Sierra Presbyterian Church -- with its homeless program -- faces closure vote soon

May 8, 2010 

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SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Lori Shaver, 27, Peggy OBrien, 48, Frank Cuiotta, 45, and Preston Dunn, 51, right, sitting around a table in the Sierra Presbyterian Church discussing the possibility of the church closing, with a news reporter, Friday May 7, 2010 afternoon. The proposed closing of the church needs to be voted on May 15, 2010.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

Sierra Presbyterian Church may sing its swan song this summer, which could also mean an end to its 10-year-old program that helps the medically needy homeless.

The Administrative Commission for Sierra Presbyterian Church, a small group from the church's governing body, prepared a report listing six reasons why the church should close its doors by July 1.

One reason cited was that the church, located at M Street and Yosemite Avenue, wasn't financially viable.

While the homeless program is financially secure because of external grants until 2011, the report noted that the church doesn't have enough money to hire even a part-time Presbyterian ordained pastor, nor will the church be able to continue to maintain its facility.

The church owes $30,550 to the Stockton Presbytery, the governing body that oversees Sierra Presbyterian Church and 22 other churches, for the building of a parking lot years ago.

The last payment the church made was $250 in 2008, according to the report.

Despite the outstanding loan, members of the church said they stayed within their budget last year, and plan on doing the same this year.

The local church also claims it plans to start a new loan repayment plan with Stockton Presbytery.

The commission stated that the church isn't growing and has about 25 members.

Adam Gray., a long-time church member, said despite low membership numbers, there are hundreds of people who support the church and its mission.

But that was another complaint raised by the commission.

"The church has become one-dimensional in that its leadership is centered on a few individuals and the homeless program..." said the report.

The commission intends to help transfer the homeless program to another location if the Stockton Presbytery votes to shut down the church, they said in the report.

Yet, members of Sierra Presbyterian Church fear the program won't continue.

"Having the facility is integral to what we do," Gray said. "To suggest you're going to support that program and then remove that resource is disingenuous."

Candice Medefind helps to run the Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project. The program helps house and stabilize medically needy homeless people by subsidizing their rent and providing them with health and social service programs, she said.

Gray said the Sierra Saving Grace Homeless Project, which serves about 12 households, is showing tremendous progress.

Peggy O'Brian, 48, is an example.

After being hospitalized in September, she found out a month later that she had a rare form of blood cancer.

She could no longer work because she felt so ill, she said. Fearing that she might end up homeless because of unpaid bills, O'Brian connected with the church.

Local church members secured housing for her and her family, helped her move and gave her a gas card, she said.

"Without them, I'd be on the street," O'Brian added.

O'Brian is waiting for a bone marrow transplant.

Gray worried that such progress will disappear.

"We're in the epicenter of the economic crisis," he said. "We've seen what greed has done to our community."

Members of the commission said they couldn't comment beyond what's written in their report.

A meeting to decide the fate of the church is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 15 at St. John's Church, 450 S. Palm Ave. in Turlock.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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