It is an annual tradition for media outlets to run stories about food pantries, homeless shelters, soup kitchens and philanthropic efforts that take place around the holiday season. It helps them do their part in raising awareness, and it’s something to report that actually has some feel-good component to it . Of course the silver lining has a touch of grey inasmuch as the good news is only possible because the problems of hunger and homelessness.
At any rate, there have been two stories in the past couple of days that have stuck in my mind. Not the stories themselves so much, really, as things embedded within the stories. First, there was an interview with a local man waiting outside a local soup kitchen to be fed some local soup. He was asked about his living situation. Specifically, he was asked, “Are you homeless?” After a long pause he said (roughly), “Well, right now…I’m…there’s a guy who’s…right now…letting me stay…because of my situation right now…and my Social Security check has been cut…so right now…he’s letting me stay on his property…right now.”
I was taken by his need to emphasize the “right now”ness of his situation – as though it is a temporary bump along the path which was, until recently, quite rosy and would soon be again – as soon as that Social Security check came in. And it may very well be the case that stability’s other name is “my Social Security check.” But, I doubt it. Listening to him talk, it was rather clear that his circumstances were chronically bad – even desperate.
Yet, amidst the desperation that comes from standing in a line for free food, depending on the good graces of someone willing to let you sleep on their property (it certainly sounded as though this was an “outside” kind of arrangement), and waiting on a check from the government, there was something like hope – something that would not let go of the possibility of better times in the future. Of course, it may have been that he was just trying to convince the interviewer (and perhaps himself) that he wasn’t a bum. It may be that he’s incorporated the language of temporariness into his schtick when he’s hustling people for money. It may be that he knows full well that his potential has come and gone, and now there is nothing to fill the days with but moving from begging station to begging station. But, that isn’t what I heard in his voice. I heard optimism. Granted, it was optimism that looked more like the last tooth to fall out than a full-chested can-do kind of thing, but it was optimism. It made me want to help the guy. It made me want to ask him, “Really? Because if you’re serious, let’s go find you some work. Let’s get you somewhere to sleep. Let’s get you stable.”
I’m fully aware that this is one of the things that causes some of my friends to call me a liberal, but there is something inside me – something inside all of us – that makes us want to alleviate suffering, to help the guy who needs help – the guy who is not content to throw his hands up in final despair and say “to hell with it.” I think it is the image of God in us that causes us to feel compassion and to show mercy.
This leads to the second story – this one on NPR (listening to which is another reason some of my friends call me a liberal). It was an interview more than a story, but in it Katherina Rosqueta of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center For High Impact Philanthropy argues that we should stop doing food drives (listen to the story here if you’re able to withstand being called liberal). Instead, she says, we should donate cash. Her rationale is that nearly half of all donated food is wasted.
Did it take a second for that to sink in? It did for me. How can it be that half of donated food is wasted? Aren’t the recipients of this philanthropic booty grateful? Don’t they appreciate the beets and the cranberry sauce and the sauerkraut that we felt guilty about throwing away so we, instead, donated it to the Fill-the-semi-trailer Food Drive? Turns out that that is the problem – or part of it anyway. A large part of what gets donated is food that people don’t normally eat. It isn’t that they aren’t hungry, they just have no idea how to prepare canned collards. It is also often the case that they can’t eat it because of dietary restrictions.
So, cash. Of course, the objection goes, much of that can be siphoned off in administrative expense, and other not-food-in-the-belly things, so the waste will be a factor regardless. I don’t know what the answer is. I am glad, however, that there are people who are thinking about how to be more efficient and effective in helping those who need help. I’m also glad that there are people who continue to give – whether it’s money or Rice Chex or canned rutabagas. Those who give will certainly be taken advantage of from time to time, but I doubt that our Lord will be congratulatory because of our ability to avoid being hoodwinked. Rather, I think he’ll be interested in how we interacted with those in need. Jesus talked about things like this in Matthew 25:31-46:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The words of our friend who was sleeping outside, begging food, and waiting for a Social Security check are ringing in my ears. “Right now…”