Once upon a time I was a 20-something seminary graduate working with men who were homeless in Phoenix. Senior Bush was president and Senator Kennedy was still preening as an advocate for the downtrodden. I was driving to work and Kennedy was on the radio talking about the importance of a minimum wage that was sustainable and the concession that the wage would apply only to employees after a predetermined training period. I was livid and began yelling at the radio.
The dates have changed but the conversation is the same.
At the time, I knew how grotesque and misleading the conversation. I knew that those MOST vulnerable were those working day labor, those who slept in flop houses and (yep) shelters. Day laborers are “new hires” every single day with no chance of ever getting anything above the most minimum of the minimum wage. In other words, the words were simply that: words. Empty, meaningless, help absolutely no one who was hungry and homeless words. With a new theology degree, a belief that I had some “call” from a higher power, and eyes on the street, I commenced to spend nearly a quarter century preaching about justice.
Fast forward: nothing improved in this nation. In fact we are going backwards at a clip that is simply mind numbing and utterly terrifying. The already frayed and failing safety nets, fundamental to survival in an laissez faire capitalist society, are now simply being removed. This week the current president unveiled his budget plan which cuts after school programs (and meals) for children and Meals on Wheels for seniors. Like, really?
So I spend my early morning penning an article connecting a local shooting with its root cause (hunger) and find myself on FB in a war of words with a privileged white man defending the shooting because he works at a really great food pantry in the area. Um, yeah. His thesis is that because there is at least one bountiful food pantry, no one has an excuse to be hungry. As if hunger ever demanded an excuse. As if standing in line for a charitable handout is ever a positive experience. As if the bag of discarded groceries is ever the same quality and choice as the bag one would choose.
Can we talk about the food at the pantries, for just a moment? Can we talk about the day-old bread, the yogurt at (or beyond) code date, the scarcity of meat, and the labor intensive bags of (unseasoned) rice? Can we talk about the presumption of food storage options, the presumption of utilities to power stoves and refrigerators? Can we talk about the questionnaires, the ID requirements, the carefully documented visits? All of these are important conversations, but not mine today.
Bottom line: We need food pantries. And we need to share out of our own pantry. But neither are a substitute for justice and our charitable contributions do not not ease the guilt of our intransigent involvement in an economy that quite literally robs food from the mouths of children so that the uber wealthy can eat caviar. Judgment of the one who heads to the nearest supermarket to pick up dinner with a gun (plentiful) instead of a credit card (denied) is misplaced. Judgment belongs with the denial of access to basic life necessities and the proliferation of fire arms, not with guy who went in search of dinner.
But here’s the rub: if we dare to see the problem in it’s enormity and our (white folk) complicity, we quickly become paralyzed. If we see pitiful folk not able to help themselves, we can muster charity, feel good about ourselves, and believe that we’ve staved off hunger for another day. If we dare to see the inequity of the distribution, the fundamental injustice, and the desperate state of things, we are justifiably fearful. If we consider our own abundance (as white folk) in tandem, we cannot help but feel the sting of shame. And if we’re not feeling it, we’re not seeing it.
Now, what to do.
I really believed, as only a 20-something can, that I could preach us out of this sinful place. And trust me, I preached good and long and hard. While I do believe that what ails us as a nation, the original sin that manifests in such grotesque mischaracterizations of justice, is at its root a spiritual problem, churches are (ironically but essentially) unable to address this tap root. By their very definition, churches exist to comfort folk and insofar as they trouble the waters funding and stability are quickly lost. If we are ever to address the root, we (white folk) are gonna be troubled. Very. Even as I preached my heart out (quite literally), I always smiled and tried my best to keep a polite and palatable coating on the most pointed of messages. Always end with a word of hope, always end with something sweet.
This morning as I considered the death of man accused of taking food from a nearby grocery, I am no longer beholden to the church and find myself not very nice. Spicey would be the best face, down right antagonistic is probably closer. But the hunger that I saw as a young woman has intensified in America and is currently reaching catastrophic levels. And this even before the latest budget proposals cut even more safety nets.
So if you come on my page preening about your work at the food pantry, expect pushback. Trust me, my sharp tongue is about as good as it’s gonna get on this road to hell.
If it ain’t justice, I’m not buying.