As Rachael parked her minivan along the street in the Gill Village housing project, a group of ten kids gathered nearby caught her attention. “They were sharing a box of Bisquick – not even pancakes, they had no water – they were just eating the dry mix,” she told me.
Rachael Groll, the Children’s Ministry Director of Living Waters Church in Meadville, PA, had visited the project, the roughest part of town, every Sunday and two to three times during the week, for several months. Living Waters Church shared food and clothing with Gill Village families, started an afterschool mentorship program for school-aged children, and offered free transportation to church and community events. While 30-40 kids would ride the bus to church, the church saw dozens more in the neighborhood. They decided to start a “Sidewalk Sunday School” program in May 2014, operating out of Rachael’s minivan, and later upgrading to a special truck with a fold-down stage. The church volunteers put on a program of games, prizes, Bible stories, and music for the kids and their families.
“Our goal is to go after the heart of the child and bring them hope, and also by meeting their needs, providing food, homework help, and just building relationships with them.” Rachael explained. “We told them that God loves them and has a future for them, and that’s the source of real hope.”
The program was immensely popular, and effective. “We saw major transformation and life-change in the community,” Rachael said.
But all that came to a screeching halt in September 2014. A voicemail from the government housing agency on the church answering machine simply informed them they could no longer continue serving in the projects – because they are a religious organization.
The news was devastating to Rachael. “I’ve never been up against anything like this, and when I got the call, honestly, I just wept. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I’ve built relationships with these kids and their families.”
And for her, it’s personal. “I came from a home where hunger was not foreign to me. Hopelessness was not foreign to me; not having parental, adult presence in my life was not foreign. I see myself in these kids, and I know what it was like. That further drives me to serve God and find a way to get back to them. Persecution is a result of life-change; it fuels me to keep trying.”
Rachael reached out to the housing authority, and although the agency admitted it saw positive change in the community as a result of the program, it was firm that the church couldn’t continue serving there as a religious organization. “They never mentioned any actual rules, they kept saying, ‘You just can’t.’”
Eventually, the housing authority gave the Church permission to return to the projects, on one condition: They couldn’t talk about God, Jesus, the Bible, use any Christian music, or pray with the kids, and they had to change the name from “Sidewalk Sunday School” to “Sidewalk Sunday Fun.”
“The gospel is the source of the hope and life-change they saw in the community. Basically they told us ‘You can pour into the community as long as you want, just don’t tell them why you’re doing it,’” Rachael said.
Living Waters Church had concerns about whether they could continue. Opportunities to share real hope were few and far between.
During one “Sidewalk Sunday Fun,” an elderly gentleman sat on the curb watching the program from a distance. When they started handing out sandwiches, Rachael approached him and asked if he would like one, and they struck up a conversation. He shared that he had walked away from the faith, had serious heart issues. Over the course of the conversation, Rachael said he gave his life to Christ. “That was on Wednesday … Monday we found out he had passed away. What if we had stopped going?”
But after a few weeks of “Sidewalk Sunday Fun,” they realized it was impossible to go through the motions while holding back the true source of life change and hope. Rachael made a last trip to Gill Village to say good-bye.
Living Water’s pastor contacted ADF for help, and ADF issued a demand letter to the Housing Authority for unconstitutionally discriminating against religious speech.
“Religious speech receives full and robust protection under the First Amendment and cannot lawfully be excluded from government property simply because of its religious nature and viewpoint. Government censorship of religious speech is the most invidious form of speech discrimination known to First Amendment jurisprudence, and is presumptively unconstitutional,” the letter said.
The city recognized that it was operating under a misunderstanding of the Establishment Clause, and quickly retracted. In its response letter, the city assured Living Waters Church that it would not discriminate against the church based on its religious activities and speech, and agreed to allow Living Waters Church to resume Sidewalk Sunday School - religious references and all.
After what they’ve gone through, Rachael advises other churches to educate themselves on their rights. “Find out what your rights are and what the laws are... Sometimes the government and government officials throw around these laws or ideas of separation of church and state that have no real grounding. We need to challenge these laws – it could be a matter of life or death.”
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