“I see desperation in people’s eyes as they say to me ‘I have no food’”. A pastor was sharing their frustration working with people who live on the streets.
As churches struggle to figure out how to get their worship online, how to sterilize hard surfaces, and how to check on elders in nursing homes that don’t allow visitors, people outside our circles are hungry. Of course that has always been true. And churches have always been there to meet the needs of those who are hungry. Sixty-two percent of meals and pantries in the United States are faith-based.
When I surveyed people who are food insecure throughout the United States, asking questions about the ministries they are part of, but also whether they “need” the food at the program where they volunteer, more than one person replied “anyone who can’t find food in this town is lazy”. Because every big city has many churches providing food, and most small towns have at least one church providing food. In the cities I visited, people who are hungry can choose between one food ministry and another.
Except now that has changed. In the effort to figure out how to be physically distant from one another, many food programs have been suspended. In the effort to enforce safety for the whole, some health departments have closed down meals and pantries that reach more than 25 people. In the effort to keep us all healthy, some people are starving.
So what is a church to do?
In the earliest centuries of Christianity, when faced with the plague, Christians stood out from their neighbors because they risked their lives to care for the sick and the poor. The witness of calm and loving attention to those suffering is likely to be one of the reasons for the quick growth of this small, unheard of religion at those times. There is more about this here https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-early-church-teach-coronavirus/.
Choosing to continue to care for the hungry in this time does not require giving up all wisdom around cover-19. Churches are balancing the risks of the virus with the risks of hunger and coming up with ways to keep their feeding ministries open.
Many meals have taken the lead from restaurants and are offering lunch or dinner (and in one place breakfast) to go. Using clam shell carry-out containers one cook fills the container and leaves it on a table, one server carries the food to the doorway, one volunteer coordinates it so only one person comes forward to pick up their meal. Several places are switching from hot food to sandwiches, the sandwiches are made by families in their homes, collected from doorsteps by a driver, and then delivered outside the church.
One huge meal program I interviewed earlier has divided their meal into three spaces, so that it is now three meals of 25 people instead of one large gathering. “The rest of the building isn’t being used right now” the pastor explained to me. Some church meal programs are officially closed, but volunteers hand out sandwiches at the doorway as people are sent away. “We are trying to stay under the radar” the pastor explained. Another church program chose to stay open, and invites limited numbers in to find chairs set up in trios six feet away from each other. Each person who comes in gets lunch and three chairs for themselves and their belongings. There is room for 25, new diners wait outside until someone has left.
The weather has been good so far for churches that have moved their food pantries outside, or who are keeping the line for the pantry outside. If you’ve had a pantry where people can “shop” for what they need you may want to change to a bagged system—either put together a bag with some of everything, or provide a list and people can circle the items they want. Volunteers then fill a bag for the person in need of groceries. This way most of the volunteers are able to keep a six foot separation from each other and from the food recipients.
Volunteers may be nervous about coming to our food ministries, so efficiencies are necessary to do ministry with fewer people. It is also helpful to have tasks people can do individually—making meals at home, bagging or sorting alone, handing out food across a table. My own church has moved to “no touching” check in for the pantry—we’ve eliminated signatures and sorting through the bags, people are simply checked off as they come in, we share stories but not handshakes or hugs. We have two people organize the pantry—the space is huge so they are more than six feet apart. We also ask volunteers to shop for us.
One program I talked to has two week shifts for volunteers and staff—two weeks on, and then two weeks off for everyone involved. This allows for a rest from the stress of maintaining appropriate physical distancing, and a chance to attend to maintaining their own health. Their goal is to find a way to be able to keep up the work of feeding one another for the long haul—which means everyone involved will need a time of rest.
The challenge is to maintain as much physical distancing as possible, while still providing food for those who are hungry. The challenge is maintaining our integrity of what it means to be a Christian in this time of great risk. The challenge is to care for all of our neighbors in this time of need.
I’m interested to hear what your community is doing with this challenge.
We live in risky times. The risk is not just to ourselves, there is risk also that we will harm others by our mere presence in their lives. In response we have the call to stay away from one another. In church that is almost completely unconnected to social media, I offered online worship last Sunday. The experience was surprisingly positive; we had real conversation, heartfelt prayer, we struggled with scripture and it’s meaning for today. The next morning the state called for us to stay physically separate until April 7. Now it seems likely to last even longer. For the social well-being of our neighbors, we will follow this guidance.
The risk/benefit balance between whether we should worship together or apart is clear. God can handle our absence from the sanctuary, we can handle finding remote ways to connect to each other and to God. The side affects of feeling disconnect, anxiety, and loneliness are worth the benefits of protecting our neighbors from illness. Not all acts of distancing have so few side affects.
When those of us with ample resources stay away from people who have few resources—when we stay away from people who don’t have homes or who are food insecure, when we decide against volunteering at the shelter or the food pantry or the meal, the risk/benefit analysis is quite different. Yes, we are reducing the risk of sharing illness with people who are possibly at high risk. Yes, we are reducing the risk of bringing illness from the streets and into our homes. We are also leaving people hungry and isolated. Isolation for someone who is already shunned by our society is more dangerous than isolation for those of us with extensive community supports. I can talk to my congregation, my family, a circle of friends. Homelessness is both caused by social isolation and exacerbates it.
How do we balance the risks and benefits for ministries to those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, those who are sick, and those who are in prison? Matthew 25:40 (“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”) is certainly relevant, yet when it comes to taking risks, other words of Jesus are also important.
Consider Matthew 16:24-26. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’” While in modern times we may think of “the cross” as small challenges we face, in Jesus’ time he was literally talking about the possibility of being killed. I don’t think he meant we must be willing to die for our right to worship (although there are Christians in other countries who are risking their lives to worship). If, as I believe, the true test of our faith is whether we have cared for the least of brothers and sisters, it is hard to see how we are not called to take real risks to do that caring.
Perhaps in your church, there is much angst about deciding these things. Many churches are not coming to a unanimous decision about any of these choices. That brings to mind the battles between children and their parents, fights between members of one’s own household, mentioned in Matthew 10:34-39. Verses 37-38 are especially harsh, I hate when I have to preach these words: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
These hard texts seem distant on ordinary Sundays, but now as we face significant risk, risk to ourselves and risk we carry back to our neighbors, families, to the wider community, we must ask what exactly they mean about what we are canceling in our church buildings. Suspend worship, for sure. Move bible study to online. Certainly get rid of the self-serve buffet!
But we are called to take on the risks that come with continuing to serve the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those that alone. We must figure out what we can do for the prisoner and the elderly, each behind different locked doors. As a church must ask ourselves whether we are the only place that might offer safe space for AA, for the guy who talks to himself on Main Street, for the hungry, the displaced, for those who don’t have homes.
We want to be as safe as possible. Thus we may move our food pantry to the doorway, limit visiting, and pre-package the foods we give away. We may switch our meals to take out, most certainly we will wear gloves as we serve. AA and NA maybe asked to limit their in-person meetings to new comers or to people with less than year of sobriety. Perhaps if your program was two days a week instead of one you can limit the size of each gathering. Send letters every day to people you used to meet once a month in prison or in a nursing home. But take a risk. Do not assume that the only right answer is to cut out all risk, and therefore end all programs.
Christians are willing to risk our lives to make the good news real to others who are suffering.
"Rock balance" by kingzoot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
This is a talk I gave at Worcester Area Mission Society.
You remember, perhaps, the story that Jesus told of the sheep and the goats. The nations are being judged, divided into right or left, sheep or goat, eternal life or eternal suffering and everyone is equally surprised by where they end up. The unexpected test is whether you provided food, drink, or clothing to those who have none, whether you have welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, or visited those in prison. (You can look it up in Matthew 25:31-46.)
It is clear that Jesus wants us to care for those who have limited access to material resources.
But we live in an age where many of us, even people who are not very wealthy, have an excess of things. Individually, most of us in the U.S. have more food, drink, and clothing than we need to get by. We all have excess that we want to get rid of.
My question is this: are we giving in order to get rid of our excess? Or to help people in need?
We certainly long for both to be true!! But is it?
It’s tempting to take a diversion and tell you a story you may know about government cheese. In the United States our food programs were developed to take care of excess, rather than to feed hungry people. In the 80s, the US government was buying cheese in order to keep dairy prices high. When faced with huge quantities of cheese, we created a program to give poor people cheese from our excess.
In their book When Helping Hurts Corbett and Fikkert argue that getting rid of our excess creates a “God Complex” in the giver—we think we are special to have been able to give things away. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that giving away things you don’t need is not exactly painful. In fact, I find that people feel pain at *not* being able to give away things they don’t need. Giving from our excess is for our own benefit. It makes us feel better.
Its not necessarily bad to feel better, I don’t love everything about Corbett and Fikkert’s arguments. My DMin project argues with their book, and with Lupton’s Toxic Charity, that they are overly concerned with the poor people developing dependency, and not concerned enough with making sure people have what they need to get ahead. Independence is not a Christian value.
But there is something to the question of whether getting rid of what we have, but don’t need, is actually covered by Jesus telling us to offer food, drink, and clothes. It’s certainly not the point with welcoming strangers, healing the sick, or visiting people in prison. The point of the last three is relationship. Shouldn’t that be the point of the first three?
Early on in my ministry at Worcester Fellowship I was recruiting a church in the wider Worcester Area. I met with the pastor in early spring. (This pastor is long gone from the area, so you don’t have to try and figure out who it was.) Pastor Mary and I met and talked about Worcester Fellowship, hoping to get support. At the end of the meeting he offered us three expensive fur coats from people in his congregation.
I don’t know if this pastor didn’t get what we are doing at Worcester Fellowship, or perhaps the pastor was stuck, maybe some members of the congregation had this excess and pressured the pastor to get it to a “good cause”.
As soon as he offered the coats I knew for sure this meant that the church wasn’t going to make a financial donation. I was thinking in my head about whether there was some way to sell the coats when Mary spoke up.
“Oh, we can’t take these. Our ministry is about building relationships, not about giving things.” With practice I learned to say the same thing when the situation called for it.
Outdoor church is based on relationships. We teach all the outdoor church leaders that if your aim is to be church, you can’t give away stuff. Things are transactional. Once you create a transactional connection, it’s hard to build a relationship. People know the rules for getting stuff—what to say, how to say it, how to pass the test as “worthy” in order to qualify for the thing being given away. People learn to say what is required.
Relationships are built as we learn to say what is true. Transactions—saying things to qualify for getting things—reduce relationships. If we go the other way, if we build relationships first, we will learn enough about one another to give out of knowledge. A person we know may tell us what they really need. They may tell us something they can give to us. The giving becomes a small part of a mutual sharing.
Recent research points to the likelihood that early church worship was gathering every day, people with means and people with few means, eating together. People were confident that the kingdom of God had actually begun. Jesus tells us the kingdom is at hand. Can you imagine being a person who survived by begging in the first century, or being a day laborer, and suddenly joining a community where you get to eat every single day? It is Isaiah 55 come true:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
The meal is an example of community sharing. For sure, those with plenty are bringing from their excess, and those with little are bringing only a little. But they are all volunteering. They are all working together (That is a little plug for my upcoming book Five Loaves, Two Fishes, Twelve Volunteers). The sharing creates relationship, so the giving is to people we know.
Returning to the story of the sheep and the goats, we find that the surprised sheep and goats ask what they did to deserve this judgement. Jesus’s answer is “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Jesus actually is the person who needs food, drink, clothes, healing, welcome, and prison visits. Chrysostom, an early Christian theologian, says that the resurrected body of Christ is two places—in the church, and in the poor. He goes on to critique the one for not letting the other inside.
So what does all this tell us to do? I certainly am not arguing for not giving things away. Worcester Fellowship could not build the relationships it has without the churches that bring lunch and socks. But I am saying to ask organizations what they need. Ask individuals what they need. Listen to the answers. In general you can trust that organizations need most of all three things: your money, your time as a volunteer, and your prayers.
In the book The Homeless by Jenkins, he comes to the unexpected conclusion that people who are homeless want three things: housing, work, and love. Interestingly, that’s exactly what I want! Get to know people. When you are in relationship, what you give is like giving to Jesus. Get to know organizations. When you are in a relationship, you care about what they ask for. Give because its needed by someone, not because its not needed by you.
From May 10, 2018, a talk at Worcester Area Mission Society.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.