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“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

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