Florida priest cited for feeding homeless wants his day in court

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Nov 14, 2014
the Rev. Canon Mark H. Sims, rector of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, is issued with a criminal citation for feeding the homeless.

The Rev. Canon Mark H. Sims (wearing a stole), rector of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, is issued with a criminal citation for feeding the homeless.

[Episcopal News Service] A Florida priest who was issued a criminal citation for feeding homeless residents in a local park is fighting back.

“I am suing the city of Fort Lauderdale for the right to continue to feed the homeless on city streets,” according to the Rev. Canon Mark H. Sims, rector of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs.

Sims told the Episcopal News Service Nov. 13 that he has hired local attorneys Bill Scherer, a well-known trial lawyer, and Bruce Rogow, a constitutional lawyer who teaches at Nova Southeastern University, to defend him “in court against a criminal citation I was issued.

“I want to fight the constitutionality of the ordinance that was passed. As someone issued a citation I have standing and I’m going to use that opportunity.”

Scherer told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that the city ordinance, passed Oct. 31, which bans feeding of homeless in public places, is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

Police arrive at Stranahan Park where Sims and others were feeding homeless residents.

Police arrive at Stranahan Park where Sims and others were feeding homeless residents.

Local law enforcement officials halted Sims and two others from feeding homeless residents in Stranahan Park on Nov. 2. Sims, 57, said he was detained by police, fingerprinted, issued the citation and released. He is awaiting a court appearance date and faces a $500 fine and a possible 60 days in jail.

“If I get sentenced to jail, I’m going to jail,” Sims said. “But, I’m willing to stay there [in jail] for the right to compassionately feed people who are living on the street,” he added.

City officials have said they want feeding programs moved indoors but Sims and others say there are simply not enough locations to accommodate growing numbers of homeless families and individuals.

“I am determined to allow people to be able to compassionately feed the homeless and people who are hungry on the streets of Florida. I don’t see how we can pass an ordinance that restricts human decency,” added Sims, who has created a legal defense fund on “gofundme.com” and expects “a tough challenge in court.”

He vowed to continue to feed homeless people and on Nov. 12 joined others doing just that at a local beach.

“The Episcopal Church in this diocese feeds people every single day through one of several agencies,” Sims said. “We have on-site places that we use and there are so many social service agencies we have created in Southeastern Florida to help families and individuals as much as we can, but there are still not enough.”

As chair of the board of the Episcopal Charities of Southeastern Florida “we just funded for a two-year cycle $600,000 worth of grants to parishes with at least half of that going to programs that are caring for the feeding of hungry people, homeless people and the elderly,” Sims said.

Typically, during winter months families and individuals who are homeless migrate to Florida from colder climates, so there has been a noticeable uptick in their numbers locally, he said.

On Sunday, Nov. 9, members of his parish returned to the park and served a hot meal of sautéed chicken, rice, vegetables and dessert and distributed “takeout bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples. We saw more women than we normally see. It was a bit surprising and a bit sad,” Sims said.

But he added that “the city wants them off the streets. They don’t want to do anything to encourage them to be able to stay on the streets. The problem is, there’s no place else to go. They want to make it someone else’s problem.”

Feeding people who are homeless is nothing new for Sims, who said “this has been going on since I was in seminary in 1999 and before that when I was a parishioner in South Florida. I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

His goal, he said, is for city officials to rescind the ordinance “and I want to sit down with a clean slate and help rework it.”

Meanwhile, local, national and international church communities have rallied in support of Sims, according to the Rev. Canon Donna Dambrot, Episcopal Charities executive director. She compared his legal struggle to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance to unjust laws.

The area has “seen an amazing increase in homelessness and hunger needs,” Dambrot added. “When Fort Lauderdale adopted this ordinance there was already feeding going on in the streets. We’ve gotten … requests for additional funding because the need is so great and food pantries have run out of food and their access to government sources of food is not available.”

She said ECSF “serves hundreds of thousands of meals a year” through partner agencies and that she has noticed at least a 10 percent increase recently in numbers of meals served.

The issue of homelessness is complex and layered, she added. “We have people come out of the woods and the mangroves in the [Florida] Keys; there are homeless folks living in encampments. In Pompano Beach, they’re sleeping under the highway. We even have some people living in canoes in the water, who come ashore to food pantries in Key West.”

There are levels of homelessness, including those who are temporarily without housing who receive job skills and employment training and eventually find permanent living arrangements.

“There is also that layer of folks we serve at St. Lawrence Chapel and our Jubilee Center in South Broward, that will be chronically homeless,” she said. “It’s an ongoing challenge and we’ll be in this for a long time.”

Yet, she added that Sims’ advocacy has inspired others “to take those steps necessary to change what we perceive as unjust regulations.” Sims, the agency and the church community are all simply attempting to respond to Jesus’ directives to help others.

“We follow Matthew 25,” which emphasizes Jesus’s call to serve those in need, she said. “That is our road map. That is our intentional vocational mission.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments (26)

  1. Oliver Prescott Wilcox IV says:

    So living out the Second Great Commandment is considered criminal activity in Florida. Unfortunately typical of the times in which we live.

  2. The Rev. Thomas Ryan says:

    I am a retired priest from the Diocese of Southeast Florida and former Chair of Social Concerns, Convenor for Outreach Programs, and Diocesan Representative for Jubilee Ministries to the Episcopal Church. This issue of feeding and caring for the homeless has long been a ministry of several parishes and Jubilee Centers of the Diocese of Southeast Florida. About 25 years ago we established a parish grant program supported by the diocesan budget for the purpose of assisting congregations in the development of ministries such as the meal program at St. Mary Magdelene . It is truly a blessing that those programs have continued in this faithful ministry.My continued prayers for their work.

    1. Ruth W. Campbell says:

      I am the Director of a Federal Summer Food Service Program (USDA) out of Church of the Holy Spirit Orleans Cape Cod MA -Food for Kids. A faith based organization partnering with a federal program which feeds children in the summer who qualify for free/reduced meals during the school year. We do this at open meal sites in playgrounds, and in school yards in census based poverty rural areas . Would you stop this program in your community too! Micah 6:8

  3. martha knight says:

    When did feeding those in need become a criminal offense following in the footsteps of Jesus?

    1. Martha, in Ft. Lauderdale it became a criminal offense to carry out our regular course of feeding the hungry–“following in the footsteps of Jesus”–on October 31, 2014. How ironic that on Halloween Night, when millions of people in this country were ritually handing out food on streets and driveways to anyone who asked, it became illegal to hand out food to the homeless and hungry on the streets of Ft. Lauderdale.

  4. Paula Lorraine Pavanis says:

    Thank you for taking a stand Rev. “If you live me…” “Pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this…” “Oh mortal what does The Lord your God require of you, but to do justice…”
    Keep on feeding.

  5. Gregory C. Willmore says:

    If I am ever arrested for feeding the homeless and they want to know who told me to do this I will say I will say the Lord Jesus Christ told me to feed the hungry ,give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked. Take it up with Him.

  6. The Rev. Gail Vince says:

    This what we are called to do and be!

  7. Sanford Hampton says:

    My middle son was threatened with arrest for attempting to distribute oranges to homeless people in downtown Seattle on Christmas morning several years ago.

  8. Brother Jeremy, CSJW says:

    I guess they would have arrested Jesus and fined him for feeding the 5000. They also could have charged him with practicing medicine without a license. It is interesting to notice that in spite of the blatant religiousity in our society, anyone actually following Jesus will be persecuted. I wonder if they will outlaw the reading on Matthew 25:31-46 on The Feast of Christ the King? (Well, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord…which of course means I am a Democrat,…see Matthew 25:31-46 )

    1. Ed Cimler says:

      You lost me Brother Jeremy when you introduced politics into this. I think that Jesus would also approve of Republicans also feeding the hungry.

    2. John Covert says:

      Br. Jeremy… The Mayor of Fort Lauderdale and all but one of the City Commissioners, the ones who just passed this ordinance into law and are vowing to continue to enforce it until the feedings move off the streets and into controlled indoor spaces, are Democrats.

    3. The Rev'd Carl Byrd, Sr. says:

      I agree and am a Republican!
      Matthew 25!

  9. The Rev. Harriet B. Linville says:

    Was Jesus speaking ironically when he said that the poor will always be with us? Why, because it is easier to make “the other” someone else’s problem. Bless all those who see need and respond with compassion and substance.

  10. Karen Morgan says:

    This arrest is so ludicrous I cannot believe I am actually responding to it. Perhaps there is not enough crime in Fort Lauderdale – or perhaps they have too many policemen with nothing to do. All over the world those who can, feed and clothe the homeless and destitute. Christ said, whatever you do to the least of these you do to me – (my own translation). We are charged to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick… if a man or woman of the cloth cannot minister to the homeless and needy without fear of being persecuted by the law, then I think we must be living in another place other than the USA!! Look at what the newly elected Pope Francis is doing in the world – for God’s sake, don’ disgrace the entire nation by following through with this in-humane act and process. Perhaps the police and those in charge should stand back and get a better view of what they are doing – there for the Grace of God go they (homeless) and pray that they are never in the same situation.

  11. Karen, I am glad that you are responding to this issue and the fact that it is a criminal violation to feed the homeless under most circumstances here in Ft. Lauderdale. This is very real. We are fighting hard to simply follow the example Jesus established for us. Be vocal. Pray. Spread the word. Contribute. And, most of all, thank you!
    Blessings, Canon Mark Sims+

  12. Martha I. Richards says:

    I am a member of Episcopal Charities (Matthew 25 Committee) and I fully support Fr. Mark Sims. And knowing him like I do, I would expect no less. Keep up the good work. God’s peace and love, M

  13. Enough frivolity. How can we help? Please send his e mail and mailing address
    of the Church in Ft.Lauderdale.

    1. Br. Hal, Thank you for your offer of help. I need all of the help I can get right now. I am determined to strike an acceptable covenant with the City of Ft. Lauderdale and provide shelter for all those who need it. Until that time, hungry people need to eat, and this can be done in an orderly and civil manner, which we in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. Please support us with funds so that we can continue our mission to the hungry and homeless. Please visit our website at Episcopal Charities of Southeast Florida: ECSEFL.org
      All funds will be used solely for food and basic human needs. ECSEFL.org
      You may call me, Canon Mark Sims, at 954.806.7410.
      Friend me on Facebook: Mark Sims
      You can follow the discussions, view the television interviews, and follow my legal challenge. Peace.

  14. The Rev. Lucretia Jevne says:

    I work with Episcopal Community Services in Northern California. Many of our congregations have programs to feed the hungry. It is shocking that in this rich nation so many people have to go hungry. What we need to do is outlaw hunger not those who feed the hungry!

  15. dwight smith says:

    We faced a similar challenge in 2003 and “the whole damn bar” joined to help us win the right to shelter children in our own home.

    Parks are one thing, and public or private land is another. I’m sure the owners of beachfront lots would be glad to lease you a vacant lot that would be more convenient for your homeless diners.

    See RLUIPA.ORG for your answer.

  16. Colin McAfee says:

    Shame on the city government of Fort Lauderdale for passing such a dispicable piece of garbage as a city ordinance! They, like so many other municipalities, are taking the easy way out. Rather then face up to the real problems of the homeless, they counter the teachings of Jesus and simply look the other way. Watch out that this doesn’t happen in your own cities and towns. Be active and follow the activities of your local government. Don’t let them do this to the homeless and the good Christian people who simply want to help the unfortunate.

  17. Canon Jesus Reyes says:

    And Jesus was arrested and condemned … Unfortunately, after so many years of Gospel presence in our nation, this continues to be the path for the exercise of prophecy in our society. But your courage, Mark, is precisely what is needed to submit the “powers and dominions” to the spirit of the Kingdom. It is sad to realize that that our socio-political discourse in our “Christian nation” is becoming more and more exclusive!

    Keep doing the good work, Mark… Keep living the Gospel!

  18. Kitty Swain-Evans says:

    “The real mark of courage will be when local law enforcement officers protest the injustice of this ordinance by refusing to enforce it as law.”

    Wouldn’t that be something to see!

  19. PJ Cabbiness says:

    To attempt to prevent a Priest from feeding the hungry………despicable.

  20. Erin Mulvaney says:

    ***(My previously posted comments were all incomplete per computer error!)***
    It’s always amazing to me how in this outright utterly disposable society of ours, Common human decency just gets thrown out the window!- Especially by those whom we’ve entrusted to be our so-called “Leaders!”… Nevermind that for those of us whom are Christians, this is totally a violation of our constitutional rights; being persecuted for religious beliefs & the right to practice those beliefs! (The very rights that a large number of our Country’s homeless population fought wars to defend!) How about just a little human compassion & common decency?… Not just as citizens of this great Nation, but merely as brothers and sisters who share this planet!- Our political leaders should be in the forefront, using all of their contacts and the power of their platforms in a public outcry on “The World Stage” to promote a sort of “Global Treaty” to end hunger once and for all!… Let alone, to clothe, shelter, educate and otherwise care for those in need. Vicious convicted felons get better treatment in prisons the whole world over, for crying out loud!
    The real question is: “Where is our wonderful President when you need him?…
    (“Probably off vacationing as usual, frivolously spending our taxpaying dollars while our citizens go hungry!)- “What a damn shame!”


    Speak Your Mind

    Erin Mulvaney Name *

Comments are closed.