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Houston, We Have a Problem

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    Chelsea England, lower right, of the group Food Not Bombs, serves dinner in downtown Orlando, Florida. (AP/Joanne Carole)
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    Police ticketed a volunteer with Food Not Bombs outside the Houston Public Library in Texas. (Public domain)
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    A man gets a meal from a chapter of Food Not Bombs in Santa Cruz, California. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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    Suzanne Peters, left, a legal advocate for the homeless, talks to Bruce Eric Shawn in Orlando, Florida. Shawn was among a group of people waiting for Food Not Bombs volunteers to serve dinner. (AP/Joanne Carole)
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Houston police ticketed a man outside a public building. The man was feeding people experiencing homelessness. Some Houstonians protested. They say an outdated city ordinance restricts kindness and needs to change. Or could there be more to the story?

For years, volunteers with the group Food Not Bombs have provided meals outside the Houston Public Library. But one night in March, food server Benjamin Franklin Craft-Rendon received a ticket.

Police say Craft-Rendon violated a 2012 city ordinance. The regulation requires groups to get permission from property owners for feeding more than five people.

A city website says the regulation’s intent was to “improve the quality, quantity, and distribution of food” and to lessen the damage that food service can bring—like trash, vermin, and hygiene issues.

City officials cite reasons for the ordinance. They name “an increase in the number of threats and violent incidents directed at visitors and employees coming to the Houston Public Library downtown.” They indicate “parents and families have expressed no longer feeling comfortable visiting the library.”

Before the ticket incident, the city posted a notice at the library. It warned that police would soon issue citations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says, “We’re going to retake the downtown central library to make it more wholesome and inviting to families and to kids.”

The city is now providing meals and other services at an approved facility. It’s located about a mile north of the library near a police station.

Food Not Bombs volunteer Nick Cooper says the new location isn’t ideal. He says his customers aren’t always comfortable with police presence.

“If they’re going to have the law and just use it to threaten people and intimidate people, it’s about time they wrote a ticket for it,” Cooper says. “This law is garbage.”

It’s clear that some Food Not Bombs volunteers knew about the ordinance. Cooper even says the ticket was what “we had been waiting for for 11 years.” He added that finally getting the citation “gives us the opportunity to challenge it in court.”

Food Not Bombs lawyer Randall Kallinen says, “Jesus taught His followers to feed the hungry.” Passages throughout the New Testament agree. However, Jesus also taught His followers to obey authorities. The Houston regulation doesn’t say, “Don’t.” It does describe “Where” and “How.”

Mayor Turner believes the new location is better suited to help “our brothers and sisters who are in need of a hot meal and services.” The city seems to have offered a sensible alternative. Is fighting over location the best use of time and resources?

Why? Sometimes unjust rules deserve peaceful civil disobedience. But it takes wisdom to know when and how to submit—or to protest without unnecessarily causing chaos.

Pray for wisdom to both do good to all people and to obey authorities appropriately.