David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the small church members and its pastors homeless.

The issue: the small church was helping homeless people.

Yorba Linda Friends Church. Its 18-acre main campus is best seen from the air.

The Goliath here is Yorba Linda Friends Church, which claims 4800 attenders weekly at its five campuses. Its home is an 18-acre complex, now being expanded again, perhaps best glimpsed from the air. Its website lists 84 paid staff. Its top pastors and prominent members also hold the key posts in the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (or EFCSW) as a de facto subsidiary.

Founded as California Yearly Meeting, the group has shed the “Yearly Meeting” label along with most other Quaker features, both corporately and operationally. The group’s main session, now called the Annual Conference, is set for this weekend. If the judge rules for them Friday, the gathering will likely see some celebrations, privately if not in the open.

Worship at Midway City Friends Church; plenty of room. However, the group’s membership has doubled from 10 to 20 during the Pfeiffers’ tenure.

The “David” figure in this drama is the Friends Community Church of Midway City, about a 20-minute (and two or three light-years’) drive from Yorba Linda. Although this group is nearly ninety years old, it is quite small: on a good week, its services draw maybe 30 people. But from all descriptions it is a tightly-knit congregation.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer.

Midway City’s pastors are a couple, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer, who occupy a parsonage along with four foster children. The church pays them a pittance, and they are, in current parlance, “bivocational,” piecing together a modest subsistence with other work, while also pursuing doctoral studies at nearby Fuller Seminary.

The confrontation here brings into pretty stark view three converging, intractable issues of our American moment: inequality, homelessness, and the increasing fervor with which the affluent are preserving their comforts, among which is not having to see or deal with the other two, except on their own terms.

A bit of background: the Los Angeles region is under siege on more than one front. Most of us know about the fires; which we must leave aside here. Often lost in their smoke, but ever-present, is the steady rise of homelessness. This is, of course, a national phenomenon, but seems particularly acute in southern California.

A small stretch of the three-mile sprawl along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, 2017. It grew to include around a thousand homeless people.

In Orange County, the count of homeless persons increased from about 4800 in 2017 to over 6800 in late 2019. In 2017 a three-mile stretch of tents and camps grew along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, which winds through central Orange County in Anaheim. The burgeoning settlement was in sight of the Angels baseball stadium, Disneyland and the Ducks Hockey arena, and it rapidly became the tent-crowded “home” of nearly a thousand homeless. (A video bike tour of the stretch is here.)

The trouble that ultimately embroiled these two Friends churches could be said to have begun in late February 2018, when Orange County authorities swept through this three-mile bike trail stretch. There they rousted almost a thousand homeless campers.

In their wake was a vast swathe of trash and abandoned belongings which took weeks to clean up. At length, that stretch of trail was re-opened, and bicyclists had an unobstructed path again.

But where did the many hundreds of bike trail homeless go? One police official told reporters that the whole process was like stepping on a balloon: it might flatten out where you were standing. But then it swelled out somewhere else.

Midway City Friends Church. Its property is about one acre.

There were already plenty somewhere else. Several months before the river trail sweep, a few of them made their way to Midway City Friends Community Church. Two were a man and wife in a venerable RV. The husband had stage four colon cancer (he has since died). Details are sketchy, but they may well have been among the many who have been bankrupted by medical bills. Pretty soon a couple individuals joined them.

The church had some unused space.

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer were not planning to start a homeless shelter. But they faced what could be called the Matthew 25 Dilemma, drawn from Jesus’ scenario of the last judgment. Let’s review:

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . . 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. . .

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 

A bucket of needles, among the several thousand used syringes collected along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail after the homeless camp was cleared.

For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?38 When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Pfeiffers were well aware of how controversial these guests could be. But they are also serious Christians. In their theology, Jesus in Matthew was not laying out a program, like a presidential candidate, for curing homelessness; he was giving his disciples a command to “love their neighbor” by acting with sacrificial compassion.

It was chancy (it was for Jesus); but they did it. Quietly, they thought.

But, not quietly enough.

A hostile neighbor soon noticed the telltale signs: bicycle parts; bare mattresses visible through the windows of spare rooms; the itinerant RV lingering in a driveway. The neighbor called the Orange County Code Enforcement Office, which dispatched an inspector to the church. Shortly a “courtesy notice” was sent, stating that some of these items were in violation of county codes. If they weren’t rectified, the church could be issued a formal citation.

The Pfeiffers saw that the jig was up. Reluctantly they told their guests they had to move on, and tidied up the area. The inspector returned, found the church was in compliance, and no citation was issued.

Matthew Cork, head pastor of Yorba Linda Friends Church and Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. He sits on the Elders Board that voted to fire Joe Pfeiffer and close the Midway City church.

But in the meantime the County had sent a copy of the notice to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW). Authorities there decided the incident was not over. In fact, it called for a decisive, if drastic response. On March 27, 2018, members of EFCSW’s Elder Board met with its top staff, and decided forthwith to

  1. Terminate the Pfeiffers, and instruct them to vacate the parsonage promptly; and
  2. Permanently close down the Midway City church, in April.
Ron Prentice. Before coming to Yorba Linda and EFCSW, he spent more than ten years in fulltime work to stop the legalization of same sex marriage, with Focus on the Family and the California Family Council.

The Pfeiffers were not informed of their firing until May 3, 2018. That news was delivered by Ron Prentice, Chief of Staff for both Yorba Linda and EFCSW. He takes the minutes of the EFCSW Elder Board meetings. But they and the congregation, while small, stoutly resisted and defied these dictates, and the closing/eviction dates were repeatedly delayed.

In August, the Elder Board, which asserts that EFCSW owns all its members’ church property, set what it thought was a firm closure date of August 31. But it was pushed back again, and in October 2018 Midway City filed a lawsuit, which claims EFCSW does not have any real ownership claim on the Midway City church, which was built and maintained from their own meager budgets,  and that EFCSW had violated its own rules and Quaker practices in its dealings with the Pfeiffers and the congregation. The closure/eviction has been on hold since then.

That’s what the judge will decide. And this shift of focus to the seeming arcana of “Quaker process” may make some readers’ eyes glaze over, I ask that they stay with us a bit, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Because EFCSW’s top staff and much of the currently ruling Elder Board of EFCSW heavily overlap with the leadership of Yorba Linda Friends Church, the contrasts between it and Midway City ought not to be skimmed over. Let’s consider some of these.

First of all, the setting. A sign on the edge of Yorba Linda modestly dubs it “Land of Gracious Living.” And with some reason: as an old jibe puts it, the Quakers came to Yorba Linda to do good, and some (really many) have done very well indeed. They and their neighbors.

More than once recently, Yorba Linda was named the richest city of its size in the U.S.  Median household income ranged between $110-120,000 per year (probably higher now with the soaring stock market); a real estate site pegs the median house value as $850,000. Only 3.1% of residents are under the poverty line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the city’s Wikipedia entry notes proudly that besides being the richest of its kind, “Yorba Linda is California’s most conservative large community . . . .” Voters there went two to one for Proposition 8, an effort to stop legalization of same sex marriage. (It passed 52-48%, but was later overturned.) In the 2016 presidential election, while deep-blue California gave Donald Trump only 31 percent of its votes, in Yorba Linda, Hillary took a bare 33 percent, to Trump’s 56 percent.

Midway City is not in fact a city, but an unincorporated area in Orange County, with no city council, schools or police of its own. Many residents like that; it keeps their local taxes down. Midway City is home to a large Vietnamese-American population, whose founders were refugees from the lost Vietnam War.

Twenty miles southwest, Midway City (which is not a city at all, but an unincorporated enclave in the larger town of Westminster) sits  several rungs down the economic ladder.

It’s not a slum, but homes are older, with values under $700,000. Median household incomes are around $47,000, and 13% of residents are under the poverty line. It is home to two trailer parks, plus apartment complexes for disabled, low income and homeless veterans. Here Hillary bested Trump: 51 – 43%.

More to our point, in the latest count of homeless, Westminster/Midway City tallied above 180, and its adjoining towns held 2000-plus. A few miles north, another 2000 were counted in a swath of suburbs running west to east across Orange County. Anaheim, even after the clearing of its notorious Santa Ana River Bike Trail, headed that list at over 1200.

And Anaheim’s northern boundary runs for several miles along Yorba Linda’s town line.

Yet once back  in the Land of Gracious Living, we are in a different world: amid their county’s simmering, surrounding, ever-expanding multitude, the 2019 recorded count of homeless in Yorba Linda was: 1.

[Not a typo: One.]

Not that Yorba Linda’s largest church is indifferent to the plight of homeless people. As its Chief of Staff Ron Prentice testified in a deposition, echoing the Matthew 25 quote above, “It’s actually a call of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans specifically from scripture, and oftentimes we would see homeless individuals in that light, and I believe that by providing shelter in — in — without — without risking liability or — or harm to the culture of the neighborhood, that would — that would align with my thinking, absolutely.”

And true to its word, Yorba Linda Friends Church, where Prentice wears another hat as, again, Chief of Staff, did mobilize groups to visit with and personally minister to the homeless three times in 2019.

Those homeless were Dalits, who are, as the church website put it, “the lowest of the low” in the caste system of India; 8000 miles away from Orange County. The ministry trips cost participants $3250 each.

Closer to home, the group’s concern to avoid “harming the culture of the neighborhood” was evident. The rulers clearly found the Midway City church, and the Pfeiffers, a liability in this regard. Further, the ruling EFCSW Elder Board asserts that it has full authority to deal with such liabilities. As the EFCSW’s book of Faith & Practice puts it, under the heading of “Final Authority””

“Thus EFCSW holds the spiritual and legal power among its churches to decide all such matters, including, without limitation, all organizational and operational matters. Its decisions are final. It can counsel, admonish, discipline, dismiss, or close its subordinate churches.”

Further, this authority is vested, on 364 days of each year, in its Elder Board, a group of up to nine, that meets secretly. On day 365 (which for 2020 occurs Saturday, February 1), a Representative Body gathers for a single session of usually under three hours, to approve the budget and nominations presented to it by the Elders. Information about these items is typically concise: the entire EFCSW annual budget summary for the 39-church group usually takes up less than a single page. [If that thumping sound you hear sounds like a rubber stamp, you could be right.]

It was not always done this way. The Midway City lawsuit argues that the Faith and Practice has been hijacked by a small group, mainly associated with Yorba Linda. The present “Final Authority” text was only inserted in 2011, and all real power has since been concentrated in the Elder Board’s hands, exercised in closed meetings, brooking no challenge, with no regard for the rest of the body, or previous Quaker traditions of broad consultation, open discussion, and sometimes extended seeking of consensus.

A prime instance was the Elders’ decision to terminate the Pfeiffers and close Midway City, neither of which were presented by the Elders to a Representative Body session.

BTW — taking possession of the Midway City church and its acre of land could provide EFCSW a considerable windfall. After all, as the beleaguered church keeps pointing out, EFCSW spent none of its funds to acquire the land, build or maintain the church and its other buildings. With land prices in southern California what they are, just selling the property could likely bring in millions

Has this occurred to anyone in EFCSW? A review of 2018 and 2019 Elder Board minutes turned up frequent discussions of and laments about the lack of funds to pursue their plans, and the need to find more funding sources. Further, in deposition testimony, EFCSW/Yorba Linda Chief of Staff Prentice acknowledged, “I did not deny that the future of the church is being discussed and the option of selling the property is on the table, [but] it was made clear to [Midway Friends] that the reasons for Joe’s dismissal from the position of pastor are based on our questions of discernment . . . .”  “poor discernment”

The charges of “poor discernment” and unacceptable behavior were indeed frequently repeated in Prentice’s deposition, and referred to in Elder Board minutes deposition. Asked if the reputed  behavior included moral, financial, or other such professional lapses, Prentice said no.

What then, specifically? Prentice responded,

“I’m aware of Mr. Pfeiffer’s comments through others during the process of the nomination of Matthew Cork to be considered as the superintendent in replacement of Stan Leach. I was not present at one meeting where Mr. Pfeiffer was vocal regarding the process of selection, and I was present at another follow-up meeting — the final meeting prior to Mr. Cork’s selection as superintendent where  Mr. Pfeiffer was again vocal and dissatisfied with the process of the selection of the superintendent, yes.”

Being vocal and dissatisfied with an opaque hiring process? Showing the temerity to question an Elders’ decision; in EFCSW,  these were grounds for termination & closure, with no appeal.

It’s also a clear enough signal, indeed a warning, to other pastors in EFCSW churches, where there are reports of murmuring and unease with the trajectory of Yorba Linda/EFCSW: speak at your own peril.

EFCSW’s response to Midway City’s suit comes down to repeating the passage on “Final Authority,” insisting that this power is vested in the Elders Board, acting on its own, and that under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, secular courts have no business interfering with such matters.

That’s why they will be seeking, in the court hearing on January 31, a summary judgement, to toss out Midway City’s  lawsuit on the basis that there’s “no there there,” nothing in it that the court could rightly adjudicate. They may be able to win the judge to this view.

That’s Goliath Quakerism.

Meanwhile, the homeless of Orange County huddle while their numbers grow; The Pfeiffers and their congregation wait to see if they will be joining them; the grand life in nearby privileged enclaves continues; and the credibility of much of American Christianity continues to diminish.

33 thoughts on “David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court”

  1. I think that Yorba Linda should be shut down and the pastor run out of town. They clearly have no understanding of Quaker Practice. MidCity should get the proceeds so they can continue doing Gods Work! I will never understand West Coast Friends

  2. I see the 5 o”clock shadowed face of Richard Nixon’s ghost, hovering over Yorba Linda…

    This is but one face of West Coast Quakerism, where Evangelical Conservatism rules both theologically and politically.

  3. Since when is a Quaker group called a church, not a Meeting. Didn’t Jesus tell us to not fight among ourselves and not to take another to court?

  4. This is one reason why I believe most if not all power should be vested in the local meeting. To paraphrase a charismatic pastor I once heard, “When a local church messes up it stays local; when a denomination messes up it goes national.” Yearly meetings, associations, etc. are important for mutually supportive things like benevolent support, teaching conferences, church camps, and the like. Beyond that there’s too much risk of big egos and ambitious empire builders circling the smaller meetings/churches like vultures eyeing carrion. God bless the Pfeiffers and Midway City in their quest to stay a loyal work for Jesus.

  5. Wow, it seems apparent to my simple mind that the Midway City Friends are doing ministry by example, and at some risk,

    The word evangelical attached to ANYTHING always has me look more closely than I might usually.

    Personally I prefer being part of a congregation over part of a herd.

  6. Many years ago, as a babe in arms, I was dedicated in Yorba Linda Friends Church. I grew up in California Yearly Meeting-Montebello and Granada Heights Friends Churches. I am deeply saddened by the direction California Yearly Meeting has taken since then. Brings to mind Mark 8:36. I am holding Midway City Friends in the Light. I am grateful for their faithful service to the teachings of Matthew 25.

  7. When I needed a neighbor, were you there, were you there?
    And the creed and the color and the name won’t matter, were you there?

    God bless the Pfeiffers and the ministry of the Midway Friends Meeting (or Church).

    Thanks, Chuck, for this insightful article.

  8. This is a microcosm of our nation in its current state. There is callousness toward those who have little or nothing. There is a commitment among the ranks of the powerful to prevent “harm to the culture of the [wealthy/entitled] neighborhood” without concern for harmful consequences to the poor and vulnerable.

    That this is the case among secular political and economic decision makers is distressing. That it has taken root among Evangelical Friends (an oxymoronic term, in my view) is depressing. The message of Christ…His clear direction of right conduct of His ministry…have no place with Yorba Linda Friends. It would be interesting to read a statement of their view of Quakerism and, more broadly, of Christ’s ministry itself.

  9. Would Midway City Friends find a place in Sierra/Cascade Yearly Meeting? I visited Midway City many years ago with a youth group. The number in attendance to my recollection was probably in the same 10 to 20 range . In a later conversation with the pastor, he described Midway City as a community church, and thus putting less emphasis on Quaker distinctives, such as a peace witness. Even so it is good to hear that they are carrying out a Gospel witness. Perhaps to the discomfort of their overseers.

  10. Hi Chuck, any responses from members of EFCSW? Has anything similar, YM vetting local actions, happened in other EFC’s? It’s certainly been a tension in some YM’s.

    1. It has happened in NWYM (once 66 churches in OR, WA, and ID). They decided that the LGBTQ affirming stance taken by one of their Oregon churches was grounds for expulsion. That number quickly grew to three as more people stood up for their leadings. Little did they know that a dozen churches would eventually leave NWYM. Seven of those dozen or so churches formed Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. The rest are still independent and discerning whether to join SCYMF or not.

      NWYM has now lost close to 35% of their membership, and probably even more of their budget, as the churches that left were the larger, more urban, affluent ones. NWYM’s tactics have been the same as those described in the article. They tried to lay down a very large church that had a multi-million dollar trust fund and take the money, but that church simply told them they were trespassing and please leave. That church is independent now.

      NWYM will, I am sure, eventually be subsumed by EFCSW. They are already being counseled and led by people from Yorba Linda.

      1. If NWYM is subsumed by EFCSW, EFCSW will likely require that they and member churches sign over property and assets to EFCSW. That is what EFCSW did years ago. That and other issues resulted in Whittier, Berkeley and Bakersfield leaving and forming Western Associaion of the Religious Society of Friends.

  11. Midway City wants to follow Matthew 25. Great! But what about following 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 about not taking brothers and sisters to court? We can’t pick and choose what scripture we want to follow. This is “holier-than-thou“ attitude that is rampant in this article cannot be tolerated in the Kingdom of God, anymore than choosing to close down a church for wanting to help others. Both sides need to resolve this in a manner other than the courts. “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?“ 1 Corinthians 6:7

    1. Well, in truth most of us pick and choose from the Bible. Here are only a few passages (among many more) which commend seeking and demanding justice from courts, when other avenues are closed off:

      “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute,” (Psalm 82:3). “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause,” (Isaiah 1:17).

      Luke 18: “2In a town there was once a judge who didn’t fear God or care about people. 3In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, “Make sure that I get fair treatment in court.”
      4 For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about people, 5 I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don’t help her, she will wear me out.”

  12. I just LOVE Christians, Chuck, especially those who know Jesus wouldn’t have wanted the homeless dirtying up their meeting houses.
    This story sickens me, and your writing evokes the similar power plays too many Quakers want to play- and have played even here in NC. I’m glad you posted this, and always grateful for your bringing such things to our attention, even when it’s so very hard to read.

  13. It is clear to me that the EFCSW Elders aren’t upset by the Midway City church helping the homeless. They just see it as an excuse to close a church that is not up to their standards of wealth and prestige. Pharisees.

  14. This is so Sad that one church has grown into one of comfort and abandoned the Gospel, Quaker Tradition, Common Decency and Mr Rogers.

  15. It is easy to condemn the party at fault when you read an article like this, (and may even be appropriate) but I would like to remind the readers of a truth. We are one in Christ. We have the same Spirit. I am a member of one of the smaller congregations in EFCSW, and I assure you that I do not approve of the actions our elder board has taken with regards to Midway City. It is neither in keeping with tradition nor with Jesus’ commands. Nonetheless, knowing those involved, I cannot say that they aren’t Christian. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ as well as my elected leaders. This does not mean I should roll over and accept their actions as inevitable or beyond question. I know representatives who have consistently sought to engage our elder board in order to bring reconciliation, and are currently attempting to do so. I support them in this. Ultimately, if this is possible, it is what the Pfeiffers would want (I have heard them say so). In short, please be careful with your condemnation unless you are willing to step in, speaking and acting on Christ’s behalf in a way that makes a difference.

  16. I am very grateful to this blog for informing us so fully and in such detailed fashion about the Midway Church situation. I daresay it is the only way that Friends outside California would hear about it. Likewise, I am very grateful for the robust discussion by Friend Metzger and other readers, and the great care and concern with which Friends are considering and acting upon this matter In Christian love from many different angles. Thanks all!

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