Category Archives: food pantry

“Charity is no substitute for Justice” — Tzedakah / Tzedek

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.

This is Hunger Video 

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Filed under Augustine of Hippo, Charity, community, episcopal, Episcopal priest, feeding the hungry, Food ministry, food pantry, Justice, Righteousness

Alms and Oblations

I can never quite anticipate what the ushers at St. Paul’s may do next.  I remember one time, when we announced in the parish newsletter that toilet paper was the most needed item for people to bring for the food pantry, I almost lost my composure on Sunday morning standing at the altar and watching the children bring the “food basket” (each Sunday we bring representative items donated to the food pantry as a part of the offering) up with the offering.  It was loaded to the brim with TP.  The snickers came down the nave like a wave making its way to shore as the children passed each row holding proudly aloft large containers of “Angel Soft” TP.  By the time we realized what was approaching us, the choir and I were barely containing our laughter!  It was all I could do to stay focused on the liturgy.  It was a great moment and one the ushers still recall very proudly.

A favorite thing about the ushers is their willingness to invite visitors to help bring the bread and wine to the altar for the Holy Eucharist.  While on many Sundays they invite parishioners to help with this, they have a sense for finding the visitor who will be amazed and thrilled to be included in this way.  Many of our newer members share with me that on their first visit to St. Paul’s the ushers asked them to help with the bread and wine.  “But I don’t know what I am doing . . . I am not even Episcopalian,” is a common reaction.  “Don’t worry,” the ushers reply, “just walk it to the altar; someone will meet you there.”  It is always interesting to watch as visitors cautiously walk down the aisle with puzzled looks on their faces as they bring the bread and wine to us.  In a few moments, when I offer them the Body and Blood of Christ, there seems to be an aura of “I was part of this” on their faces.  It is a moment of joy for me.

Occasionally, the ushers exercise a wonderful sense of grace in their actions.  Recently, one of our food pantry clients started attending church.  He is a nice young fellow who happens to be homeless.  He seems to enjoy very much being in church with us.  A few weeks ago he even convinced his girlfriend to attend with him.  On occasion, when I talk with him at coffee hour or engage him in conversation outside the church, he discusses with me matters of interest in my sermons (so I, of course, like him).  He corrected me recently about forgetting, in a sermon remark, a character in Tolkien’s Hobbit trilogy.  He was right.  This past Sunday, when I looked up to let the ushers know we were ready for the alms and food pantry offerings to come down the aisle, who should I see carrying the food pantry basket but this same young homeless fellow who only a few days before I greeted in line at the pantry.  Just as laughter burst forth as the “Angel Soft” processed down the aisle another time, tears rolled down my cheeks as this young man, with a smile and bounce in his step, brought this food offering through the congregation to the altar.  There was the light of Christ radiantly bursting forth in our midst.

I am blessed to serve a parish that understands very deeply the words of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and goats, “when you do it to the least, you do it to me.”  Our doors are open, all are welcome, all are included, and all are embraced by the love of God.   No exceptions!

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Filed under community, episcopal, Episcopal priest, feeding the hungry, Food ministry, food pantry

What do you want with me? Much.*

homeless_mother_children

**It is Wednesday night and I am leaving the church late to go home.  As I head up the driveway toward Walnut Street, I notice the line for the Food Pantry extends all the way up to the street.  As a group, they look forlorn standing in the fading light and dropping temps.  I am glad we are here for them.  Near the end of the line, there is a young woman holding hands with two little girls.  A third child, boy or girl I cannot tell, is standing on the fence wall.  Unexpectedly, in my mind’s eye, I see Guytie and our three daughters standing there.  As with the Ghost of Christmas Past, it is like a scene from my distant past playing out in a painfully unexpected way.  My eyes tear up and I want to move on as quickly as possible . . . I do not look back . . . I try not to feel the confused emotions penetrating me like a cold, damp fog.  I drive home profoundly sad.  I do not know the woman or her children; yet, my heart breaks with the sight of this small family, cold, hungry, and waiting to get food–in the darkness, my family. 

Several years ago, the leadership of the Food Pantry first proposed the idea of opening on Wednesday nights.  During our daytime pantry hours, our clients would tell us of people they knew who worked but could not make ends meet with the low wage jobs they were able to get.  They were hungry and needed our assistance was the message we heard.  The Food Pantry leadership requested and we agreed to a trial run.  Now, several years later, Wednesday night is as busy as our daytime pantry.  While we do not have demographic documentation yet (something we are hoping to work on this year), we are confident from anecdotal reporting that many of these Wednesday pantry clients are working people often with multiple jobs-and still, they need help feeding their families.

What is it the Lord requires of you . . .

                                     Do justice . . . (Micah 6.8)

It is a good thing we do in our Food Pantry.  People are hungry; children are hungry.  It is a good thing to feed hungry people; but it is not justice, it is mercy.  Justice challenges us to ask, “Why are these people who work, sometimes two and three jobs, unable to feed themselves?  Why must they stand in line in the cold and dark in order to receive the small bit of help we offer them in order to avoid hunger for themselves and their families? What is wrong with this picture?” Justice challenges us to action and change.  What must change to allow justice to flow like a river(Amos 5.24)?  In 2013, we served about 2200 people each month through our food pantry.  By storage and financial limits, we are perilously near our maximum service capacity.  Feeding the unemployed, the homeless, and the elderly is one thing, but why do working people, some working 60+ hours a week, still need our assistance?  In the US, full-time workers should be capable of paying their own way and caring for their family needs, or so the prevailing myth of the American Dream suggests.  Tonight, as I drove from the parking lot to Walnut Street, that Dream seemed tarnished and more difficult to imagine.  Tonight I saw my wife and daughters standing in the cold dark waiting for food–it hurt my heart.  Maybe it takes the sting of personal “hurt” to understand what it is the Lord requires of me!

*Title: an exchange between Scrooge and Marley

** This is a re-run of an earlier, pre-blog piece.  I want to make it a part of my blog record.

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Filed under community, episcopal, Food ministry, food pantry, Justice, Uncategorized

Someone like you

little girl at soup kitchen 2

It is a cold and blustery day, the temps hovering around “freeze your buns off.”  The visitors to  Kansas City Community Kitchen (a ministry of Episcopal Community Services) for the daily hot lunch are a bit slow coming in, allowing more time for interaction and brief bits of conversation with the people as they come through the food line.  There is a broad assortment of people, some clearly in need of a hot meal and others passing through checking their options.   Fashion statements are made, some in spite of poverty and others because of poverty.  One young man wears many  layers of clothes year round; though he looks very large as he passes through the line, I wonder if he might actually be skinny once peeled out of clothes I suspect never leave his body.  Some are noisy and boisterous, others pass  quietly, deep in their own thoughts, hardly noticing our presence as we try to welcome them, offering our clever quips for the day.  Some reciprocate while others look at us like the foreigners we are, inarticulate in the language and understanding of the street.  Here, I am an alien.  Still, I come back each fourth Monday, offering in some small and inadequate way my allegiance to this gift of mercy—a good, hot meal in a safe place.  Luckily for me, the clients are tolerant.

As they pass through the line I almost miss the tiny little girl ( maybe 3 or 4) accompanying the very young man (early 20’s) in an over-sized sport logo jacket.  She peeps over the serving line, her grimy little  hands gripping the metal rail and her big brown eyes sparkling as she sees the food.   Some attempt to brush her blondish brown hair failed ; it is dirty, matted, and knotted but it is out of her face.  Her eyes carefully follow the tray to the end of the serving line.  I am not sure she really believes the food is for her.  The young man, I assume her father, takes the tray and walks her to the table directly opposite the serving line.  They sit down and she eats her food, every morsel.  No whining and complaining that the food is too hot or too cold, or the food tastes funny, or not what she wanted.  This little girl eats everything and scraps the tray clean.  The young man, sitting close beside her, wraps his arm around her.  Occasionally, she turns and whispers something into his ear.  He softly answers and she goes back to eating.  Americana right out of Norman Rockwell except, of course, for the hues of poverty that distort everything.

At one point, a very tall and menacing looking old man comes and stands at the far end of their table.  His face weathered, his long, blond hair dirty, his overly long arms dangling by his side, his parka and clothes filthy and beyond worn out.  He stands quietly, staring at the little girl as she and her dad stare down at their food, watching attentively lest a crumb attempt to escape.  He stands there without moving for a long, long time.  I am beginning to get a little uncomfortable, wondering if this fellow harbors some malevolent intent, just waiting for the right moment to grab the little girl and run.  After what seems way too long, the little girl glances up and their eyes meet.  He extends a hand and awkwardly  flips something toward her.  It rolls to her tray.  It is a Tootsie Roll Pop.  She picks it up, looks back at the man, and smiles.  No words.  He turns and walks away.  Surprised by the rough tenderness of his action, I imagine him yearning for something long lost but remembered in this small gesture of  generosity to a tiny little girl.

The last stragglers are being hustled out of the dining area.  The floors swept, the chairs put up in anticipation of the mop brigade coming out to clean the place for the next day.   We fed the hungry.  It is time to leave.  I wonder where this young father and his little girl go when they leave here?  Where will she go, what chances will she have? Sadly, I am sure “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is not on her nighttime reading list.

Driving away, I recall another Dr. Seuss text from “The Lorax”–“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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Filed under children, community, episcopal, feeding the hungry, Food ministry, food pantry, Justice, Uncategorized