The Odd Couple

A minister and a rabbi team up to sue Palm Beach County on behalf of the homeless

If the Rev. Avis Hill had any trepidation about standing in a synagogue to deliver a sermon on the evening of Friday, March 8, he didn't show any sign of it. A short man wearing a blue sport coat and an American-flag tie, Hill exhibited a nuclear smile that radiated toward the 50 or so members of the Congregation L'Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach.

"I was raised in the mountains of West Virginia, and there aren't many Jewish folks where I lived," the 58-year-old said with an Appalachian drawl. "In fact, this is the first time I've ever stood in a temple and spoke."

What brought Hill, a fundamentalist Christian, to this temple is a most unlikely partnership, the other half of which, Barry Silver, has a front-row seat. By day, Silver is an attorney, and by Shabbat, he is a rabbi for this Reform Jewish congregation that has met in the cafeteria of the Christa McAuliffe Middle School for the past four years. Energetic and passionate, Silver sports a helmet of black hair, and his face is a fleshier version of Jerry Seinfeld's.A former Democatic state legislator, he has in the past sued Operation Rescue, an antiabortion group, for hassling clients and clinic workers. By contrast, Hill describes himself as a staunch pro-life advocate; he was deeply involved with Operation Rescue while running a Christian school in West Virginia before moving to Florida about five years ago.

Since 1998, Hill has been locked in a battle with Palm Beach County officials over his care for homeless people. Hill is minister of Westgate Tabernacle, which is located at 1700 Suwanee Dr., just south of West Palm Beach ("on the other side of the ditch," Hill says) in an area troubled by drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Until the end of October 1998, the church took in as many as 30 homeless people a night and clothed and fed many more.

Some neighbors viewed Westgate as a magnet for homeless people rather than a remedy. County inspectors subsequently pummeled the church with code citations, intending, Hill believes, to close down the shelter operation.

The county's attempts to keep the church from working with the homeless nearly bankrupted Westgate at one point. Still, on Friday evening, Hill expressed his hearty gratitude to the Almighty: "I am thankful that God sent me a Jewish rabbi lawyer!"

Indeed, the two have set aside their differences, and Silver is representing Hill for free. They expect to file a lawsuit this week against the county in Palm Beach Circuit Court, claiming that the county infringed upon the church's guarantee of freedom of religion under the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

Based on the outcome of a similar federal lawsuit in New York City, Silver is confident of success. This past December, the city began evicting sleeping homeless people from the entryways to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's East Side. The city argued, in part, that the church was operating a shelter without proper certification. The church sought a permanent injunction, arguing that allowing the homeless to sleep there was part of its "Homeless Neighbors" policy, which was intended to develop relationships with individuals to help reintegrate them into society. Such work, the church held, is part of its religious mission and thus protected by the First Amendment. In January, a federal judge granted Fifth Avenue Presbyterian a permanent injunction to stop the city from removing the homeless.

Silver and Hill are no strangers to controversy or to life in the public eye.

Hill moves with a bouncy gait, frequently punctuating his words with a staccato laugh. He wears large, wire-rimmed glasses atop his teardrop-shaped face. In the mid-1970s, the minister led a movement to ban certain textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, schools; he believed they demeaned or disregarded Judeo-Christian values. Hill was also involved in numerous abortion protests throughout the '70s and '80s and operated a Christian school and television station for 17 years. About five years ago, after divorcing his wife, he moved to Florida and filled in as a pastor at Westgate Tabernacle. Hill became its full-time preacher within months, continuing the church's tradition, he says, of feeding and housing homeless people in its fellowship hall.

But Gateway's charity ran contrary to efforts by the county and neighborhood groups to revitalize the area. In 1998, county code enforcement officers cited the church for operating a shelter without a license and began levying a $100-a-day fine. Hill says that he tried to get such a license but that approval was contingent upon an ever-evolving list of required improvements such as a newer kitchen and better electrical wiring. "After jumping through all these hoops, we were literally broke," he says. The fines totaled $22,700 before the church stopped housing homeless people on October 31, 1998. Because the church has so far been unable to pay, the total has grown to more than $28,000 with interest. Westgate still feeds homeless people and offers them clothing and showers.

Hill views the county's citations as red herrings. "The reason the problem started is because of the homeless stigma -- nobody wants them around their neighborhood," he explains. "Communities are trying to revitalize. Now, I'm not against progress, but you can't turn your back on others. Caring for others is fundamental to Judeo-Christian belief."

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