This morning I visited, “This is Hunger,” a traveling exhibit created by Mazon, a national Jewish organization addressing issues of food insecurity and justice in the USA. Locally, this exhibit is sponsored by Episcopal Community Services and Jewish Family Services. Temple Beth Shalom in Overland Park is the location of this traveling exhibit. It will be there until July 13. There is more information on our St. Paul’s Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/StPaulsKCMO/ ) about this exhibit and how to get tickets (free), which are required. Please don’t miss this amazing and well designed experience.
It is the “experience” I want to reflect upon here. Entering the truck, the group encountered a long table with chairs, really a long dinner table, set up in the middle of the truck. Plates, created by projected lights, marked each “place setting.” We were invited to be seated and to introduce ourselves to those around us. I would estimate there were about 24 of us. After a few moments, the room darkened and only our “plates” remained illuminated. Then one by one the plates disappeared. After a few moments of silence around the darkened table, people, projected on screens at each end of the table, began to “join” us and share their stories of hunger. Young and old, working and retired, healthy and sick, long employed and chronically unemployed . . . each spoke of the difficulties, disappointments, and discouraging realities of their struggle with food insecurity and hunger. Their stories were honest, compelling, and disheartening. There are embarrassing statistics, embarrassing for our country, attached to all of these stories. But it is the humanizing of these statistics as we heard each story that was so powerful in impact. The video presentation ended with two walls of photos of faces and summaries of the statistics of hunger in the USA. Following this multimedia presentation, a spokesperson for Mazon concluded with this challenging observation—“The challenges of food insecurity are severe in our country and food charity (e.g. soup kitchens, food pantries, etc) cannot fix them. Public policy actions are essential to respond to the challenges of food insecurity and hunger in our country.”
“Food charity.” Our churches have long and arguably successful records in the area of food charity. Food pantries, soup kitchens, neighborhood gardens, and other similar programs represent models familiar to church activism across the country. These food ministries are essential given the increasing costs of food and reduction of public programs of food support available to hungry people. Yet the observation by Mazon of public policy changes needed to respond to the huge dimensions of food insecurity and hunger compels the faith community to re-imagine its limited reactive role and challenges it to a more pro-active role addressing matters of public policy.
It is suggested St. Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th-5th century theologian of the nascent Christian movement, once wrote, “Charity is no substitute for justice.” Surely, in matters of food insecurity and hunger, this observation challenges us to ponder our moral obligation to not only feed hungry people (charity) but our equally important moral and faith obligation to active, public advocacy for more equitable public policy for the food insecure and hungry (justice). Such advocacy would seek food/economic independence for many of those currently struggling with food insecurity and hunger. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah. The word tzedakah shares an etymological root with tzedek which means justice. Linguistically, this connection suggests charity must be built on a foundation of justice. In the absence of such a foundation, I believe the religious community must be faithful in working to build such a foundation, seeking diligently to create a more just society. Indeed, we should be “doing justice” (Micah 6.8) with the same zeal and energy we expend in our efforts to provide for the acute and immediate challenges of feeding hunger people in our soup kitchens and food pantries.