'Church of Urth' occupies Mercy Junction, forcing it to close [photos]

'Church of Urth' occupies Mercy Junction, forcing it to close [photos]

May 18th, 2017 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

A rainbow flag hangs on an exterior window of Mercy Junction Justice and Peace center in Highland Park on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The center has been forced to close temporarily after safety concerns were raised about two residents who have formed their own religion.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Church leaders occupy Mercy Junction, forcing it to close

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If you'd like to meet King Arthur or a member of the Justice League, you can find them holed up in a building in Highland Park, but hurry because they might be evicted soon.

A saga has been unfolding at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center over the last five days since two men, Ryan Holmes and Tyler Short, garrisoned themselves inside and began posting Facebook messages about religious enlightenment, prompting officials to close the center until the pair can be removed.

A Facebook post by Ryan Holmes during an altercation with Mercy Junction.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The Highland Park center, which is owned by the St. Andrews Center, feeds and cares for the homeless and anyone else looking for support in the community. Administrators announced its temporary closure on Facebook, citing their apprehensions about continuing operations while the pair refuse to leave the building.

"Due to frightening and threatening Facebook posts, and frightening and threatening behavior within the Mercy Junction Center, by a cult-like group of white men calling themselves the Church of Urth, and led by Ryan Holmes and Tyler Short, the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center will be closed as we work our way through the eviction process," the post read.

A Facebook post by Ryan Holmes during an altercation with Mercy Junction.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Beth Foster, director of the center, said Holmes and Short began leasing a space there last year and described the Church of Urth as an interfaith ministry whose motto was, "It's not about being right, it's about being happy."

She said some leaders at the center expressed concerns about the Church of Urth from the beginning, but that concern became more pronounced when Holmes began gushing on Facebook about his own status as a god, among other things.

"I am the Archangel Michael. I am here with my Brother Gabriel. I have removed the sword of eden from Ulinawi and it rests with me. The gate to the Garden of Eden is now open. And I am it's [sic] Guardian. A Guardian of the Galaxy if you will," he wrote on Wednesday.

Since occupying and refusing to leave the office on Friday, both Holmes and Short have claimed identities ranging from Jesus Christ to Harry Potter in an unending flood of cryptic posts that often has continued into the wee hours of the morning.

"Did you know the Prince of England stepped down mysteriously the day after I defeated the demon. They saw it happen. My first name is Philip. I am King Arthur Pendragon. The Dragon Reborn," he wrote.

Short has come to his friend's defense on Facebook, responding to friends who posted messages to the pair.

"Yes, I am Jesus. Ryan is looking pretty black and blue right now. Do you have any stones left in your pockets that you would like to throw at me?" he wrote.

Asked whether he would leave the center voluntarily, Holmes said he would "not be manipulated" and he plans to stay until he is ready to leave. He also said the concerns of friends and family who have reached out to him on social media are unwarranted.

"I appreciate their concern but it is undue. They are fearful creatures still learning how to protect their own emotions. I am here to teach them the way. How not to get your feelings hurt," he said.

A Facebook post made by Ryan Holmes during an altercation with Mercy Junction.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Foster said she called in a mental evaluator to check on Holmes over the weekend, but she determined he wasn't a threat to himself or others. She said that while the center is closed, the real losers are other partners who rent space there as well as the members of the community who benefit from the center's services.

"We regret that this situation means we will be unable to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the homeless and give refuge to those with nowhere to go," the center posted on Facebook.

The center is typically open from 2-7 p.m. Monday through Friday for anyone looking for a meal or a few needed supplies like toiletries, but until this situation is resolved, many of those services will be on hold.

"The hard part for us is we don't feel safe allowing the public in the building right now," Foster said. "We really wanted to make it a place where everyone would feel safe."

She said Chattanooga police have visited the location to check on the pair and Short even posted a video of Holmes talking with the officers, but Elisa Myzal, a police spokeswoman, said nothing criminal has been reported there.

"Nothing criminal has been brought to our attention or called in to dispatch from this location since January 1, 2017," she wrote in an email. "Based on what we know this seems to be a civil matter."

A Facebook post made by Ryan Holmes during an altercation with Mercy Junction.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Foster said they began the eviction process by filing the first piece of paperwork necessary for a commercial eviction Wednesday morning, but unless Holmes and Short leave voluntarily, it will be a while before the center gets its building back.

Until then, workers are doing what they can by providing crackers and snack packs to their usual clients on the front steps of the building. Meanwhile, Foster said Holmes and Short have been ordering pizzas for themselves while they continue their sit-in.

"We may be looking at a couple more weeks before this is resolved," she said.

For his part, Holmes believes he has every right to continue occupying the space and it is the center that is at fault.

"I have not violated my lease agreement. That will have to be proven in court. They are claiming a values violation. But they have no evidence of it," he said.

"I'm on the back of the religious bus, and I refuse to get out of my seat. That is all."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.