SPRINGFIELD, MO. The River of Life Church and Outreach opened its doors a few months ago on the city's north side to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a congregation of mostly homeless and addicted people.
"We're not your typical church," said David Casperson, the church's pastor.
Some would argue that River of Life is not so much a church as another soup kitchen, another magnet for homelessness in an area that has long struggled to control its transient population.
So when City Councilwoman Mary Collette walked into the church a few weeks ago and began taking pictures of people eating at a Friday night fellowship, she said she was acting on behalf of neighbors who want the city to declare River of Life in violation of an ordinance prohibiting more soup kitchens on this street.
When does a church become a soup kitchen? For the city, the question is in a gray area.
Fellowship meals are nothing new at churches. On any Sunday, one can find potlucks or suppers at numerous places of worship. Springfield-Greene County Health Director Harold Bengsch said, "It's been our policy not to become involved in trying to regulate church dinners" with health code inspections.
There are two exceptions: The Kitchen at the Missouri Hotel, and Victory Mission, both on Commercial Street. Both require food inspections because, like a restaurant, the food they provide attracts customers.
Collette believes Casperson's church also fits that definition. It is one of two such organizations in Springfield being investigated by the health department for their relevance to the food inspection ordinance.
The key question: Are they fishing for customers or for souls? Bengsch says these are the first such cases he can recall in the city: "It's a real bugaboo in other communities."
Acting on good faith
On Commercial Street, Casperson's operation has reopened some old wounds. After years of dispute, the Commercial Street community, including The Kitchen and Victory Mission, signed off on a "good-faith agreement" in 1996, with an understanding there would be no expansion of existing services or programs to the homeless.
Collette also cites a city ordinance that prohibits soup kitchens and shelters within 2,000 feet of each other. Casperson argues that his church is neither a kitchen nor a shelter. There are no beds. And although he offers a constant cup of coffee and a doughnut or light snack, meals are served only on Friday night and after Sunday services.
Casperson said his is a place of salvation; he believes he is saving souls.
In the six months he's been in Springfield, Casperson says 212 people have "made a decision for Jesus Christ. We call them saved."
In a long, narrow room of his rented sanctuary on Commercial Street, about 60 plastic white lawn chairs are arranged in neat rows, facing a small white wooden pulpit.
Casperson, a former electrician from Hudson, Wis., says he fills most of the seats on most days, preaching a nondenominational, charismatic service with words and song.
But the church also provides a place for the homeless to spend time during the day when they're otherwise not allowed at the mission or the nearby Missouri Hotel.
"The mission is trying to address both physical and spiritual needs," said Gary Rigenhagen, a transient who says he "teaches and preaches" in the area and has lived here about three years. "This is a place you can find shelter in a storm. It's the only place to get shelter off the streets during the day."
But as a biting November wind demanded the first cold-weather coats of the season, Rigenhagen confessed: "Trust me, these people in here today are not as concerned about their spiritual needs as they are about standing outside when it's 28 degrees. If it's not here, it'll be the library."
That's what concerns some Commercial Street merchants, who want the homeless dispersed throughout the city, not enticed with a new place to kill time.
"This is a neighborhood concern," said Christine Schilling, who works on Commercial Street and owns property there. "There are numbers of us concerned about the expansion of the social services here."
Casperson "appears to be violating the good-neighbor agreement signed by many of us," Schilling said.
They are asking Collette for help.
Collette has asked three city departments health, building development services and legal for input.
"It is a very difficult, very complex issue," she said. "And until you have a way to define what is and what is not a church," the issue will remain.