From CITY ON A HILL PRESS (Santa Cruz):

In June 2008, Rev. Joel Miller, head reverend of Calvary Episcopal Church, initiated Coffee House Ministry. Along with some local homeless activists, Miller led this Monday night philanthropy tradition, in which the church welcomed homeless people for coffee and dinner. As many as 150 people would show up on any given night.

However, some churchgoers grew irritated with the attention Miller was devoting to homeless issues, as well as the way the church was transforming into a haven for the homeless. The anger escalated on June 11, last year when an argument between a parishioner and a homeless man allegedly ended in the man shaking the woman by her shoulders and yelling. Miller was then charged with “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy” by the Episcopalian Church, a serious charge that could result in the clergyman’s suspension or even defrocking.

Although violence should never be tolerated at a church or anywhere else, it is a mistake to let one altercation define all of Miller’s efforts. Incidents happen, and the police arrived quickly to diffuse the situation. One man’s mistake should not overshadow the world of good Miller did by opening his church and its resources to Santa Cruz’s homeless community.

The problems facing homeless people in Santa Cruz have been well documented in City on a Hill Press. The city does not have enough shelters and kitchens for everybody. Providing a space for people to safely congregate is a great help — and exactly the sort of thing Christians are supposed to do.

In his Sermon on the Mount in the Bible, Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

Instead of being hardhearted and tightfisted, the Episcopalian higher clergy, Calvary Episcopal Church parishioners, and the Santa Cruz community in general should be grateful towards Miller.

He should be gaining new members for his church, not losing them.



The first charge, that Miller "brought disrepute and material discredit upon the Church," alleges that he "failed to create working relationships of cooperation and trust" between Calvary and city leaders when he allowed the feeding program to set up at the church.

The second charge has to do with a June 11, 2009, meeting that had been called after Calvary member Margaret Statzer was grabbed and shaken on church grounds by 23-year-old Jeremy Hess-Neve, a Coffee House Ministry regular. Statzer and others who attended the meeting say Miller said that the police had told him Statzer provoked the attack herself by starting an argument with the young man. Santa Cruz Police Department Chief Rick Martinez, who was at the meeting, says that's false.

"After he said that, I confronted him because I wanted to know who this cop is that said that, because it's certainly not appropriate," says Martinez, who says Miller couldn't remember which officer he had spoken with. "Plus, if you look at the facts of the case, that's clearly not what happened."

If the Monday night feedings had left the congregation divided, the notion that Miller would seemingly take a "street kid's" side over a fellow parishioner's left many downright furious. Many stopped coming to church altogether. Some of those, like Libby Alexander, say Miller is "dictatorial" in how he runs his parish. Another, Catherine Gill, says he uses feeding the homeless as a "smokescreen" for insensitive and egotistical ways. Statzer says she no longer even considers herself Episcopalian.

"I was assaulted on church grounds, defamed by my priest and I had no one to go to. This isn't about the homeless, it's about Joel Miller not being fit to be a priest," says Statzer, who joined eight other parishioners in signing onto the charges that spurred the investigation. "Even the bishop stonewalled me when I went to her. The Episcopal Church has put me through hell. Why would I want to be a part of it?"

Miller can now either hire an attorney and fight for his innocence in ecclesiastical court or "submit to the will of the bishop" and throw himself at the mercy of Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves—an option he says he's leaning toward, because, he says, he can't afford to hire an attorney.

The entire affair comes during what nearly everyone involved says is a vastly improved homeless outreach service with a fraction of the loitering and antisocial behavior that marred it last year. Crime data provided by SCPD shows that emergency calls for service at the church peaked last summer with 38 calls from June through mid-September, while there were only 16 calls during the same time period this year.

COMMENT: I know of a case, involving someone inside the OCICBW... community, in which the congregation hounded out a priest because said priest tried to get the congregation to "get involved" in mission and all that Christian nonsense. So I tend to believe that what we have here is a case of a bunch of snobby Episcopalians, who want their church to remain a nice little social club for the nicer sort of Santa Cruz resident, being downright unchristian and hateful towards a priest who has read the New Testament (an act that often gets the more conscientious priest into deep water with both his or her congregation and bishop). But, I could be wrong. So, if you have inside information (or even just some juicy gossip) about this situation, do let me know.



  1. I once lived and worked in Santa Cruz. The Community is odd because of several population elements that socially conflict. The Beach/Boardwalk of this small town is visited heavily during the Summer by folks from Los Gatos and San Jose who drive over for the day. Many homes in Santa Cruz are second homes to wealthy folks who live on the ¨otherside of the hill.¨ Old hippies, yes the ones from the sixties, Haight Street/San Francisco and Big Sur/Monterey moved there (and many burnt out there) and then there are the students from University California Santa Cruz plus a Large and Conservative Retirement Community and then the local Old Timers who are ¨conservative¨ to the max (they may have largely died off by now from natural causes and alcoholism)…Santa Cruz is a BIG MIX that comes down mostly on the side of hippie, green, surfers and healthy (except for the drug use)…it´s always been a paradox to me because NOBODY really mixed with anybody else…I hung out at two places during my years there ¨Monas Gorilla Lounge¨ and ¨The Bears¨ (as in animal bears)…got it?

  2. I tend to believe that what we have here is a case of a bunch of snobby Episcopalians, who want their church to remain a nice little social club for the nicer sort of Santa Cruz resident

    I suspect you’re correct.

    From someone recently returned to California from Michigan, I can testify that California can feel, well, [term I’m sure Calvary Episcopalians would use] over-run by visibly and/or aggressively panhandling homeless people. (But Episcopalians can be snobs, wherever they are!)

    It’s a difficult situation, and it’s not hard for a priest to be caught in the middle.

  3. I was received into the Episcopal Church in 1988 at Church of the Holy Apostles on 9th Ave. and 28th St. in Manhattan. It runs a 5-days-a-week soup kitchen that serves around 1100+ meals a day to anyone who turns up and queues. This has been going on for many years and they have served several million meals.

    The congregation had become less and less involved in running the soup kitchen as the operation became larger and more “professional”. The clergy doubled as directors of the soup kitchen and got part of their pay through that position.

    There was tension between the soup kitchen and the church, mainly due to the thought that the soup kitchen should go independent and constitute itself separately from the church. This would have affected clergy remuneration as well as reimbursements from the city, state, and federal governments. It got quite acrimonious. What saved everything from breaking down was the realisation that the people whom the church was serving were beginning to become valued parts of the worshipping community as well. This broke down barriers and helped the church recognise that the outreach from the soup kitchen affected the health of the congregation as well.

    It is vital to keep the parishioners involved in running and overseeing these types of ministry. When I was made redundant in 1988 I began to volunteer in the soup kitchen as a door minder–of course, we also got two square meals a day as volunteers, which helped immensely. I ended up as one of five “counselors” who would help some of the guests with problems dealing with social services and the like. I really enjoyed it and felt that I was making a difference.

    The church itself was not snobbish in the least. It might have been years ago, but that had all dissipated by the time I got there. Sometimes guests of the soup kitchen acted strangely, and we needed training to deal with that. But, we coped and the church eventually was made much stronger.

    I expect that the “reverend” (why, oh why, do reporters never quite get the hang of ecclesiastical titles?) did not involve his parishioners enough in administering the program and perhaps this also spilled over into other areas of the parochial life.

  4. A couple of comments.

    First, the second story (just before the part quoted) says that a “presentment” has been issued. Under the current TEC canons applicable to clergy discipline this means that the proceedings are going on at a diocesan level.

    The way the current canons work is this. If someone makes a complaint to the diocese (and it has to be “verified,” which means it has to be written and sworn to), it goes to goes a Diocesan Review Committee (which is usually the Standing Committee but it doesn’t have to be). If the Standing Committee thinks the complaint may be true, it refers the matter to the Church Attorney for an investigation. The Church Attorney makes an investigation and submits a report back to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee then considers the Church Attorney’s report and all other evidence available to it. If the Standing Committee thinks that reasonable people could believe the charges are true, then it may issue a presentment (which is like an indictment) against the priest.

    I say all this because this procedure means that a number of disinterested (one hopes) people outside the parish think that there’s a serious problem here. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re right. And the diocese involved (El Camino Real) has a past history of significant dysfunctionality, though that seems to have lessened since Bishop Gray-Reeves became bishop diocesan.

    (New national canons concerning clergy discipline become effective in July 2011 and the procedure becomes quite different at that point.)

    Second, the priest involved said he would likely throw himself on the mercy of the bishop because he can’t afford an attorney. This is a real problem under the current (and, I think, also the coming new) procedure. For what most clergy are paid, hiring a lawyer is, practically speaking, out of the question. It creates a significant imbalance in these proceedings since the diocese is represented by the Church Attorney.

    There was some discussion in Los Angeles (where I live) about amending the canons to require the diocese to pay for an attorney if charges are brought against a priest. The discussion never went anywhere but this issue is still in the back of a lot of priests’ minds.

  5. “disinterested people outside the parish”? Hah! In my priest’s case, the so-called investigation by the Church Attorney consisted of interviewing only those parish members who had signed the complaint. None of the other 95% were even aware that an investigation was being held.

    An accused priest is guilty until proven innocent, and even IF found innocent, their ministry is damaged beyond repair.

    The system is impossibly skewed to favor the whiners and complainers, and I don’t think the revised canon is going to help that. I pray that this priest’s bishop can find a way through this mess. My own bishop was an active instigator and behind-the-scenes manipulator on the side of the “snobs”.

  6. Folks,
    I know Joel Miller. I wrote about him at Real Anglicans on this very issue and compared this to the issue of Dan Martins being elected Bishop. Please see that as some of this will become much clearer.

  7. This is a pretty sickening story. I’m afraid it is the same old story – the church is becoming a snobbish international golf club.

    I think some church members don’t like that Jesus guy …. he wouldn’t want Sarah Palin to be president would he?

  8. I think the trajectory of the parish after Fr Miller leaves (they always must) will be the surest indicator of what was going on there. If the ministry was a manifestation of Fr. Miller’s ego, the ministry WILL separate itself from the parish and continue. If the ministry was “organic” ministry of the parish, it will continue in that fashion. Either way, I hope the homeless are feed. As Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, “preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.”

    In my opinion, “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy” needs to be either a more serious or less serious charge. As it stands now, it covers a range of behavior from profound disagreement to sexual impropriety. It’s almost a lesser included offense when perhaps something more serious can’t be proved to reasonable people. At its worst, it’s a way for parishes to get rid of a nettlesome priest. At its best, a more serious charge and the accompanying upheaval to the parish is avoided.

    Having said all that, something here doesn’t feel right. Feed my sheep.

  9. “Crime data provided by SCPD shows that emergency calls for service at the church peaked last summer with 38 calls from June through mid-September, while there were only 16 calls during the same time period this year.”

    I must say these numbers did give me pause. A weekly event over a 3 1/2 month period. That’s a lot of calls to the police.

  10. Dr. Primrose misstates the terms of Canon IV.3.11-14. The Diocesan Review Committee is not supposed to be making a determination as to the possible truth of the allegations in referring a matter to the Church Attorney, but rather “that an Offense may have occurred if the facts alleged be true.” Following the Church Attorney’s report, “The Diocesan Review Committee may issue a Presentment for an Offense when the information before it, if proved at Trial, provides Reasonable Cause to believe that (i) an Offense was committed, and (ii) the Respondent committed the Offense.”

    The Review Committee is not supposed to be judging the truthfulness of the allegations but only whether if they are true and proved at trial, an Offense has been stated.