Pastor Chris Avell

Chris Avell (R) is seen in a courtroom where he was arraigned on January 11, 2024 for opening his church in Bryan, Ohio to the homeless population during extreme winter weather.

Ohio Pastor Charged for Opening Church to Homeless People in Freezing Weather

"This is actual religious persecution of a Christian by the state," said one journalist. "An actual violation of religious liberty."

Outrage spread Friday after the story about a pastor in Ohio who was arrested and charged for opening his church to homeless people when extreme cold weather struck his town gained national attention.

Chris Avell, the pastor of an evangelical church called Dad's Place in Bryan, Ohio, pleaded not guilty last Thursday to charges that he broke 18 restrictions in zoning code when he gave shelter to people who might otherwise have frozen to death.

Avell garnered the attention of the Bryan City Zoning Commission last winter, when he invited unhoused people to stay in his church to avoid the cold and snow.

In November, officials told him Dad's Place could no longer house the homeless because it lacks bedrooms. The building is zoned as a central business, and Ohio law prohibits residential use, including sleeping and eating, in first-floor buildings within business districts.

According to James Causey, a columnist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Avell ignored the commission's orders and again opened Dad's Place to the homeless earlier this winter, until police arrived at the church during a New Year's Eve service and issued the violations.

"Many of these people have been rejected by their families and cast aside by their communities. So, if the church isn't willing to lay down its life for them, then who will? This is what we're called to do," Avell toldFox News.

Dad's Place is located next to a homeless shelter, but overcrowding at the facility led Avell to begin offering space to unhoused people. "We have put in things people can use, like a shower and a small ability to do laundry," the pastor toldThe Village Reporter in Bryan. "Some who found this to be a home for them have stuck around."

Ashton Pittman, editor of the Mississippi Free Press, said Avell's story was a rare example in the U.S. of "actual religious persecution of a Christian by the state."

Avell's attorney, Jeremy Dys, called the city's prosecution of the pastor "unconscionable."

"The city would rather kick these folks to the curb in the cold outdoor months of December and early January than allow the church to remain open 24/7 to those who need it the most," Dys told the Journal Sentinel.

Avell's story garnered national attention as bitterly cold weather was expected across much of the country, including Ohio.

Causey noted that Avell was charged days before Milwaukee officials began investigating at least three homeless people's possible deaths from hypothermia, when the area was experiencing extreme cold.

"Homeless shelters fill up this time of the year as people seek refuge from the bitter cold. While shelters do their best to ensure no one ends up in the cold, people often get frustrated and tough it out on the street," wrote Causey. "Avell saw a problem. He addressed the issue by helping 100 people and is now facing criminal charges. Does this sound right to anyone?"

The nation's homeless population grew sharply by 12% in 2023, with nearly 654,000 without housing.

"A combination of the cold, growing unhoused population, and lack of housing shelters is the reason why charges against Avell must be dropped," Causey wrote.

Avell has said he plans to continue housing the homeless population in his church this winter. Two days after his arraignment, as more cold weather was expected, Dad's Place posted on its Facebook page a notice inviting "Anyone who could use a warm place" to "walk right in and enjoy hot coffee, cocoa, soup in our heated building."

"Stop in to warm up or stay as long as you/they need," read the post.

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