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Church Removes Pews, Welcomes Community


Proposed was tiny housing for seminarians at Bethesda United Methodist Church. The church sits on the parcel immediately to the north of Haw Creek Elementary School. Already, the parcel is home to a sanctuary, a fellowship hall, classrooms, a kitchen, and a parsonage. The church would continue to serve four parsonages, but the property would be further developed to accommodate a year-round educational and community service curriculum.

According to the plan, seminarians would dwell in ten cottages of 350-600 sq. ft. each. The houses would be designed by Wishbone Tiny Homes and built by ministerial students. The fellowship hall would be remodeled to accommodate a kitchen, dining hall, maker space, and open floor plan office for the seminarians, students, and parishioners. The kitchen would be made available for canning, pickling, and cooking food for delivery. The office would be opened to the public for a nominal fee.

Going through the design review process, the project picked up thirteen conditions to which the church leaders agreed. First, an element of the community-service/education curriculum was going to be the construction of tiny homes with free labor. The houses would be constructed on-site and wheeled to other locations to help with the community’s affordable housing crisis. After negotiating with city leadership and neighbors, however, it was decided to limit construction of the houses to four a year, with noise-making occurring only between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. In addition, limits were placed on the number of “co-workers” allowed on-site at any given time; and none of the church’s activities could be of a commercial nature.

Larry Duggins of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which is partnering with the church on the project, explained the project was reactionary. “People used to form community around churches. They just don’t do that anymore.” The plan was to, “repurpose the church building to match the way people form community today.” Duggins’ group sees that people form community around workspace, food, and schools.

To cooperate with the elementary school, they’ve asked how they can help grow community. They had already put up new signs inviting parents to park in their lot and walk across to pick up their children. The church has also added a playground and picnic tables to the parking area. Afterschool Spanish classes are already held there, and the church would be a safe haven in case of emergency.

Other changes include removing the pews in the sanctuary to accommodate community meetings. A quilting group is now meeting in a larger space, an AA group has been welcomed on-site, and woodworkers are invited to use the garage. The tiny housing component was to contribute to a monastic, austere environment to teach students the philosophy of sufficiency.

Neighbors said the idea was nice, but they didn’t want it in their back yards. They spoke of a national trend of churches depopulating and shutting down as old people die. The area was residential, and neighbors didn’t want the extra commotion. Barber Melton said nobody had spoken in favor of the project at the two pertinent community meetings. One meeting, she said, had to be shut down. “It almost got out of hand, there was so much opposition.” At the city council meeting, half a dozen spoke in favor of the proposal, and half a dozen spoke against.

Councilman Chris Pelly spoke in favor. A resident of Haw Creek for twenty years, he thought the neighborhood could use some community meeting space. He compared the maker space to the Harvest House in Kenilworth. He had heard nothing but positive feedback on that. In addition, the church had worked with the school to find synergies, as with shared parking. He was “heartened’ by the qualitative community improvements the project would bring.

After a motion had been made to approve the project, Councilmen Marc Hunt and Jan Davis said they felt they had been misled somewhat. They didn’t realize that after the ten tiny houses had been built the seminary would continue to operate as a manufactory outputting four tiny houses a year. The intent was to build them on wheels and cart them off-site.

Ideas were tossed around. Councilman Cecil Bothwell asked if the houses could be built inside. City Attorney Robin Currin did not believe council had the power to control the school’s curriculum. She asked if members intended to shut down the construction of the first ten houses as well. She added the developer would have to consent to any conditions imposed. Representatives of the church then agreed to build ten homes for the seminarians but remove the construction of more from their community-service/education curriculum. The project was approved unanimously with tiny housing construction capped at ten.

In Other Matters –

The public hearing on the cat café was expected to be really big, but it passed with no public comment. The idea originated in the Far East as a way of “mixing animal adoption with the experience of a café.” Contrary to all the jokes, the café would provide an opportunity to showcase sheltered felines while affording patrons an opportunity to enjoy munching on other things. To be consistent with health codes, the cat housing would have to be separated from food service areas; that is, cats wouldn’t be crawling across the table or leaving hairs in the kitchen.

The unanimously approved proposal now permits the establishment of cat cafes as a low-impact use allowable only in the Central Business District. The cafes may only be owned, operated, or maintained by organizations “licensed by the state as an animal shelter and devoted to the welfare, protection, and humane treatment of animals for the purpose of adoption.” The organization applying for the use was Brother Wolf Animal Rescue.

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