder’s Day Parade, and we used our vehicles and (threw) chocolates and candy to the children, to the people on the parade. We’ve worked very close with the city council and everybody. Why now we are a high risk? Why?

“I’m feeling affected in different ways,” he cried. “I don’t know what happened in my life. I don’t know what happened in the church, because the new mayor, from the beginning, everything changed.”

During any other Holy Week, Gethsemani would be busy distributing groceries to needy families in advance of Sunday services. This Easter, four are scheduled for baptism, Castro said.

First Liberty cites Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35–40, as the basis for Gethsemani Baptist’s feeding ministry: “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Gethsemani has operated its feeding ministry with the support of donations from Caring Ministries and Feed the Children. With two semi-trailer trucks and five trailers, Gethsemani has collected donations from the two ministries and others in Arizona, Nevada and California, transporting the food to the church and distributing it to those in need several days each week. The church has also distributed Bibles, clothing and other necessities.

In addition, Gethsemani distributes food to Immanuel Southern Baptist Church and Power House Church of God in Christ in Yuma for their feeding ministries, Castro said.

“This is a poor community, a lot of needs,” Castro said. “They see our church like a very good blessing. They are so happy.”

First Liberty is requesting a jury trial to resolve the case.

“It’s unconscionable that the City of San Luis won’t allow Gethsemani Baptist Church to continue its 25-year mission of providing food for the hungry, hurting people in the surrounding communities,” First Liberty senior counsel Jeremy Dys said in a press release. “People who take action to care for the hungry should be encouraged and affirmed, not threatened and fined.”

San Luis city government did not respond to Baptist Press request for a comment before press time.