Columbia, SC — DESPITE complaints about its worship services being too loud and city police officers’ willingness to write tickets declaring it a nuisance, don’t blame Rehoboth United Assemblies for this clash with its new neighbors.
This was a match not made in heaven but in the misguided minds of Columbia officials who allowed homes to be built literally less than a pew’s length away from a Pentecostal church.
The Bible says, “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” and that “if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” Many Christians take those verses in Psalm 150 and Luke 19 seriously; I certainly do.
And Pentecostal churches in particular are known for their spontaneity and expressiveness. Rehoboth’s members have been praising, shouting and preaching to the glory of God at the same location for nearly 30 years.
City officials knew that but didn’t consider Rehoboth’s style of worship before allowing the new homes to be built so close. Now new neighbors are complaining about the sounds emanating for the church. It’s a dilemma that not only raises serious questions about how you balance a church’s right to religious freedom with homeowners’ right to enjoy the sanctity of their home, but also raises concerns about the city’s decision-making when it comes to planning and land use.
It would be totally unfair to make the church out to be the bad guy. But that’s what city police have done by issuing the church 16 tickets — carrying hundreds of dollars in fines — over the use of microphones and amplifiers.
Columbia officials ought to acknowledge that they created this problem. They’re the ones who cobbled together a block of land, picked the developer and approved the plan that allowed Inspired Communities to build the Battery at Arsenal Hill so close to the church five years ago.
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that the city goofed — again. This is nothing compared to the big mistake the city made when it ripped up a public parking lot to build tony Governor’s Hill at the edge of Finlay Park. Finlay is the city’s largest park and attracts people from all over — from the homeless to walkers to families to concert-goers. Over the years, homeowners have complained about everything from noise to trees blocking their view to crime. And as I’ve said before, this is a problem the city is going to have to mediate for a lifetime, unless it fills Finlay Park in.
Now, just blocks away, we have a similar dispute between Rehoboth and residents of the Battery at Arsenal Hill.
In both instances, the city had a good and noble idea: to create in-fill housing that would lure people back downtown. But in both instances, bad execution created long-term consequences.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said he has offered the church a dozen different places it could move. But the church was there first; it shouldn’t be forced to move. Besides, the small church’s property is paid off; it shouldn’t have to go into debt to acquire a new location or potentially face increased costs associated with a move just to fix Columbia’s mess.
But let’s be honest. Columbia isn’t the only one to blame. The developer also should have known this tight fit could cause problems.
And while I sympathize with the homeowners, the fact is that they chose to buy a house next to the church. Regardless of how homes got built next to a shouting church or a busy set of railroad tracks or a noisy junkyard, it’s the buyers’ job to check those things out and decide whether they’re willing to deal with the existing circumstances.
While a church certainly is a good neighbor, it doesn’t necessarily make a good roommate. And as close as one home in particular is to the church, that’s what the two practically are.
Churches aren’t graveyards. They’re lively bodies that worship, although they all don’t worship the same. And many churches don’t sit idle six days a week, only to awake for a couple of hours on Sunday. They have Bible study, mid-week services and various conferences, meetings and other gatherings during the week.
Did anyone take Rehoboth’s worship style and regular activities into account?
Apostle Johnnie Clark, who has led the congregation since 1996, wrote a letter to the city in March 2008 raising questions about parking and landscaping for the new neighborhood. He spoke of fears that changes could “result in the death of our congregation.”
If only the city could have heard what the apostle was saying as clearly as residents now hear the church’s worship services.
It’s true that churches are supposed to love their neighbors and seek to live peaceably with others. But this church is being asked to alter the way it connects with God. That’s no small matter.
I agree with Apostle Clark’s assertion that Rehoboth shouldn’t have to change its form of worship. Even so, he said he has tried to work with the neighbors by moving the drums to another area of the church and by toning down the sound system. But, he said, the preaching style used in the church dictates the use of a microphone.
There are other things the church could try, such as putting a sound cage around the drum set or installing sound absorbers for its speakers. Of course, I don’t know whether the church can afford such changes.
There has been a suggestion that the city could erect a sound barrier between the church and houses. (I have no idea what that would look like aesthetically.) There are probably other things to consider as well.
But let’s be real. Sound travels. This church is going to worship, as it has every right to do, and these neighbors are going to hear it, regardless of what measures are taken.
The important thing is for the church, the city and neighbors to keep an open line of communication. It wouldn’t hurt to take Mayor Benjamin up on the idea of bringing in a mediator. Will that lead to a resolution? If the Governor’s Hill-Finlay Park scenario is any indication, probably not. But that’s the hand the city has dealt the church and its neighbors — eternal mediation.
And, quite frankly, that’s nothing to shout about.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.