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Published: Friday, 10/14/2005

Town still feels tainted by racist label from pastor hoping to house evacuees

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The pastor of Christ Community Church wanted to renovate part of the building to shelter evacuees. Rezoning was rejected.
The pastor of Christ Community Church wanted to renovate part of the building to shelter evacuees. Rezoning was rejected.
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RIDGEVILLE CORNERS, Ohio Normally this time of year, the 400 or so residents in this rural Henry County village are thinking about high school football, Halloween, canning, and what kind of winter is looming.

That is not the case this fall.

A dispute between residents and a local minister over relocating Hurricane Katrina evacuees to the village has created anxiety among the residents that they cannot shake, they said, because they have been labeled as the villains in a tale that they claim has been manipulated and distorted by the pastor.

Barnett Barnett
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I feel we ve been portrayed in an unfair and uncaring manner, and it has done so much damage to our community, said resident Ann Hesterman. It has filtered down through our children, in our schools, in our jobs, and how neighboring communities view us.

The pastor, J. Donald Barnett, said any image problem the residents have is their own doing.

The people of Ridgeville Corners are good people, he said. [But] I believe they have made a bad decision based on irrational fears, misinformation, and stereotypical judgments.

In early September, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Mr. Barnett of Christ Community Church developed a plan to house about 50 evacuees on the second floor of the church building, which once was the village s school. Although a zoning permit was required from the Ridgeville Township board of zoning appeals, renovation work began immediately.

Brad Bame, pastor of a church in Archbold, says relief agencies told him evacuees declined relocation to other parts of Ohio.
Brad Bame, pastor of a church in Archbold, says relief agencies told him evacuees declined relocation to other parts of Ohio.
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On Sept. 7, Mr. Barnett met with members of the Archbold

Area Ministries Association to gain their support.

He told the ministers he had the evacuees picked out and ready to move, according to Brad Bame, the association s vice president and senior pastor at Archbold Evangelical Mennonite Church in nearby Fulton County.

He said they will show up in under two weeks, said Mr. Bame, who had met Mr. Barnett for the first time four days earlier.

The association organized a meeting for Sept. 12 for Mr. Barnett to discuss his plan.

We felt the community needed to be brought up to speed on a lot of issues, Mr. Bame said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bame sent e-mails to the Ohio American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to gauge the level of support for Mr. Barnett s idea.

The agencies were not aware of the plan, he said. He was told that a group of evacuees had been scheduled to be relocated to Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland but declined, and that the agencies usually make decisions regarding evacuees, not the other way around.

Mr. Bame said he met with Mr. Barnett and told him what he learned.

[Mr. Barnett] said he tried to talk with [the officials], Mr. Bame said. I don t have an issue with [Mr. Barnett] or the project. Our obligation was the church and the community. I wanted to make sure the information was accurate.

Mr. Barnett conceded during a phone interview yesterday from Biloxi, Miss., where he said he is volunteering at a Katrina food and supplies relief facility, that as of Sept. 12, We did not have anything specifically lined up yet [regarding evacuees].

Vernane Stutzman, a member of Christ Community Church, says housing hurricane evacuees would have been good for the local community. She says people are afraid of the unknown.
Vernane Stutzman, a member of Christ Community Church, says housing hurricane evacuees would have been good for the local community. She says people are afraid of the unknown.
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During that September meeting, township zoning officials said the church building was not permitted for residential use, but that it was possible the rules could be amended.

Residents raised concerns ranging from unincorporated Ridgeville Corners lacking a local government and police force to the absence of a grocery store, restaurants, a physician, and other basic services, when considering bringing evacuees to the village.

Mr. Barnett, residents said, interpreted their concerns as a rejection of the evacuees and, worse, that there were prejudicial feelings involved.

Soon after, in interviews with area television stations, Mr. Barnett said he thought a number of the residents were racist in their views toward the evacuees.

Residents were incensed.

No one knew or mentioned anything about race, creed, or color in this whole episode but Don Barnett, said Ridgeville resident Eileen Stough.

Mr. Barnett said he never identified what race the evacuees would be and believes it was the residents who assumed they would be minorities since the vast majority of media focused on angry black people in the New Orleans area.

There is, he continued, a significant amount of racial prejudice [in the area]. That is the truth. I base it on the fact that black families have moved into the area in the past and have not stayed because they have not felt welcome.

The village of Ridgeville Corners does not have any black residents, but surrounding areas and nearby communities do.

Shirley Harris and Deb Leal, who help direct Rural Opportunities Inc. of Liberty Center, a migrant rest center, said Mr. Barnett s portrayal of area residents is untrue and misguided.

Mrs. Harris, an African-American who lives in nearby Napoleon and attended the Sept. 12 meeting, said race had nothing to do with the concerns raised by the residents.

The issue for everyone was, How are we going to do this? They were concerned about helping, she said.

She s welcome to her opinion, Mr. Barnett said yesterday, after hearing Mrs. Harris comment.

While admitting it has been an educational process getting the community to understand the language and culture of the hundreds of mostly Latino migrant workers who spend summers at the Rural Opportunities facility, Ms. Leal said residents and churches have been supportive.

They have really stepped up and helped us a lot with donations, she said.

Mrs. Harris said that after she heard about the evacuees plan, she tried to reach Mr. Barnett to offer the Rural Opportunities facility as an alternative shelter because the church building was not ready.

She said he never returned her calls.

Mrs. Harris attended the Sept. 12 meeting to make the same offer, which was supported by a number of the residents as a more practical solution.

At the meeting, Mr. Barnett said he was not interested in dealing with Rural Opportunities.

The church has a responsibility and a mandate, and [we will] not defer to a government or social agency, Mr. Barnett explained yesterday.

They have an isolated, dormitory-style place. There s a vast difference between what [we proposed]. If they were interested in bringing people up, they could have come down here [to Biloxi].

Some residents viewed Mr. Barnett s refusal to deal with what he called a government agency Rural Opportunities is a private, nonprofit organization, according to Ms. Leal as a curious contradiction, because he is chairman of the board of The Ridge Project, a sex abstinence program for teenagers that received an $800,000 federal grant last year.

At a packed, emotionally charged zoning hearing Oct. 4, board members unanimously rejected Mr. Barnett s request for a permit change that would have allowed the residential space in his church.

Residents said they preferred helping Katrina victims in ways other than opening a temporary housing center in a village that did not have the services to deal with the evacuees.

Mr. Barnett again raised the race issue, although no specifics about the evacuees were addressed.

There is a lot of prejudice in northwest Ohio, in this area, he said at the hearing.

As the debate concluded, Mr. Barnett said he would accept the zoning board s vote as God s will and would seek an alternative plan.

Residents interpreted his acceptance of the decision to mean he would stop bringing up the race issue to the media. The next day, Mr. Barnett gave several interviews to area television stations during which he addressed race further stoking the issue.

The resulting hoopla brought a national television network to town and a call from the U.S. Department of Justice s community relations department to Mr. Barnett asking if he needed help dealing with the racial issue.

It s God s will and yet he s still pursuing it. He s against God s will, said Brad Miller, a former Christ Community member who left the church several years ago.

Responded Mr. Barnett: I said I would not pursue a legal redress concerning the zoning commission s decision. I didn t make a pledge not to speak to the media.

Vernane Stutzman, a Christ Community member, supports Mr. Barnett and said she believes the zoning board made a mistake in rejecting the plan.

It would have been a wonderful opportunity for the community.

People [here] are afraid of the unknown. But Pastor Don was trying to cover all the [bases] so there would be no negative repercussions, she said.

Mr. Barnett said he has moved on to Plan B, bringing evacuees desperate for housing to other communities in northwest Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he said he has more support for his work.

Still, there appears to be inconsistencies with his plan. On Oct. 7, Mr. Barnett told a Blade reporter that Dennis Wisniewski of Defiance, a church elder at Community Christ, had four apartments he owned ready for occupancy.

Mr. Wisniewski, in an interview the same day, said he spoke only briefly with Mr. Barnett about the idea and that he had only two apartments available, both in need of repair.

Meanwhile, Ridgeville Corners residents worry about the long-term impact of the controversy on their lives.

Now we re left to pick up the pieces, mend relationships, and try to repair the damage because of the untrue words that were said about us, Ms. Hesterman said.

Mr. Barnett remains resolute in his belief that the residents need only to look at themselves to affix any blame.

If there is a rift that has happened as a result of me speaking something that is true, why does it hurt?

If you are not prejudiced, then you have no reason to be offended, he said.

Staff writer Steve Murphy contributed to this report. Contact George J. Tanberat gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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