The lead pastor of one of Bakersfield's largest congregations, shaken by backlash to his online comments critical of the city's proposal for a 450-person homeless shelter near the church's main campus, explained Wednesday his objections related mainly to the project's size.
The Rev. Ron Vietti, relaxed in jeans and a T-shirt while half-seated on a stool, reassured an audience of fewer than 100 people gathered at Valley Bible Fellowship on East Brundage Lane that he continues to support people living on the street, as the church has long done.
"Obviously this homeless thing has sort of blown up on us a little bit," he said by way of an opening.
"From Day One we never, ever said we're against the homeless center," he said. "We're against one of that size."
One of the main frustrations he expressed during a roughly one-hour talk was that city officials had not invited him and other church leaders to weigh in on the plan.
Had they been given that opportunity, he said, he would have suggested there be at least three separate shelters, each capable of housing about 150 people each, situated near his and other churches across the city.
The meeting had been promoted as an opportunity to talk over Vietti's now-deleted social media post earlier this week on Facebook.
No one present for Wednesday's gathering spoke up against his comments. Rather, congregants largely echoed his concerns that a large homeless shelter just 1,000 yards from the campus posed risks to the security of the church and the students attending its school.
Several members of the church raised their hands and drew attention to VBF's many homeless outreach programs, including regular feeding events and a shuttle program that brings homeless people to the church for a chance to worship.
Vietti said the church was resigned to the likelihood that people living on the street would defecate near the campus and that there would be break-ins. "It's going to happen. We're willing to put up with that," he said.
He took shots at local news media, as he did on a recent Facebook post, saying his comments had been sensationalized. He also said he never wanted to see Facebook again.
"The press did not do me any favors," he said. "They threw it out there."
Vietti agreed with comments made by congregants speaking from the pews that the dust-up was an outgrowth of a toxic national political discourse.
Asked what church members could do if the City Council votes to approve the shelter project, Vietti offered two views. One was that, like parents disapproving a daughter's boyfriend, VBF might eventually have to accept whatever city leaders decide. The other was that the church should continue to fight.
"I think right now, prayer is the key," he said, then added moments later, "We're going to go all the way down fighting."
A member of the congregation said that whatever happens, the church would have a "great opportunity." Vietta quickly followed up, saying, "We're going to take lemons and make lemonade."
This story has been corrected to state the estimated distance from the church campus to the proposed homeless center site.