From the Worldwide Faith News archives

UMNS# 528-City of Albany challenges church's music ministry

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Thu, 7 Sep 2006 18:52:51 -0500

City of Albany challenges church's music ministry

Sep. 7, 2006 News media contact: Tim Tanton * (615) 7425470* Nashville {528}

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report at

By Sandra Brands*

ALBANY, NY (UMNS) - When the Rev. Maurice "Mick" Drown of Trinity United Methodist Church stepped into a courtroom July 20, he was glad to find that more than 50 people from the interfaith community had come to support him.

"We even had a person here from Beijing, China," he said. "Her parents were here visiting and they came."

Those attending included the Rev. Jim Fenimore, Albany District superintendent for the United Methodist Church. Drown said the district superintendent's presence was "very important, very significant."

"It affirms the importance of connectionalism - that you don't stand alone, that by being in the United Methodist Church, you don't face an issue alone," Drown said. "That gives you more confidence."

Drown was in court after being cited by the Albany police for operating a nightclub in the basement of the church without a permit and using the building as a nightclub without an occupancy certificate. Since alcohol is never served at the New Age Cabaret, the charge was changed to operating a non-alcoholic dance club without a permit or occupancy certificate before the court date.

The ticket came after a few people in the neighborhood of the church filed a complaint with the city about the noise and disruption caused by the New Age Cabaret, a ministry of the Artist's All Faith Center.

A judge's decision is expected by Oct. 10, according to Drown.

Empowering kids

The force behind All Faith's New Age Cabaret is the Rev. Joyce Hartwell, and since moving to the area in 2000, she has helped youth plan more than 600 shows.

The idea behind the ministry is to provide people with the tools they need to express spirituality through artistic expression. Over the years, the nondenominational church has worked with recovering addicts and welfare mothers, teaching them skills to help them find meaningful work and stay sober.

Before moving to the Albany area, Hartwell ran a community center in Manhattan. "I became a minister because I saw people who lost their heritage and their culture and their religion. I didn't want to tell people what to think; I just wanted them to realize that they could find truth and understanding through art, music, theater and literature."

The New Age Cabaret is an outgrowth of that.

"I empower the kids to do their own shows," she said. "I train them, show them how to account for the ($10 door charge) they collect, but I don't do it for them. We provide a venue for all types of performance, including music, and an opportunity for socialization in a drug-free environment."

Worship experiences

All Faith originally held the cabaret on Pearl Street in Albany, but last fall, it lost its lease. The church entered into a facility-sharing contract with Trinity United Methodist.

"To have Trinity say, 'Come here, let's do it here' - that was wonderful," Hartwell said.

"These musical programs are (Hartwell's) worship experiences," Drown said. "We spend $40,000 a year at this church for people to perform because we do it Sunday morning. Is it different when we do it Wednesday or Thursday evening? It's people gathering and expressing the spirit inside them.

"It is a worthy, spiritual endeavor," he said. "If you get to know any of the kids, you would be encouraged. They are 14, 15 and 16."

For some, he said, it's a stretch to see the religious component in the cabaret.

Police Chief James Tuffey was quoted in the Albany Times Union as saying: "An organ recital is a church event. This is not a church event."

Fenimore disagrees. "I think it is very disturbing when city officials or a court dictates what church music is and is not," he said.

"These are wonderful kids," Hartwell said. "The danger is that they can't wait to leave the capital region because they feel there's no place to go. They don't like the bar scene. There's no place where the young people feel welcome. They want more artistic places where they can talk and share. Their music is very much how they share their ideas and concerns about the world.

"You must listen to them, you must give them a place (to gather)," she said. "If there is a problem and a chance to help, at least you're communicating with them."

Complaints of noise

When the news of the citation broke in the local press, it sparked a flurry of letters to the editor and blogs commenting on the issue. Some were sharply critical of the program, voicing complaints about noise, parking problems, the offensiveness of some of the punk groups' names or lyrics, and the appearance of the youth - Goth and punk fashions, including tattoos, spikes and studs, are common.

But many others have sent letters in support of the ministry, stating that the outreach provides a safe place for youth to gather while bringing them into a church environment.

Most of the youth who attend, Drown said, have adopted a "straight-edge" lifestyle. It "requires abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, drugs and casual sex," he said, "and it's centered on personal development and well-being."

While Drown agreed some of the lyrics may be controversial, he said the Cabaret is a place where youth can discuss ideas and think critically about the messages in the music.

The basic issue

Drown said he wasn't certain what precipitated the complaint. "We soundproofed the hall when someone claimed it was too loud. Then they complained about kids congregating on the sidewalks, so we changed the entrance." The church's efforts included meeting with neighbors at the Washington Park Association.

For Drown, the issue goes beyond permits and occupancy certificates. "The issue is: does a church need to seek permission from a municipality in the fulfillment of its mission?"

Attorneys representing the church and Drown filed a motion for dismissal on the First Amendment rights that guarantee freedom of religion and assemblage on July 27. On Aug. 3, the city responded by saying the citation was not about constitutional issues, but about city code violations.

Aside from hosting the New Age Cabaret, Trinity United Methodist provides office and classroom space for a day care, the New York State Nutrition Consortium, the Albany Area offices of the United Methodist Church, and other faith and nonprofit organizations.

Recently the director of Albany's Division of Building and Codes, Nicholas DiLello, issued a cease-and-desist order to the church, prohibiting advertising office space availability for nonprofits and faith-based organizations.

The Cabaret case now awaits the judge's decision to dismiss or support. "If he supports, we'll appeal," Drown said.

*Brands is director of communications for the United Methodist Church's Troy Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or


United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at:

Browse month . . . Browse month (sort by Source) . . . Advanced Search & Browse . . . WFN Home