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BINGHAMTON, NY: Episcopal Diocese Sells Historic Church to Muslims

BINGHAMTON, NY: Episcopal Diocese Sells Historic Church to Muslims

By Mary Ann Mueller
Special Correspondent
April 1, 2010

The Church of the Good Shepherd, which has stood at #79 Conklin Avenue since 1879, has been willingly turned over to a Muslim entity by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, rather than have it remain in the hands of traditional Anglicans who practice the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

The death knell for the structure as a Christian house of worship was delivered on February 9, 2010, when it was sold to Imam Muhammad Affify, doing business as the Islamic Awareness Center, for a mere $50,000, a fraction of the church's assessed $386,400 value.

Now, two months later, the classic red Anglican doors have been repainted green, the simple cross on top of the steeply peaked bell tower has been lopped off, and a windowpane cross in the side door has been disfigured leaving only narrow vertical glass with the cross beam being painted over to hide it. The Muslims consider the cross a pagan symbol.

Meanwhile the Rev. Matt Kennedy, his wife and partner in ministry Anne, their young family and congregation were sent packing in the bitter cold and deep snow in January 2008 when the New York Supreme Court ordered them to relinquish the 130-year-old church building which stands overlooking the meandering Susquehanna River.

The Kennedys' battle with their diocese was sparked by the deepening spiritual morass which is gripping the heart and soul of The Episcopal Church, particularly the authority of Scripture and loosening sexual morals. Finally, the 2006 consecration of Vicky Gene Robinson as bishop in New Hampshire became the spiritual straw that broke Good Shepherd's camel's back.

Fr. Kennedy was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood at the hands of the Rt. Rev. Gladstone "Skip" Adams, as was his wife. Then the good bishop assigned the clergy couple to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in 2002, an aging, struggling congregation in a decaying part of the city with fewer than 50 people attending Sunday service.

The Kennedys threw themselves into their joint ministry. Little by little, Good Shepherd started to grow and became spiritually vibrant, helping to transform the surrounding south side neighborhood.

In April 2008, Attorney Raymond J. Dague, Good Shepherd's legal counsel, explained in a news release, "The Church of the Good Shepherd was a small struggling congregation when Bishop Adams took over the diocese as its new bishop. One of the first priests he ordained was Fr. Kennedy, who then went to Good Shepherd and raised it to be a vibrant congregation doubling its Sunday morning attendance.

"In 2008, while the lawsuit raged, Good Shepherd grew and expanded significantly," the priest explained on his church blog. "We'd finally begun to have some impact in the neighborhood, drawing people to church through our soup kitchen and block parties. Our weekly Bible studies were packed with new people and we were, shockingly to us, beginning to draw an increasing number of students from BU [Binghamton University] ... by January 2009 Good Shepherd was healthier, younger, larger than she'd been in decades--and she was slowly, steadily, growing."

The Kennedys were literally fulfilling the Diocese of Central New York's command "to be the passionate presence of Christ for one another and the world we are called to serve."

They were feeding the hungry, both at the altar and in the soup kitchen.

Now that passionate presence of Christ has been obviated from the corner of Conklin Avenue and Livingston Street by the very entity that requested it in the first place -- the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. The church was sold to a non-Christian organization that is committed to work at obliterating all Christian symbolism and presence.

The old Episcopal church now houses the new Islamic Awareness Center, which, according to its website, claims to be an "Islamic Dawah organization" or basically, a Muslim missionary group. The website goes on to explain that the newly minted Islamic Awareness Center has representatives available to meet with schools, parent-teacher associations (PTA), and study groups, as well as community organizations.

"We will introduce Islam & Muslims and its practices," the website states. "We will develop our presentations to meet your needs. We also explain Islam's message of peace, share Qur'an and Hadith, and answer questions."

The children are not ignored as they offer programs suitable for children using a puppet show.

Gone is the white cross that graced the top of the bell tower. Gone are the classic Anglican red doors, which remind Christians of the blood of the martyrs which was shed to water the New Testament Church. Now the doors are green which represents the vibrancy of Islam. The peaked bell tower roof stands bear against the New York sky.

The century-plus old Episcopal church is not on any list of historical buildings, so the new Muslim tenants will not run into any historical regulations in making whatever changes they deem necessary to reshape the former Anglican sanctuary into an Islamic worship space. For now, at least, they still maintain a tax exempt status.

One of the final acts Fr. Kennedy preformed, before he locked the doors and surrendered the keys to the Episcopal diocese, was to deconsecrate the altar.

In his blog, Fr. Kennedy describes his last liturgical act at the old church, "After Communion and the blessing, we stripped the altar, deconsecrated it, emptied the ambry (yes we had one), and blew out the tabernacle candle," he blogged. "Somehow the ash from the censor spilled out in a smear across the altar steps. The congregation left in silence."

This took place on Sunday, January 11, 2008. For more than a year, the old Episcopal church would stand padlocked and empty, while her committed congregation were displaced, like the Israelites, seeking a new spiritual home.

Meanwhile, all hope was not lost. God was at work, albeit hidden and silently.

On Monday (Jan. 12, 2008), home life at the rectory was completely disrupted as packing began in earnest and six years of ministry and family life were relegated into boxes and cartons and more boxes. Not only did the Kennedys not know where Holy Communion would be celebrated the next Sunday with their displaced flock, but they also did not know where they would lay their heads after the rectory keys were turned over

"Tuesday mid-morning the phone rang," Fr. Kennedy blogged. It was Msgr. [Michael] Meaghar, former priest of St. Andrew's Catholic Church and now priest-in-charge of the merged parish of St's. John and Andrew.

The Roman Catholics were having their own issues with the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse. In November of 2007, the Catholic diocese merged two large Binghamton parishes, St. John the Evangelist and St. Andrew's, into one. The people and priest of St. Andrew's were told to close their property and merge with St. John's which happened to be located just down the street on Livingston, a block south of Good Shepherd located on the corner of Conklin and Livingston.

Cutting to the chase, the Catholic monsignor asked Fr. Kennedy, "I was wondering, do you and your family have a place to go?"

The Catholic cleric had read about the Anglican congregation's plight in a local newspaper article.

"Well," he continued. "We're basically moved out of our rectory at St. Andrew's. Would you like to move in?"

What the Catholic monsignor had to offer his Anglican brethren was a relatively new, four bedroom, three bath rectory. The Kennedys had keys to their new home in about 24 hours.

The Catholic monsignor had a similar dilemma to what the Kennedys had. His diocese had ordered the merging of two parishes into one with the membership of St. Andrew's Catholic Church leaving their property at 356 Conklin Avenue, lock, stock and barrel, and joining St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church's congregation at 1263 Vestal Avenue. Therefore, the entire Catholic plant on Conklin was left vacant, just as Good Shepherd would be left empty and unused. St. Andrew's property included a modern single floor 400-seat sanctuary, a school, the rectory, a large parking lot, and a storage facility. Now there is plenty of room for Good Shepherd's expanding congregation to flourish and grow.

"You can stay as long as you need to and we'll figure out the details later," the Msgr. Meaghar told the Anglican priests. Last month the Rev. Tony Seel first broke the story about the Diocese of Central New York selling the venerable old Episcopal church building to the Muslims on his blog DCNY, where he keeps an eagle eye on the shenanigans of the Episcopal diocese. The information was then picked up by A. S. Haley, the "Anglican Curmudgeon", who wove it into a column entitled "The Dog in the Manger (II): Good Shepherd".

Conversely, the national media keeps a close eye on the Presiding Bishop and her propensity to destroy the very church she was elected to defend and protect. The American press corps reports that there is madness and mayhem in the way The Episcopal Church purposefully and legally strips former TEC congregations of their long-held church properties.

The Rev. Edward Tomlonson writes on his St. Barnabas Blog, "Now for the really revealing part of this very shoddy episode ... having claimed that those leaving were not able to uphold the desires of the church founders the Diocese of (Central) New York has spitefully sold the building, at a third of the cost the congregation were offering, to the Muslims. Why did they refuse to even sell the building too them instead adding a legal caveat on the sale of the property barring the new owners from doing business with the original congregation? After all they did not need the building and could have supported a Christian presence for the community. Why was this so cruel? Because they had no need for the property preferring to leave it padlocked and empty ..."

In July 2006, just days after being elected the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori told "Time" Magazine in an interview, "Christians are functioning in the face of Islamic culture and mores, evangelism is a real challenge. ...we remember the centrality of our mission is to love each other. That means caring for our neighbors. And it does not mean bickering about fine points of doctrine."

Almost two years later, in April 2008, Time again reported, "As a sizable minority of conservative congregations leaves Episcopalianism, the struggle over who gets hundreds of millions of dollars of church property is becoming more and more intense. Passions range so high that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the head of the national Episcopal body, in effect indicated during discovery in the Virginia case that she would rather see the churches sold and deconsecrated for secular purposes than passed on to the departing congregations."

The Presiding Bishop is continuing to live up to her threat. In Nov. 2007 it was reported in "The Living Church" that the Presiding Bishop "personally authorized litigation rather than a negotiated settlement."

In April 2008, Steve Waring reported in "The Living Church:, "The question of pressure by The Episcopal Church to pursue litigation possesses additional credibility because during deposition testimony in November in the case involving 11 congregations which withdrew from the Diocese of Virginia, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori admitted under oath that she had personally intervened to prevent a protocol from being implemented which would have permitted the congregations to purchase outright title to the local property from the diocese. The protocol was developed by a diocesan task force appointed by Bishop Peter James Lee of Virginia." Last month, Faith McDonnell reported on her "Front Page Mag" blog about Good Shepherd's on-going woes with the Diocese of Central New York, "The diocese refused to sell, and during litigation told the court that the parish was no longer using the property for the purposes for which it had been intended by the Episcopalians who built it in 1879 and who had spent money to maintain it over the years. The Episcopal Church has at various times declared that it will sue every congregation that departs from the denomination in order to preserve the "devotion and witness of Episcopalians of the past for Episcopalians of the future."

No Episcopalians, Anglicans or other Christians will be able to use the little white church to offer up their worship and praises to God, whether or not they use the Book of Common Prayer. The diocese itself took away that option when it took the church keys from Fr. Kennedy and eventually turned them over to the Imam. While diocesan heads sat back, the classic red Anglican doors became Islamic green and a crane severed the little cross from its bell tower.

---Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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