Monday, November 24, 2014


Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a Food Bank in Atlantic City.

The irony of it all was not lost upon me as I drove the few short miles from the congregation I am serving in Galloway, NJ across the causeway to the home of huge casinos, ticky-tacky shops, and block upon block of urban poverty. There are probably few places where affluence and need rub elbows so conspicuously. The last time I was in AC was decades ago. I barely remember the evening, but I know it was during my first marriage, and we drove in to see a show and then left.

So, my work that day may have helped a few people, but it had the biggest impact on me.

This relatively modest food bank, housed at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, had prepared almost 200 sets of bags to give away. As I arrived at eight AM, I had to walk past a line of several dozen folks waiting patiently for thee doors to open... at TEN AM. Yes. People arrived and stood outside for more than two hours, a very cold morning, to be sure they got two grocery bags of canned and packaged food, and a small portion of eggs, meat and produce.

At the very front of the line sat an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, who caught my attention as I passed the folks, most of whom greeted me with a "Good Morning." He held out an empty water bottle and asked whether I could fill it for him. I asked him to wait a moment, and upon entering, I introduced myself to the pastor who was already in the front office, and repeated the request. "Normally the answer would be no. But just do it so everyone doesn't see, or we'll have to get water for everybody." The man was so grateful. All I did was fill a small bottle with water.

For the next six hours, we worked steadily to fill and distribute bags. I counted food items, passed bags to the front, took IDs and helped folks adjust the bags for transport. Many of the clients had carts for carrying the bags, a few said they had a ride or a vehicle, but some had nothing except their own two arms to carry away two very heavy bags filled with cans of beans, bags of rice, frozen meat, and produce. Those in wheelchairs had to somehow attach the bags to the chair so they could maneuver the food back home. Not everyone took the frozen meat. Hundreds of AC's casino workers live in run-down hotels where they have nothing except a microwave to prepare food.

Our clients were amazingly cheerful and courteous. It was clear that they were accustomed to the drill: wait for hours and then go through a screening to make sure you are who you say you are (people have to be registered, and can only do so by showing ID, household bills, etc), then show your ID again as you pick up the food. For anyone who still thinks the poor are lazy, this would be a wonderful antidote. It seemed to me much more challenging and demeaning than any job.

Still, I loved being there. The volunteers were instructed to treat each guest kindly and to welcome them warmly, and we did. Even a shred of respect and dignity seems to brighten the day for these folks. That evening, a sea of faces swam before me as I drove home. I couldn't easily dismiss the images of indigence I had encountered. I understood the headlines now. Atlantic City casinos have closed down in swift succession this fall, each time leaving thousands of people without work. The situation of AC's poor has worsened dramatically, as more and more folks compete for scarce relief. Hence, the long lines at this, and I assume, all food banks.

There are hundreds of food banks in New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands of people do not have enough to eat. This includes children and the elderly and infirm. The need is appalling when set beside the affluence that is the world of the casinos and wealthy patrons.

I spent some time looking at food bank activity in my home state, Kentucky.The  church I served in Lexington always gave money and food donations to God's Pantry. 

Still, I had never visited their website, nor had I made an effort to find out who the hungry are. Our church was located in a suburban part of town, and it didn't occur to me to do so. Most of the poorest and neediest folks in Kentucky live in the eastern counties, in Appalachia. It's entirely possible to navigate life without encountering these folks. And, many of us do. One has to make an intentional effort to meet them. And there is no single profile.... the poor in KY are mostly white, while at least 90% of those I served on Thursday were people of color: African American and Hispanic. Appalachia has always been poor, but the closing of mines in past decades, combined with the elimination of federal and state programs, has spurred a situation of dire need.

People of faith are commanded to help the poor:

Christian texts and Hebrew alike call for giving to the poor. Sadly, many have used the quote from the gospels ("The poor will always be with you..") to justify a complacency: If there will always be poverty, why try to fix it? But the original text, which Jesus referenced, is clear. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives the command of God thus:
You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.11"For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.'

Plenty of us feel we've done our part by donating money or food. Can we do more? Of course. Others (and I've heard this plenty from liberals) use the phrase "a hand up, not a hand out."

But just one day at a food bank will convince you that the "hand up" approach will never reach everyone. Circumstances of birth, mental illness, chronic ailments, and so many other factors combine to keep millions from being able to even take that hand. Meanwhile, we are called upon to feed them.

I think we must  make caring and compassion a priority, regardless of our faith or beliefs. 
We can start by examining how much food we waste and our own consumption.

Absolutely, we must work to change the system to minimize hunger.

But accepting that there will always be those who are poor must  never lead to complacency. The Buddhist teachings include a command to "sustain the gaze." This means to not look away when confronted with suffering. I believe many, many, otherwise compassionate and generous folks do not volunteer at food banks and missions because they care  and hence are unable to simply give to some without feeling guilty or compelled to fix everything. For me, sustaining the gaze means making an intentional effort to be in contact and solidarity with those who are in need, suffering, or otherwise afflicted. I also feel impelled to make sure my children learn this, and aren't sheltered from the need. It ought to be a part of their spiritual upbringing.

Do I do so? Not nearly often enough. So what I have written is for me as well as you.