"I personally believe this is the beginning of great things that God wants to do in New York. I think this is not a setback. This is a major opportunity for the church to strengthen within as people kind of rally together and depend on God like never before and to renew and reignite our passion to reach the city like never before," Ray Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church in Staten Island, N.Y., told Baptist Press.
Effective Feb. 12, the New York City Department of Education is banning the use of public schools by religious organizations, citing a need to protect the minds of "impressionable youth."
"There's such a need for the church to step out, not in a rallying sense but in a loving sense," Parascando said.
Crossroads, a Southern Baptist congregation founded in 2002, has been meeting in the Public School 52 auditorium for more than four years, averaging 250 people in worship on Sundays. If the ban is not reversed, the church will have to transition to another meeting space.
"As of now, we're hoping to lease an abandoned movie theater, but we're still waiting for the final paperwork to go through," Parascando said. "Right now we're still up in the air."
Finding appropriate space for a church to meet in New York City is extremely difficult, Parascando said.
"If you're looking for an apartment for a family of four, you can find that," he said, but finding a space for 250 people is a different story, especially when appropriate space for children is needed. Doing children's ministry in a theater "is going to stifle us a bit, so we're going to need to be creative."
Crossroads has a good relationship with the Department of Education as a whole, Parascando said, thanks in part to a Southern Baptist initiative called Paint the Town. Crossroads has helped paint 16 public schools in all five boroughs, including the one they meet in.
"We do a sports camp in the summer that's free for the community. We do a Friday after school program," he said. "There are a lot of things we do in the community. So the school loves us because we're catering to the kids."
The ban on churches meeting in schools, Parascando said, is a bad idea in several ways. For one, it's unconstitutional.
"You can't say that a soccer team can use the school but a church can't. You can't say Girl Scouts can meet there but the church can't. It's unconstitutional to single out one group over another. It's just not right," he said.
"If it was done to any other faith -- for example if this was happening to Muslims, this would be a major national issue. There would be major pushback on it," Parascando said. "But because it's the Christian church, it's labeled as, 'They're just trying to get something for free.'"
A New York Times opinion piece contained misinformation, he said, when the writer portrayed churches as using public schools for free. Instead, churches pay between $1,500 and $2,000 per month to meet in the schools, which Parascando said is a fair price for the churches and "a nice extra flow of income" for the city.
"Economically, it doesn't make sense for the city of New York to do this," Parascando said. "They cry about their lack of budget to pay teachers. They cut the custodial budget every year. ... This is bringing money into the system. "
More importantly, the pastor said, New York's ban sends a message that this sort of regulation is acceptable. He fears that this will serve as a precedent for further restricting churches' access to public facilities as well as for school boards in other states adopting the rule for their districts.
"I know God has a plan no matter what, and when people try to persecute, God's going to use it for promotion," Parascando said. "When people accuse and try to discredit, God's going to use it to do more. He's doing that, but it concerns me as a Christian and as an American that our rights are being manipulated this way."
As a way to present the facts clearly, Parascando has invited local officials to a news conference he plans to hold before the ban takes effect. He hopes the ban will be reversed, but if not, Crossroads will comply.
"We're going to leave. We're not going to march or anything like that. The 12th is the last day we can be there, and then that's it. We don't agree with it, but we'll have to abide by it as good citizens," Parascando said.
"We're going to go one even better than that. Knowing all of this, we will still paint the schools this summer because we care about the children, we care about the faculty, we care about the Department of Education and what they're about.
"So even though we don't agree with a lot of their decisions, especially this regulation, we still want to minister in the love of Jesus Christ by serving," he said.
Steve Allen, lead catalyst for the Tri-State NYC area church planting team with the North American Mission Board, said he has been surprised that there are fewer Southern Baptist churches impacted by the ban than initially suspected.
"I know of four or five instances, including Ray Parascando's church, where the school ruling has necessitated costly transitions," Allen told BP. "And there are others whose intermittent use of school facilities will now be seriously impinged.
"Whether because of foresight or Providence, a number of our churches have recently left schools for other meeting places. A few recent church plants in New Jersey have expressed concerns that New Jersey might follow New York's lead in banning churches from schools, however.
"In any event, it would not be surprising in this market to hear of other landlords attempting to gouge displaced congregations seeking non-school space rentals in the days to come," Allen said. "The net impact of the ruling also permanently diminishes the number of desirable meeting space options for new church plants envisioned throughout our NYC Metro, an unmistakable instance of spiritual warfare."
Parascando said this is a good time for churches in other states to contribute financially and with prayers as New York churches struggle to pay for the transition to new meeting space. He estimated that Crossroads' move could cost at least $20,000, and he suggested that interested churches contact the Metro New York Baptist Association if they want to help fellow Southern Baptist churches.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net