Know What You’re Getting Into. There are Weeds in Every Garden.

Know What You’re Getting Into. There are Weeds in Every Garden.

Our first experience with the huge federally-funded food provider in our area was to be given the go ahead to open our Southside pantry and invest lots of money in acquiring the building, getting it up to code, and then getting it licensed.  After doing so, we were THEN told that we would not be getting food because, according to their figures, there was already enough food being given out in that area of the city.  Where I come from, that kind of integrity gap is very hard to overlook.  After much frustration, we opened without their support and now feed hundreds of people every week through amazing donations from individuals and a grant from the United Way.  Over the past year and a half, we have managed to almost completely give the running of that pantry over to people from the neighborhood that we serve. Most of those people were once (or currently are) served by the pantry.  These people come every week, work their tails off, and feel a sense of ownership and community in giving back from the blessings that they themselves have received.  More people than I can name have moved from being the object of the mission to being the subject of the mission.  That movement is what we are all about, not simply the giving out of food.  The huge federally-funded food provider in our area says that they are interested in helping people become “food independent”, and I dare say that the spiritual/psychological movement from object to subject is a huge factor is helping people gain the sense of empowerment that “independence” requires.  Our mission is about spiritual liberation through people participating in the Kingdom of God, and that liberation almost always precedes any physical or material liberation and independence.  People must first know that liberation is possible (hope), and then they must know that liberation is about grace and not about entitlement.  Knowing those things has led many, many people to changed lives…and liberated spirits. That huge federally-funded food providing organization is highly resistant to any talk about spiritual liberation.

And there’s more to this than simply this.  Mission is not philanthropy.  Mission is not about wonderful and generous rich people giving to the “lowly” poor in our community.  This isn’t a purveyor-to-consumer gig.  It is a give-AND-receive thing.  We are always looking to change others, and to BE CHANGED by others.  We are looking to serve the Lord, but we are looking to serve WITH those who we are called to serve.  Any other model of service is not within our vision because it is not representative of the God’s present Kingdom as we read it to be revealed in the Bible.  We let no one call us “teacher” and we let no one call us “Father” because we all have one teacher and one Father in Heaven.  We resist the systemic institutional impulse to hierarchy because it creates seams in the garment of “Israel”, which we read to be all of us.

Once again, we have tried to partner with the huge federally-funded food provider in our area at their behest to open a food pantry in an area of the city that they have decided is underserved – in other words, THEY picked the area and approached us.  After walking through the area and talking to residents, we found a local YMCA that we could partner with who also was interested in opening a pantry.  Our partner within the YMCA is their community coordinator who is also a pastor on the Northside.  He gets it.  He lives the Kingdom in this geography every day. After once again, dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s” and overcoming all of the obstacles that the city puts in the path of anyone trying to do some good, we got all of our permits and did all of our building upgrades.  We moved in all of our refrigeration equipment which is no easy task.  And we agreed to an opening date of this Friday.  Yesterday, I found out that the huge federally-funded food provider is requiring all volunteers to pass a police background check!! Everyone who volunteers must provide a photo I.D. and go through a police background check.  Unbelievable.  I will explain why it is “unbelievable” in a minute.  AND the huge federally-funded food provider has decided that we will have a uniformed police presence on hand when we open because they think that will somehow be helpful in setting the tone for our mission.  Again, unbelievable.

If we are going to move people from object to subject, which as I said, is the only reason we do this, then we have to understand that most of the people we will be serving are among the poorest of the poor in the city.  That area of the city is also predominantly African-American.  One of the saddest realities and statistics about Milwaukee is that within the population that I just mentioned, almost every male over the age of 16 has had some contact with the police, and more than half have criminal records.  THAT is their reality.  That is the Gehenna that we are trying to reach into and help people pull themselves out of.  If we have to have every one of the people that we are trying to move from object to subject pass a background check, most will simply refuse to be subjected to it because of the insult that it represents, and the rest will probably not pass.  Many of the women in this demographic will not pass either, and most will not allow themselves to be subjected to the perceived humiliation of it.  So, from a practical reality standpoint, we are kind of done before we really even have had a chance to earn a voice in this community.  Like so many other pantries, our volunteers will be mostly wealthy and mostly white and will mostly go back to their suburban homes after we close up for the day. We will have established ourselves as “the other” before we even have a chance to show that we are willing to pay a dear price to be considered “we”.  What keeps going through my head is, “Have any of these supposed ‘experts’ ever actually worked with the poor?”  Have any of these supposed advocates for the vulnerable ever allowed anyone from this demographic to become their genuine friend, invited into their home for supper, and had their kids over to play with their own kids?  Have any of these “experts” ever talked to anyone on the ground…found out the ground truth by walking the actual ground and talking to people who live on it?  WTH!  The fear with which these supposed “experts” operate will keep real sacrificial love from ever being a part of the mission.  Love and fear cannot operate in the same space. And love is the key to every kind of liberation.

To further enhance that point and problem, requiring a uniformed police presence on opening day does not generate a feeling of “safety” among this demographic.  These people fear the police.  They do not perceive the police to be on their side.  I know that that is misperception, but if you actually talk to people in the neighborhood you will find that it is what it is. (We have some law enforcement professionals who sacrificially serve at our other pantry, but they do so in street clothes and they do so unarmed.  And they do so out of the grace that they themselves know they have received.) So, in this imposed model, not only does the purveyor fear the receiver, but the receiver will now fear the purveyor.  It’s not only a philanthropic purveyor-to-consumer model, but it is a toxic purveyor-to-consumer model.  Love doesn’t live there.  The world doesn’t need any more Angelina Jolie “let’s-do-feeding-because-compassion-makes-me-cool” people doing mission.  We already have one, and one is enough.  There is a cost to doing real mission.  We can’t wear the crown of peace if we aren’t willing to also wear the crown of thorns.  Wounded and vulnerable people are in dire need of more than simply food, though they are definitely in need of that.  They are also in need of authentic and vulnerable people with whom they can share the way.  And the question keeps echoing in my head, “Have any of these ‘experts’ actually worked among the poor before?”

Pray for us sinners.  We are going to do this anyway.  Our hope is that only sex offenses and violent crimes will keep someone from volunteering, and that is certainly within reason.  That is OUR prayer.  But, please pray for us sinners. The story in Luke tells us that there are almost always TWO lost sons, not just the one prodigal son. And years of experience tell us that if you want to help folks to help themselves, you are always going to have to pay off a warlord somewhere along the line.


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