In 1998 or 1999, John Arnold was invited by the Food Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina to fly down and do a presentation on the Waste Not Want Not research and approach as the keynote address of their annual agency relations conference. The director of that Food Bank seemed concerned that an inappropriate word might slip out of John’s ex-Marine mouth, so she warned him to keep the presentation appropriate for the audience: most of the 400 or so attendees were from churches, specifically Southern Baptist churches. The composition of that audience proved to be the most important factor in their understanding of the message that we should distribute as much food aid as needed, whenever it’s needed.
The Food Bank had flown me down because they were very frustrated. Their distribution had see-sawed between five and six million pounds a year for seven years, when both the supply of food available to them and the need in the area they serve were considerably greater than that, so they really needed agencies to change.
I paid attention to the body language of my audience as I did my presentation, and as the conclusion neared, it seemed to me that I had not made too many converts. People had listened quite respectfully, they had chuckled at the appropriate places in my presentation and occasionally had nodded or gave other reasonably positive reactions, but it didn’t seem like we had gotten them to the point that very much was going to change as a result of this effort.
As I wrapped up the last little bit of the formal normal presentation, I decided to try something new. I said, “Ok folks, we’ll be wrapping up here in just a couple of minutes, probably in a slightly different way than you are used to having keynote addresses end. We’re going to have a quiz!” Then I laughed and said, “I hope you’ve all been paying attention.”
There was a ripple of nervous laughter and nervous incredulity and people looking at one another and sitting up straighter. They hadn’t seen that bullet coming, and so were quite surprised. When the little chuckle and murmur subsided, I said, “Actually, you know, don’t worry about it because it’s not even directly on what I’ve been talking about. It’s on kind of a related subject. Actually, on a subject I understand some of you might be pretty good at, which is the Bible.”
“I’m going to toss out some questions and when I do you can either raise your hand or you can call out the answer. Let’s just try this and see how it goes. My first question to you is: How often does the Bible say that you should provide assistance to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor who are within thy gates?”
People were just really excited because they all knew the answer and they were yelling out, “Whenever they need it!” and, “Whenever you become aware of the need!” and, “Whenever they ask for it!”
At that point I leaned over the podium, and I asked, “Is that the policy of your food pantry?” And I have never in my entire life heard a crowd go so profoundly silent. It was almost as though the air had been sucked out of the room. And I saw metaphorical light bulbs turning on over hundreds of heads.
So I continued with, “How much food does the Bible say you are supposed to provide to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor who are within thy gates?”
Well by then, they knew where this was all going, so their responses were much more restrained and much more apologetic, as they sheepishly admitted, “You’re supposed to fill their cup to overflowing. You’re supposed to go the second mile with them. You’re supposed to give the cloak with the coat.”
And I nodded and smiled and said, “Uh-huh, and is that the policy of your food pantry?”
I proceeded on through what kind of qualifications the Bible wanted you to put on people to get food: did it require picture ID and social security cards, and just went through a couple more questions along that line, and then we concluded.
These people were shaking their heads with disbelief and consternation, that it had taken this bearded, long-haired probably liberal Quaker from Michigan to come down and remind good North Carolinian Southern Baptists that they ought to pay attention to what the Bible says in how they operate their food ministries. They were very chagrined. But they just admitted that they had never thought of these issues that way, and asked me “Now you’re not gonna tell anybody about this are you?”
Which made me laugh, and I said, “I am going to blab this up and down across the entire country.”
But the beauty of the situation was that this Southern Baptist audience took its Bible so seriously that once they had been made aware that the way they were operating their food pantry was not consistent with what Scripture says, there was really no question about what was going to happen. What happened was that the Food Bank’s distribution rose from its five to six million pound a year plateau to seven million, ten million, and thirteen million in the years that followed.
Excerpts from the Bible and other major religious texts on the topic of hunger and charity can be found here.