The Clergy's Charge

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/27/2002

BROOKLINE -- When he first showed up a few months ago, the bearded man in the bright Sephardic yarmulke stood out from the synagogue's other congregants. For one thing, he carried a crucifix. During services, he constantly walked in and out of the sanctuary. And after the rabbi's sermons, the former salesman would clap - a no-no in any temple.

At Young Israel of Brookline, the first impulse of most congregants was to help Milton Kapner, a 52-year-old fellow Jew who had been living in his green Buick since the summer. The rabbi welcomed him to services, answered his questions in classes, and bought him a membership to a health spa so he could shower. Others offered him clothes or took him out for dinners at nice restaurants. One woman even gave him a place to stay for the night.

But after a few months - when, temple officials say, he harassed congregants, crashed a wedding, and twice forced them to call the police - they barred him from the synagogue. Most recently, Kapner, who plays music for money in Harvard Square, stood in front of the temple and heckled congregants as they arrived for services.

"We don't know what to do with him," said Jerry Baronofsky, the orthodox synagogue's president, who has sought help from Jewish Family and Children's Services, a social-services provider. "We want to help him, but the truth is we're not sure the best way to go about it."

It's a quandary common to many churches and synagogues:
As more needy people seek shelter and sustenance from religious institutions, where does a congregation draw the line between its interests, whether it be security or order in the sanctuary, and its mission to help the poor?

Clergy members at churches and synagogues throughout the area say they've seen a rise in the number of needy people, many of them homeless, who slip in for meals after services or sit quietly to stay warm for a while.

For the most part, unless they're disruptive, the needy are welcomed, or at least tolerated. Some of the major churches in downtown Boston even have street ministries, special outreach offices for the homeless. On Tremont Street, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, for example, provides pastoral counseling, referral services, and a telephone to those in need.

Not all churches or synagogues are as welcoming. In some cases, those scruffy, loud newcomers who aren't members or are deemed to be dressed inappropriately are turned away at the door.

"They won't let them in either because of past problems or because they anticipate the person isn't going to behave within the norms of the institution," said the Rev. Deborah W. Little, who founded Common Cathedral, an outdoor worshipping community of about 150 homeless people in Boston. "It's not always easy to find the right balance."

At St. Paul's, long a draw for the homeless, church officials had to hire a security guard because so many people crowded onto their porch, either to sleep or do drugs. Recently, after someone rubbed feces on the wall of one of the bathrooms, they decided to review an old policy of allowing the homeless to use the toilet.

"Many of the homeless are members of our congregation in good standing," said the Rev. Sarah Fike of St. Paul's. "But sometimes it can be a struggle with maintaining as much openness as possible and the necessary safety and cleanliness. Our kids, after all, need clean bathrooms."

The Arlington Street Church, which also attracts many homeless, especially to its Friday night "supper club," has a special policy for those who disrupt services. When someone disrupts repeatedly, said associate minister Carol Strecker, church officials approach the person and ask them to agree to a verbal contract. Often, in order to stay, the person must consent to therapy sessions and to allow a church member to sit next to them during services.

Sometimes, however, no matter how hard church officials try, the disruptive person is beyond help - and can be a threat to the congregation.

At the Park Street Church, one homeless man reached into the collection basket and instead of adding a donation, he grabbed all the cash. Church officials called the police.

At the Ruggles Baptist Church on Beacon Street, according to the Rev. Larry Showalter, one woman insisted on remaining after hours to play the piano. When church officials asked her to leave, she refused. When they banned her from entering, she began stalking them, demanding they let her in to play the piano. After she violated a restraining order, police arrested her and sent her to jail for six months.

"It's sad when there's nothing you can do to help," Showalter said.

For the congregants of Young Israel, which like many synagogues is increasingly security-conscious since Sept. 11, Milton Kapner never posed a physical threat. But the fast-talking guest, who told congregants he graduated from Columbia University and lost his home in Needham, began making people feel uncomfortable, even chasing some away from services.

"The truth is he was welcome here, as long as he followed the rules," said Robert Wolff, the synagogue's former president. "But after a while, people lost their patience."

Approached recently at the McDonald's on Harvard Street, where he often cajoles people to buy him a free meal, Kapner refused to speak. In a previous phone interview, he complained: "I've been excommunicated. It's the worst thing that can happen to a Jew."

A few days later, after a crossing guard reported Kapner was endangering himself walking through traffic on Washington Street, he ambled into Brookline District Court and started screaming, police said. Health officials decided to commit him to a hospital, where he will stay until doctors release him.

"Maybe this is the best thing for him," said Baronofsky, Young Israel's president. "Hopefully, it will help."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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