Food Pantries and Band-Aids

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Food pantries seem to be the cause du jour of United Methodist Churches. Everywhere I go, I hear about feeding projects in our local congregations.

First, let me say that I am thrilled to hear this! This is one of the most practical ways that local churches can be in ministry in their communities. There are, of course, good and bad ways to run food pantries, but in general, I am always happy to hear about churches turning their focus outward.

But almost immediately, I am also overcome by another, more daunting thought. Why are food pantries suddenly necessary? Why are so many children going hungry in this country?

When we turn to these types of questions, we begin to engage Biblical justice issues.

Feeding people is a vital ministry of any faith community. We cannot ignore the physical and immediate needs of those around us. But these are fundamentally acts of mercy. They are things that we do for people, or to people. They are important, indeed, meant to address an urgent need. But these acts remain firmly in our grasp, something which we control. We provide a service for someone else; this kind of ministry sets up a giver-receiver dynamic.

These kinds of ministries are not justice-seeking ministries. Justice work is something fundamentally different.

In my previous post, I defined justice as the restoration of right relationships with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation. Handing out food to folks doesn’t really restore any vital relationships, though it can, and does, meet tangible needs.

We seek justice when we begin to ask probing questions around the needs that we see and discern in our neighborhoods. We seek justice when we get to know neighbors who are struggling with systems of oppressions — whether social, political, economic, religious, or psychological. We seek justice when we begin to dismantle, and rebuild, those systems that oppress.

We extend Jesus’ mercy when we feed hungry people; we work for Jesus’ justice when we remove the systems that keep people hungry.

Let’s put it another way: if a teacher notices a child arriving at school with a skinned knee, she would rush to offer him first aid and bandage his wound. But if the same kid arrives at school every day with a skinned knee, or bruised rib, or injured elbow, she would eventually begin to ask difficult questions about what is happening at home or on the way to school. In fact, she has to use an entirely different set of skills to address the root cause of the problem.

A teacher has to do both the band-aid, or mercy, work, as well as the social, or justice, work. In fact, we hold her responsible for both.

A faith community must do both of these kinds of work, as well — a congregation that only does mercy-work will be putting band-aids on the same people over and over, allowing them to remain in their misery and pain; a congregation that only does justice-work will let people bleed to death while protesting in the streets.

I’m afraid that many churches are confused by these two activities. Sometimes a congregation thinks that simply having a food pantry, or a soup kitchen, or clothes closet, is justice work.

It’s not, but it can certainly lead to justice efforts.

The best way to start heading in the direction of justice-work is by asking questions, like:

  • Why are so many people in this country poor?
  • Why are the richest people in this country getting richer, at the expense of the poor?
  • Who benefits from people remaining poor?
  • Why are there so many food deserts?
  • Who benefits from food deserts?
  • Where can the poor find fresh food?
  • Who controls food production? distribution? marketing?
  • What does it do to a person’s self-understanding to be poor? to visit a food pantry?
  • Who represents the poor in our political process?
  • How well do I know the families who visit our food pantry? where do they live? what are their lives like?
  • What is important to the families who visit our food pantry?

And yes, it’s hard to ask these questions. Quite frankly, it’s easier to do mercy than justice. Putting band-aids on boo-boos makes us feel good and have warm fuzzies.

But asking, “Who did this to you?” is unnerving, difficult … and might even be a little dangerous.

 

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8 comments

  1. George Holcombe

    Wes has spoken both prophetically and true. Poverty is a structural problem. The present economic set up in the U.S. allows the wealthiest to skim off all of what is termed “excess profits” for themselves and to use those funds to purchase lawmakers, to restrain the income of those who do the production and in many cases those who do the inventions. Plus, because of their ability to influence lawmakers they get the additional ability to get low taxes (many pay none ) and to receive monies from lawmakers, which increases their wealth (e.g. look at fossil producers and big Ag). Examine any of the wealth charts for the last 30 years to see the results. A good book to get up to speed on this is Richard Wolff’s Capitalism Hits the Fan. Food pantries are nice, but they are like treating people for illnesses while they continue to drink water from and bath in a polluted stream where the pollution source is upstream. To put an oar in that water takes courage. Check out what Jesus had to say about wealth and how he acted, also the prophets. Jesus didn’t ask us to worship him, but to follow him.

    • Dan

      An excellent analogy and insightful essay. Thanks to G. Holcombe for the reference to Wolff’s book. I watched the DVD, “The Corporation” last night. The film also points to the issues that we contend with in our economic structures that deny justice to all those except those at the top.

  2. sandierichards

    Yes, our issue is that more and more people are coming to our church food banks- and we don’t have enough to provide people with food. So, we have to ask the question: WHY don’t working people/families have enough food? Your essay really helps address this. For our own part, it is important for us to ask whether we are willing to pay higher prices for our goods and services, so that the people who work for these companies can get living wages. Attached is a link for a new documentary: “A Place At the Table”, which outlines the issues of hunger in America. http://www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table

  3. Colleen Cormier

    I agree with what you are saying, but I do think you missed one point. Even when we ask those difficult questions, we are not guaranteed the answers that lead us to justice-work. People don’t exactly shout if from the roof tops that they are poor, and as a pastor, I’m sure you have seen your share of poor families that don’t appear or behave that way in the public domain. It absolutely is our job as Christians and citizens to ask those difficult questions and do what we can to eliminate the systems and processes that lead to any kind of injustice. Unfortunately, we are often limited by what we don’t know about families in poverty, because they are too embarrassed to let us in. Poverty should not be an embarrassment to them. It should be an embarrassment to those of us not doing enough to help. Unfortunately, we often have it backward in our country.

  4. jasonvalendy

    There is the ol’ saying if you give a fish or teach one to fish, that is usually used to discuss the difference between mercy and justice. However, it may be worth noting that even teaching someone to fish is more mercy issue than justice.

    We can give job skills to someone and that is great! There still is the chance that the system will not accept him. Perhaps there is a criminal record, no amount of training will qualify him/her for a number of jobs if you have served time.

    Moving the system so that even those with such a background are not automatically disqualified from the labor market, seems to be more justice focused than even job training skills.

    Back to the fish metaphor. Giving fish and teaching others to fish are good and needed, but they are acts of mercy. Working to ensure that everyone has access to the pond – that is a justice matter.

    Thanks for your thoughts and I love your work. As they say, long time listener, first time caller.

  5. larry cox

    Based on reductions in the Medicaid system, needed therapy is being denied a kid with muscular therapy, and some of the kids in his speech therapy class have lost that as well. These are children living in Brownsville, Texas. They and their parents will struggle even more now. I believe all “systems” created to respond to the “poor” should be reviewed. It can be that the only voice strong enough for the “poor” may come from the “church” community, a community that may have a lot of work to do to use that voice.

  6. kmom

    I’m thinking oftentimes the church likes to have control over who they show mercy to….that they are first judged worthy of recieving mercy and then how much and how often they can have any. If instead, we worked for justice, we might be letting everybody—-even those we don’t judge worthy—-have some!

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