County OKs church request

Korean group keeps house for services, over some protests

`Illegal aliens' feared

May 26, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

No matter what the neighbors think, Jung Chong believes she is following God's will.

Chong, pastor of the nine-member Church of Jesus Power, has received permission from the Howard County Board of Appeals to hold church services in a house off St. John's Lane in Ellicott City. The decision capped months of neighborhood squabbling.

About 25 neighbors had objected, worried about cars going in and out at all hours of the night, lack of parking space and a possible decline in property values. Last fall, someone passed out an anonymous letter urging neighbors to protest the proposed Church of Jesus Power because "it could become a halfway house" or "illegal aliens could start to live there."

But the debate before the board this week was not just about a church in a residential neighborhood and the problems that can cause. Because the Church of Jesus Power is a Korean church, with Korean services, the debate also was about cultures meeting and trying to understand each other on a quiet street in an old, established neighborhood.

During the hearing, about 15 church members and supporters, most of them Korean, sat on one side of the room while 25 or so church opponents, most white, sat on the other. Church supporters talked about God and Jesus Christ, while opponents focused on noise and property values.

Tensions ran high. At one point, someone accused church opponents of racism.

"For some reason, we as Americans have opposition to other nationalities," said the Rev. Kip Smith, senior pastor at Bethany Lane Baptist Church, who supports the Church of Jesus Power. During a break at the Board of Appeals meeting Tuesday, he got chewed out, cringed and apologized.

"I object to that gentleman who stood up there and accused me of being racist," said Paul Ellis, a retired schoolteacher who lives near the church. Turning to the Koreans, he announced, "I love you guys." Then he invited them to join his church rather than starting their own.

The church sought a special exception to have a religious facility in a single-family home off St. John's Lane. Chong promised, through an interpreter, to hold services only during the day on Sunday, and she promised that once membership exceeded 15 members, the church would move elsewhere.

But residents worried about what would happen if a 16th member came to the church, or if there were too many cars to fit on church property.

"It infringes on neighbors," said Susan Richardson, a neighbor who volunteered to be a spokeswoman for opponents. "What are you going to do when you reach the 15-member limit? What's the plan then? ... Why are you wasting all this time and effort ... when in turn you are going to move on?"

"I believe that God has given us this property to achieve his kingdom," said Chong, the pastor, through her interpreter. "That's my faith, and that's my confession."

Richardson asked Chong what she would do if the entire neighborhood joined the church, thereby putting it above the 15-member limit.

Robert G. Sharps, chairman of the Board of Appeals, said that was a rhetorical question and threw it out.

There was a similar controversy - and a similar outcome - in Baltimore County last year when the county threatened to fine an Owings Mills couple $1,000 for holding small religious services in their home without a permit. But county officials eventually ruled that the Orthodox Jewish couple did not violate the county's zoning laws when they held minyans, gatherings of at least 10 Jewish men, in their home.

In Howard County, other churches have inspired zoning controversies. First Baptist Church of Guilford has fought to expand for more than two years. That church is much bigger; it wants to expand from 400 seats to 1,502. But residents worry about the same things: traffic and property values.

Covenant Baptist Church raised the ire of some Ellicott City residents about a year and a half ago when it proposed a senior housing complex off Centennial Lane to finance a church and church school. After some residents objected, church officials stopped pressing for the housing.

Church of Jesus Power members tried their best to assuage fears that the house would be used for "a halfway house" or a place where illegal immigrants would reside.

"We don't want to devalue the house," said Richard Myung, a member of the congregation. "We want to be your friend and your neighbor."

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