My visits to several inner city churches revealed a universal focus on feeding ministries to the homeless and hungry, where programming ran the gamut from on-site meals to delivered meals, to organizing and sending church members out to already-established citywide programs as volunteers. If you saw the photo posted with this post of a charitable serving of a Thanksgiving meal, you will notice what I have seen nearly everywhere I go: Servers are never eaters. They are happy and smiling and gloved and “protected” from the “other” by keeping a physical barrier (usually a table or counter) between themselves and those accepting a meal. And this is what a shared meal would NEVER do.
One large church of 800 members in metropolitan Washington, D.C. had multiple ongoing food ministries, many in partnership with established, reputable city social programs. Each was organized by different church lay-volunteers. For example, this church participated regularly in the interfaith SOME (So Others Might Eat) ministry in the city by distributing a single casserole recipe once a month in an empty aluminum baking pan. Church members took home a recipe and pan, bought the ingredients, and assembled a casserole to deliver to church the following Sunday. The SOME ministry van picked up the casseroles to take to their dining room for feeding the homeless.
The church’s multiple youth groups and other adult small groups each took one Friday night (about three times per year) to prepare a hot meal and sack lunches for the homeless. The cost of the food is a line item in the church budget, and volunteers do the shopping and cooking. Once all the food is prepped, volunteers join a Grate Patrol van and are driven to assigned intersections in the city to give the homeless one hot meal for the night and a sack lunch for the following day. This too was not something developed and run by the church-they simply tapped into the existing secular feeding infrastructure in the city. And although the church has its own large kitchen, its membership size makes on-site meal sharing challenging (not many churches have a dining area that seats 800). The church sponsors one banquet a year, at Christmastime, for its members. Seating is limited, and people have to sign up to reserve a seat.
When I asked why the church participates in different food ministries, the answers were fairly typical. One teen volunteer shared,
“These are people, just like us, so we talk to them. And sometimes they tell us their stories, and we just try to be kind to them. Respect their dignity, and all that. I would say that there’s more to it than just handing them food and giving them a bag lunch.”
An adult volunteer agreed,
“I agree. In my experience with GRATE Patrol, we still get to know the people because folks are at the same spot every time you go around. You begin to recognize faces, and they begin to recognize you. And they interact.”
This statement made me wonder; if you only participate three times per year, how are real relationships built?
In the end, hungry people eat, and the volunteers are a blessing in their own city.
The teen told me,
“We get a lot of ‘God bless you and thank you for what you are doing.’ Actually, at one point one fellow, who we recognize, we were going out around Christmas, and we were giving him his food, and he reaches into his pockets and says “Merry Christmas”, and he hands two of us candy canes. I got this great sense of gratitude. I get the great sense that they are… grateful.
But then she went on,
It’s really poignant, … we were driving down yesterday, on Great Patrol, and right there is the Capitol building, and we are literally serving these meals in the shadow of all these monuments, and art galleries, and everything, and it makes me think that, you know, we’re a first world country, and we can’t take care of our poor. It’s hard.”
In these ministries, food is shared. But the meal itself is not. One point that consistently came out in these interviews was the feeling amongst volunteers that this food is precious and needed by the homeless and hungry. Volunteers almost universally felt it would be like taking the food out of a hungry person’s mouth if they sat down to eat together. In essence, it was as if they thought, “I am not hungry. But, I can help feed the hungry with my care and time.”
This is where a faithful understanding of all the ways a SHARED meal as a Christian practice can make a significant difference in the lives of everyone involved. Is it logistically difficult? Yes! Is it time-consuming? Yes! Is it personally risky? Yes! Uncomfortable? Yes! But it is the right way to eat. We need to eat together. And often.
In the next post (#55), we will take a concerted look at a church-initiated inner city meal program for the homeless.
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~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.
 Grate Patrol. http://virginiasalvationarmy.org/ncac/files/2014/04/Grate-Patrol-One-Pager.pdf March 31,2016
Photo Credit: http://charity-matters.com/2013/11/25/the-opposite-of-full/#.WPYSlRiZN-U