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.