Dana Johnson said that Jessie’s Place women’s shelter requires women to attend Sunday services at a branch of the Church of the Highlands.(Photo by Greg Garrison/AL.com)

Dana Johnson has been down on her luck, homeless on and off the past two years.

In September, she spent most of the month living at Jessie’s Place, a women’s shelter in downtown Birmingham.

Jessie’s Place informed her that she was required to attend church on Sunday, she said. She said she wanted to attend First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, where she is a member and served on the church mission team. First Presbyterian is easy walking distance from Jessie’s Place, less than two blocks away.

Instead, she was told all women at the shelter must attend the same church. For three consecutive Sundays, she and other residents boarded a van and attended worship services at the Woodlawn branch of the Church of the Highlands, Alabama’s largest church.

When she got a job, Johnson, 47, said she was also told she was required to tithe, or donate 10 percent of her income. She was told to go to a bank, get a money order and make it payable to the Church of the Highlands, she said.

The service at the Woodlawn campus of the Church of the Highlands has its own praise team, but video of the sermon by Senior Pastor Chris Hodges is streamed in from the main campus on Grants Mill Road.

“It’s fine,” Johnson said of Church of the Highlands. “It’s a nice presentation.”

She attended services there Sept. 10, 17 and 24, though she would have rather attended First Presbyterian, she said.

The situation angered her pastor at First Presbyterian Church.

“If you are going to make people go to church, why not one around here?” said the Rev. Shannon Webster, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham. “She could have walked a block to our place.”

LaTonya Melton, director of Jessie’s Place, wrote in an email to Webster that the policy prevents women from lying and saying they went to church when they didn’t. She also said that tithing is required, but the women can tithe to whichever church they want.

Johnson disputed that. She said women were told that their money orders for tithes must be made payable to the Church of the Highlands.

Webster said it’s not about the amount of money. “It’s the principle of the thing,” Webster said.

“Someone living in a shelter is not tithing big money,” Johnson said. But it is a significant amount to a homeless person, she said.

Tony Cooper, executive director of the Jimmie Hale Mission which operates Jessie’s Place, said that shelter policies are explained to women when they sign in. It’s a Christian ministry and church attendance is required, he said.

“They know they’ll be going to a church on Sunday,” Cooper said.

“We’re going to go to a church that’s local and close-by, one that we’re comfortable with. We can’t supervise 15 or 20 women going to different places. It’s convenience more than anything else.”

Cooper said women are not charged to stay at the shelter, but they are required to keep a budget if they have a job. That includes setting aside 10 percent for tithing.

“They ought to be able to tithe wherever they want to tithe,” Cooper said. “That’s God’s money.”

Cooper said that if women were told they have to tithe to a certain church, that’s wrong.

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SOURCE: AL.com – Greg Garrison