What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-25-21
Both First Church and South Church have food ministries. South Church hosts Waste Not Want Not, a weekly community meal. During COVID First Church started the Grab ‘n Go weekend snack pack program to provide additional food support and build relationships in our community. Food ministry is historic and widespread among churches in the U.S. So much so that there are numerous resources outlining what “works” and doesn’t work when engaging in food ministry depending on what the church’s goals are. A UCC colleague of mine, Elizabeth Mae Magill, recently published a helpful guide for transformational food ministry: Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry.
She begins the book by telling the story of “Alan,” an unhoused person whom Rev. Magill first met as someone who attended Worcester Fellowship–the outdoor church she pastored–and who ended up leading and fundamentally reshaping the ministry to make it more relevant to the people it was intended to serve. In that process Rev. Magill’s view of Alan, the food insecure and unhoused people who gathered each week in the park for worship and PB&J sandwiches, and her own ministry changed. This transformation is the basis of the book, which distinguishes between charity and relational ministry.
Charity, while alleviating immediate need, maintains the status quo. That’s why most churches, mainstream institutions, middle class folks, and wealthy philanthropists favor charity. (See, for example, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas). The status quo works for us! While charity has it’s place, it generally does not change the lives either of the ones serving or of those being served. (For more on the dark side of charity and how to transform it see Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results both by Robert D. Lupton.) Relational ministry by contrast seeks to transform the status quo by empowering the communities we are seeking to serve. (Habitat for Humanity is perhaps the most famous example of a truly effective relational ministry.)
Years ago I had the privilege of participating in a relational ministry that transformed an entire city. I was serving a historic, downtown congregation in Providence, RI. To make a long story short, I called on some of my partners, including the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. Together with members of the homeless community we developed a plan for an inaugural “Y’all Come Community Lunch.” Did volunteers cook food and serve it to food insecure people? Yes. Did volunteers take shifts so that everyone had both an opportunity to serve and be served, both to stand behind the food table and stand in line with the guests? Yes. The lunch also featured live entertainment from a band whose members were in recovery from addition. It featured speak-outs and poetry from unhoused folks. Was it loud? Yes. Was it rowdy? Yes. Was it a big community party that broke down barriers between “us,” the helpers, and “them,” the helped? I’d like to think so.
Years go by, the homeless community develops a “bill of rights” that is adopted by the state. The state formally adopts a “housing first” approach to homelessness, which greatly reduces homelessness statewide. The result was that the church’s “Bread and Blessings” program–which gave bag lunches to food insecure folks from our parking lot–had to close down after twenty years because so few people needed the service anymore! This can be the difference between charity that maintains the status quo and relational ministry that changes the world.