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Associated Press photo by Mary Altaffer

Good deeds punished

Religion | New York congregations that worship in public schools pay rent to the schools, meet during non-school hours, and in many ways help their communities, but they face a Feb. 12 deadline to get out and stay out

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

NEW YORK-On a wintry night the streets outside I.S. 52, located near the northern tip of Manhattan, are mostly empty. Inside the school, where Heavenly Visions Christian Center meets on Sunday evenings, the congregation is singing as two praise dancers twirl on stage. What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing over the past 12 years, maybe everything starting on Feb. 12. That's when a ban on religious organizations using otherwise empty schools on weekends will go into effect. Heavenly Visions has met in I.S. 52 for 12 years now, most recently paying the New York City Department of Education almost $10,000 per year for the privilege. Soon, unless others overrule the educrat edict, many churches will be homeless and many schools will be poorer.

Heavenly Visions Pastor Salvador Sabino has been desperately calling other churches, trying to find a new location. So far he is finding either a lack of space or space that isn't affordable. More than 60 other congregations are in the same fix. Sabino pastors one low-income congregation in the Bronx, another in Manhattan, and a third on Long Island. His Bronx congregation of about 1,000 may move back to a small building that can only hold about 300 people, and Sabino doesn't know how he'll preside over three or four services in the Bronx each Sunday, plus the services in Long Island and Manhattan.

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The Bronx is where the battle between churches and secularists came to a legal head. For 16 years the Bronx Household of Faith and New York City officials fought over religious groups' use of public space. In 2002, a judge ruled that churches had a First Amendment right to meet inside public schools, but last year a federal appeals court ruled the ban legal. Six months later, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, and the city issued the Feb. 12 move-out deadline.

The court outcome looks to hurt both church and state. New York state Education Commissioner John King recently reported that some schools are in dire straits, facing insolvency. The Board of Regents says districts are in line to spend $80 billion but are receiving only $62 billion from local, state, and federal sources. Collateral damage is also likely: Eliminating the income from renting to religious organizations means fewer jobs for custodians and guards.

The court outcome will also hurt regular Heavenly Visions attenders like 33-year-old Evelyn Gomez. She started coming six years ago after learning her 2-year-old son needed three open-heart surgeries: "I needed to talk to someone, I needed someone to pray with me, to help me spiritually." Leaders at the church supported her. They've also helped former prostitutes and drug addicts, and Gomez recalls the church helping a woman who planned to commit suicide: The woman found hope and now serves at the church.

Heavenly Visions will also be hampered in its role of cutting gang violence. Sabino, a former gang member, has effectively communicated with gang members and leaders, as has Oswaldo "Ozzy" Rabanal, one of the Heavenly Visions youth ministers. Rabanal at first grew up rich financially-"I was the kid walking down the street with a thousand dollars in my pocket"-but poor in love. Then his family lost everything and his parents divorced. He failed sixth grade and became a teenage drug user: "I would wake up late, leave school early, and spend the day drinking liquor, smoking, messing with girls-and then do it all over again the next day."

Rabanal said that life left him feeling empty and depressed. When he was 15 the Latin Kings, a street gang, offered him the chance to become the 5th Crown: That's one of the most powerful gangster positions in New York City. It was a chance to have power and respect: "I was fooled into thinking this was the best life ever." Then a friend invited him to church, including all-night vigils and a church retreat where Rabanal says he experienced God's love for the first time.

Rabanal never became the 5th Crown. Instead, he's in college, aiming for both a doctorate and a career as a professional chef. He spends time mentoring boys and men off the street and evangelizing on weekends to drug dealers who he knows are dealing with depression and hopelessness like he did. If the church has to leave its neighborhood, he asks, "Who will offer these men hope?"

Heavenly Visions also serves 200 poor individuals through its weekly food bank. Other churches also serve up hope. In southern Manhattan, members of Trinity Grace Church have served at Bailey House, a home for homeless men, women, and children living with AIDS. The Village Church on Hudson Street provides free babysitting for parents every Friday night, so they can go on a date.

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