Pastor Goes on Hunger Strike to Protest Church Ban in City Schools
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Pastor Bill Devlin has dropped 40 pounds in a month, but the religious leader's crash diet isn't spurred by secular ideals — it's part of a hunger strike in protest of the city’s attempt to ban religious groups from renting space in public schools for services.
Devlin, 59, of the Manhattan Bible Church in Washington Heights, hasn't eaten any food and has only had tap water to drink since he began his protest since January 17. The 5-foot-11-inch tall pastor dropped from approximately 190 pounds to 150, and he has no idea when his fast might end.
Devlin said he has lost so much weight during his fast that he has had to use binder clips to hold up his pants and had to physically hold his pants up during a sermon on Sunday, when his suspenders snapped.
"I was holding the Holy Bible in my right hand, and in my left hand I was holding up my trousers/pants," he said. "So I told my congregation that my pants may fall down but the word of God always stands up."
Despite clothing malfunctions and Devlin's hollow cheekbones, he said he has been relentless in his mission to reverse the city's decision.
"God, is a physical strength I can't explain," he told DNAinfo. "I'm actually working more than I was before I started this fasting. Also, I like to be as active as possible because it takes my mind of the hunger."
Devlin said he is "physically weak, but very spiritually strong," adding that he doesn't know whether his “biblical” fast will influence the city to reconsider its plan
“As a pastor and a faith leader, I’ve prayed that God would soften the hearts of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott, but I have found their hearts to be recalcitrant and hard-hearted,” he said.
Devlin contends that the ban unfairly and disproportionately impacts poor communities of color that have little funds with which to rent space for religious services. He added that religious groups often turn to public schools, where rent can be half the price of neighboring for-profit rental options.
“I made a decision that I would go on a water-only fast in order to let city and elected officials know that this is a very serious issue evicting good people, predominantly poor people in communities of color that are doing most good in those communities,” he said. “If they are allowed to move forward with this ban, I foresee a grim, dark future for the city, one where many of these house of worship will cease to exist.”
Protests against the city’s plan ramped up citywide over the weekend as churches faced the first Sunday without a space to hold their services.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska issued a 10-day temporary order blocking the city’s ban on the use of public schools for worship services on Thursday, a federal appeals court later ruling Friday to narrow that decision to only the Bronx Household of Faith church in University Heights.
That decision affected more than 60 houses of worship over the weekend.
The courts are expected to give a final ruling on the city policy on Feb. 27.
Supporters of the ban say the city should continue to uphold a clear separation of church and state by removing religious groups from city-funded public schools.
The mayor and DOE have not changed their stance against allowing religious organizations to rent space inside of schools since the Supreme Court rejected an evangelical church’s request to overturn the city’s ban.
In Upper Manhattan, congregants of Heavenly Vision Christian Center, led by Pastor Salvador Sabino, held mass outside I.S. 52 in Inwood Sunday to protest the move that yanked them from the space where they previously held services.
Congregants asked that the city reverse its position or that the state Assembly approve a Senate-passed bill that would give religious institutions the same right to meet in public schools as non-religious groups.
“They have nowhere to go now,” Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera said in a written statement after the event. “What is better, having religious groups out on sidewalks and inside parks, or having them pay the City to meet inside empty school buildings?”