A gospel guide for distributing food to the poor

Religious organizations undergird food pantries across the country. Many Christians feel the need to give back to society. They see the need to serve others who are suffering from hunger. In Feeding the Other Rebecca de Souza does not value pantry volunteers. She suggests that they distribute food through a sense of guilt or superiority. She also indicates that volunteers are predominantly white and look down on their clients. The author grew up in a Christian community in her native India. She entered the USA as a graduate student. She has a very different perspective on American culture. It is not clear as to whether she has the keen insight of an outsider or misunderstands our cultural norms. My observations of a food pantry in Florida differ from hers in Minnesota.

SUV with hatchback open prior to loading a basket full of food.
Ready for loading food from the pantry into the back of a vehicle. Photo by Roberta Parillo.

Most volunteers in the pantry in Florida are members of area churches. The pantry is a coalition of ten churches with six supporting partners. Most of these churches are Protestant. Other participants include Catholic and  Greek Orthodox churches. A Presbyterian church houses our facilities. Discussion of church topics is neither emphasized nor avoided while at the pantry. We are there out of a sense of mission. I see no evidence of volunteer disdain for our clients. Volunteers develop casual relationships with returning clients over the months and years.  We try to meet the desires of those with specific dietary needs.

WARNING! Earlier this month I breached one rule of good etiquette—writing about politics. In this blog I will breach another—writing about religion. Food pantries are not a political organization. We have both Republicans and Democrats in our midst. Food pantries make a religious statement. Our pantry embraces a mission orientation rather than an evangelical one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I became a Christian when I was a baby. My Christening occurred when I was an infant in United Church of Canada in a small Manitoba town. Confirmation happened in the United Methodist Church in South Carolina. I spent most of my adult years as a United Methodist. I moved to south Florida upon retirement. There, I became a member of the United Church of Christ. I experienced somewhat of a culture shock leaving a moderately conservative congregation to a much more liberal one. My theological perspective lies somewhere between those two poles.

Separating the sheep from the goats

Then the good people will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink?’ Matthew 25:37 (ICB)

There are of four Bible verses that have special meaning to me. Matthew 25:37 is one of those verses. This passage in Matthew calls the church to serve others. I view serving others to be my mission in life. Until the pandemic, that mission was twofold. I volunteered in the local food pantry and served as a lunch buddy in the Middle School on the island. These activities were extensions of my career as a food scientist and a teacher.

two men with masks in the first aisle of the pantry
Two volunteers who did not opt out. Photo by Roberta Parillo.

When the coronavirus and its aftermath struck, 282 days ago, I opted out of both activities. The school halted in-person classes the next week. The pantry adjusted to the pandemic for the safety of its clients and volunteers. During my morning devotionals I agonized over my decision to opt out of my pantry duties. I determined that my obligations to my family exceeded those to the clients. My friends at the pantry have been very supportive of that decision.

Jesus calls us to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. He also calls our attention to strangers, the sick, and prisoners. Food pantries fulfill one aspect of that call, but is voluntary service enough?

The parable of equal wages for unequal work

About five o’clock the man went to the marketplace again. He saw others standing there. He asked them, ‘Why did you stand here all day doing nothing?’ They answered, ‘No one gave us a job.’ The man said to them, ‘Then you can go and work in my vineyard.’ Matthew 20:6-7 (ICB)

The owner of the vineyard needs workers so he goes out to the marketplace to hire temps. Three more times during the day he finds more workers to hire including some at near quitting time. When the laborers knock off at the end of the day, all of them receive a full day’s pay. The pay pleases workers who spent only an hour in the vineyard. It disgruntles laborers who toiled the whole day in the hot sun. The primary interpretation of this text is about personal salvation. R.T. France in his commentary on The Gospel of St. Matthew suggests that it is also about charity. Those workers hired towards the end of the day are the least employable and in need of work and income.

Some of my friends have trouble with this particular parable. I do not. My reading of Matthew fits right in with a mercantile culture. I associate the parables of Jesus with capitalism, but that may be stretching it. I don’t see Jesus condemning trade. I do see him taking on the cause of the poor. Feeding the Other discounts charity as guilt offerings to the poor from the rich. In charity we provide money to organizations who specialize in meeting specific needs. Is charity enough?

The Good Samaritan

Then a Samaritan traveling down the road came to where the hurt man was lying. He saw the man and felt very sorry for him. The Samaritan went to him and poured olive oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them. He put the hurt man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. At the inn, the Samaritan took care of him. Luke 10:33-34 (ICB)

In one of the most familiar parables of Jesus, a Jewish man is attacked by robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. They leave the man on the side of the road almost dead. A priest and a religious man walk by but ignore him. Then a Samaritan came by and took care of him. Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies of each other. The point of the story is that we should not judge people by superficial matters. We should serve others regardless of their identities. Is being a Good Samaritan enough?

When the Good Samaritan is not good enough

“The language of saints and Samaritans hides the injustice of legislation, corporations, structural racism and the benefits received by millions of donors who participate in the hunger industrial complex.” (p. 243 Feeding the Other)

Dr. de Souza pushes us further. She points to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who states that the Good Samaritan didn’t go far enough. King appreciates the Samaritan’s willingness to help out the man left for dead on the side of the road. But, the Samaritan should have gone further to lobby the powers of the day to make the Jericho Road a safe zone. If we are not willing to take on The Food System to achieve food justice for all, we are just as deficient as the Good Samaritan in de Souza’s view. I reject such reasoning. I do not buy in to the corruption suggested in Feeding the Other. Yes, there are injustices in distribution of food in the country and lack of access to fresh-whole food. To impugn the motives all up and down food chains and people trying to help the hungry misses the point. We should be on the side of promoting greater food justice in our thoughts and actions. I do not believe that God calls each and every one of us to be radicals and activists.

When confronted with an opportunity to help someone out who needs it, we must do what we can. Some seek out such opportunities. Others walk by on the other side of the road. Hunger, sickness, and unjust prison sentences plague our society. God calls us to help remedy these situations through service, donations, and activism. Volunteers in food pantries deserve our gratitude not our condemnation. Such gratitude extends to those who serve in soup kitchens, healthcare, and visitors to prisons. Send your appreciation to those who seek out opportunities to be Good Samaritans and offer help when possible. Give to these causes by offering time and money. We are all working improve access. Finally, industrial food is part of American culture. Postings on this blog defend processed food as part of a balanced diet. The idea that food pantries foist these products on “the Other” when we would not eat them ourselves ignores our cultural heritage.

real pit-cooked barbeque and kielbassa
Some industrial foods for selection at the food pantry.

In a season that proclaims “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Man,” let’s seek to be less judgmental. Pantry volunteers could read more about the injustices of food distribution in the country and speak out about ways to improve the current situation. Advocates and radicals for food justice could acknowledge an obligation to feed the hungry today. They could express thanks to those who help close the hunger gap in American families until food justice is achieved.

Next week: Remembering 2020; Looking ahead to 2021


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