Posts Tagged ‘food pantry’

Holy, If Only for a Moment


Holy, If Only for a Moment

Our food pantries use a term, “Ladders of Peace”.  Some folks struggle with what it means. Like anything that is truly human and truly real, it resists simple definitions. It is who we are in our pantry communities. It is best understood in experiencing it.  Like so many things that are bigger than we are, we are sometimes unable to talk about the ways that they have touched us and changed us, because we just don’t have the words to fully convey the experience.  All I can say is that you understand it when you see it come to life…when you see it in the flesh.

After we close our pantries, we gather our volunteers for a time of reflection.  You have to understand that for us, these aren’t merely food pantries that distribute food.  These, to us, are churches of Christ. They are sacred places where the “least of these” can be found.  And where the least of these can be found, so can the Lord. They are bushes where the birds of the air come to find shelter.  In our reflection time, we ask people to tell us about their experience, how it changed them or made them think differently about something.  Sometimes, the answers are simple: “I had a good time.”  But sometimes the answers are profound.

He is from Myanmar, though I think he might say that he is from Burma.  He is from a persecuted people group there, the Chin.  He has spent a good part of his life as an IDP, and then as a refugee in a camp outside his country.  He immigrated to the U.S. fairly recently.  If I had to guess, I would guess that he is in his early twenties.  His English is broken, but we can communicate. He brings a group of about twenty other Chin young adults and teenagers once a month to serve with us. He has a light in him that is infectious.  He has a joy that is overflowing out of him.  He has every right to be an angry and bitter young man, and he is not.  I don’t know why.  What I do know is that I count him among my friends, and I am grateful.

As he began to speak that day (it was his turn), I struggled at first to understand what he was saying.  I think he was a little nervous.  But after the first few sentences, I understood what he was saying.  He said that since coming to the U.S., he has been treated badly because he looks different, and because his English isn’t good.  He said that people look down on him, like he is less than them.  He told us about the struggles that he’s had in finding a job because of prejudice.  The “American Dream” has been elusive for him.  He told us these things while all the while smiling.  It struck me that his smile was transcendent, from a place not of this world. And then he said something that was both simple and profound.  It pierced me.  He said, “In my life, everywhere I go here I am looked down on.  But not here.  Here is different.  Here, I am an equal.” He smiled.  He sat down.  Tears began to well up in my eyes. The room was silent…holy, if only for a moment.  The Kingdom of God had drawn very near to us, and we had the incredible opportunity to participate with him in it.


People Need Food to Eat, but Food Alone is not Nearly Enough.

People Need Food to Eat, but Food Alone is not Nearly Enough.

In our mission, we give food to people who do not have enough money to buy food and still pay their rent or clothe their children or take their children to the doctor.  And we give food to people who have no money at all.  It is important that we do that.  It is important that we do that for a hundred reasons.  But, giving food to people who do not have enough is not our mission.  Our mission is to seek the Kingdom of God and the right relationship that it embodies.  In the Kingdom of God, there is always enough if you share.  And so we share.  We seek the Kingdom of God, and where it can be found we participate in it with Jesus.  We are not his partners.  We are his slaves.  It isn’t about the food.  It is about serving and being served in the Kingdom of God.

I heard a dear colleague of mine who grew up in poverty tell me that the “’hood” is like a “crab bucket”.  He used the term, but having never seen a bucket full of crabs he didn’t completely understand how crushingly appropriate his metaphor was.  I grew up crabbing by hand down in South Carolina and Virginia.  At first, I thought you had to put a lid on the bucket you stored your crabs in.  But I came to see that that was only true if you had one or two or three crabs.  Once the bucket began to fill up, and crabs were on top of crabs, you no longer needed a lid.   All of the crabs were clawing at each other to get out, each grabbing the other in a maniacal scramble to the top, and they ended up keeping any of them from ever getting out.  They pulled each other down instead of pulling one another up. Just as one would just about make it out of the bucket, another one would grab it and pull it back in in its own struggle to climb over it to get out.  As such, they all went into the boil together.

In the Kingdom of God, we don’t climb over one another.  Since there is enough if we share, we share.  And in that way, we are all lifted.  Jesus is in the crab bucket.  Jesus is transforming the crab bucket into something else.  Jesus is right in their loving and disentangling and lifting up.  And if we look for him, we can find him.  And when we find him, we can serve him and serve others with him.  The mission might serve food, but the mission is about the Kingdom of God transforming the way of dragging one another down into the Way of pulling one another up. It is never just about the food.  Having enough to eat reflects God’s sovereignty, God’s reign on earth as God reigns in Heaven.  It is always about the Kingdom.  The mission is the Kingdom, not the food.

Among folks who are catching the “missional” spirit, there is a tendency to see the obvious and to miss the subtle…to see the fruit, and to miss the vine.  Jesus is the vine.  And we are seeking to live with him and in him and through him.  But I keep hearing people focus on the food, or the clothing, or visiting people in prison, and they miss the whole point.  They keep spending all of their imagination and energy or getting food to people or clothes to people.  Yes, we get food to people.  And, yes, some of these folks will, too.   But, if their focus is the food, they miss the theological foundation of why we do what we do.  And what we do feeds us in ways that defy description.  If all we do is feed people, we will not be fed ourselves.  And we will burnout.  And the truth is that we will be feeding one need in others, but will not even begin to touch the deeper needs of people. So let me make a couple of points clear so that our imaginations can be joined with Christ’s in the same project:

1)     We don’t “target” people groups, demographics, or anything else. We listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

People ask us how we target people groups for our missions.  What research on demographics did we do?  Where are our seventy pages of statistics about our target demographic? Yeah, we don’t do any of that.  We don’t target.  We prayed for vision. I know that sounds crazy in 21st Century America.  I can almost hear the church-growth gurus cringing even as I write this. But we believe that the God of scripture is the God of now.  What God did in scripture, God is also doing now.


So we listen to dreams.  We look for signs and wonders. And we pray for the leading of the Holy Spirit. When someone has a dream that is profound enough to provoke them to share it with the community, we approach it from the posture of belief, and try to discern its meaning.  Dreams have led us to geographies. Once we got there, we prayer walked, and we prayed over the alleys and streets and homes.  We prayed that Heaven would come to earth in those places, and that people that God prepared to come into the Kingdom would come and do so.   And those prayer walks have led us to the “person on the ground”…the indigenous person that God prepared for us to meet. The person on the ground has the “Tacit Information” (time sensitive, culturally saturated, and geographically aware) that is required to seek and understand God’s activity in a given area.  And by developing a relationship with the person on the ground, we have found our way to God’s activity in that area.  We then simply begin to develop that situation.  We couldn’t strategically plan because we didn’t know what God was doing until we got there. We apply resources to the developing situation. We learn what we need to learn as needs for learning are identified in the engagement with the mission. Remember, God was there in mission before we ever got there.  The Kingdom was already at work.

We start small because often we are wrong about what God is calling us to do. If it starts small and fails, it’s not catastrophic.  It’s no big deal…literally. But we are willing to be wrong in order to be obedient to God’s call and claim on our community.  We pray.  We look for supernatural guidance.  And then we seek to be obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We do not “target”.  It’s like the Magi looking for a sign, not like corporate directors strategically planning the future of a company.  Like Joseph, we pay attention to our dreams and visions. The bush was burning before Moses got there, but like Moses, we are open to some pretty crazy signs and wonders. When we think we see a sign of God’s activity, we go towards it.  Everything good and worthy and right that we have ever participated in has flowed out of those attempts to watch and to be obedient.


2)     It’s not about the food.

The mission is not to feed people even when what we’re running is a feeding ministry or food pantry.  The mission is to seek the Kingdom of God.  When we find it, we are obedient to the Great Commission by inviting others who do not yet know it to participate in it with us.  We are calling people into Kingdom participation first.  Participating in the Kingdom of God might mean feeding people.  It might mean clothing people.  It might mean being fed by people or clothed by people.  It might mean giving away school supplies or tutoring or visiting the sick and elderly.  It might also mean being visited by people when we are sick.  It always involves being both the subject and the object of the Kingdom of God.  And it is always about seeking the Kingdom of God.  If you go in thinking that you are going to give food to people, you will probably end up giving food to people, but you may not end up participating in the Kingdom of God.


I have been to a lot of feeding ministries that are just as much reflective of hell as the ghetto was before they got there.  Condescending people giving food to people who are not just less fortunate, but who they treat as LESS than they are is a feeding outreach, but it isn’t the present Kingdom of God.  Agencies that claim to be doing service for people who on some level are not their equal – intellectually, spiritually, economically, etc – are simply reflecting this worldly culture of condescension, self-centeredness, and humiliation.  They are simply reflecting the torn garment of God’s people – the hierarchies, inequalities, and places of separation that Satan thrives upon.  The Kingdom of God is upside down.  It is different.  It is giving and receiving.  It is washing feet and having our own feet washed.  It is subject AND object.  WE are changed.  And if we aren’t seeking the Kingdom FIRST, then it doesn’t really matter what else we do because whatever else we do will not connect people to the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the Good News.  The Kingdom is what heals the sick and restores hope to the hopeless. The Kingdom of God is the place of miracles.  Feeding outreaches aren’t. The food might be a part of the Kingdom.  But the food is about the Kingdom.  The food is not about the food.


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.