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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
PULPITMASTER: Rev. Joel P. Miller has been the rector at Calvary Episcopal since 2006.

Flock v. Priest

Controversial priest charged with crimes against church

By Curtis Cartier

THE REDWOOD pews at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz sit more empty than occupied, but attention is rapt among the 50 or so worshipers as the Rev. Joel P. Miller discusses the importance of forgiveness and of serving the "least among us."

"In the Gospel we're told that Jesus sits down to eat with sinners and tax collectors. The worst people!" says Miller in a soft and nasal voice as he saunters between the well-worn pews. "So what we see is that Jesus loves people, he loves his neighbors, includes them and embraces them. That's what we try to do here."

It's an appropriate subject for a priest who has made a name in Santa Cruz for his controversial homeless outreach services, which have at times outraged neighbors and city leaders after crowds of homeless people showed up for free Monday night dinners and turned the downtown church's lawn into a party zone. Lately criticism has come from a new direction: within the church itself.

In late July, Miller was charged with "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" by the Episcopal Church in a development that could see Miller suspended or even defrocked. The charges he faces (collectively known as a "presentment," church legalese for "indictment") follow a year of heated back-and-forth between Miller and parishioners who see the homeless beneficiaries of the dinners as uncouth nuisances, at times with good reason. After an investigation, a church-hired attorney ultimately settled on two specific offenses, both related to the Monday night "Coffee House Ministry."

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."

Mass Exodus

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. The same data shows other downtown homeless hangouts like New Leaf with more than twice as many calls on average and Louden Nelson Community Center with around the same number as Calvary.

Neighbors like Rachel Daso, who lives in the Zasu Pitts house next door to Jack's Hamburgers and across the street from Calvary, says she used to have issues with homeless loiterers every day, but that it's been much quieter lately. Even Santa Cruz Councilmember Cynthia Mathews, who owns the house Daso rents and who has sent official city correspondence to the bishop pointing at Miller's failures and demanding action, admits things have gotten better.

But whether any of that will help Miller keep his collar, or at least keep his record clean, remains in doubt. And as long as he's behind the pulpit, the roughly 30 parishioners that have reportedly left the church won't likely be coming back. Miller, meanwhile, says he has only one regret.

"My one regret is not that I said anything that was untrue," he says, "it's that I didn't do it in private."

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