This origin story to the Words of Faith section of our site comes to us from John Arnold.
Once the Waste Not Want Not research began developing its findings about what was and was not working well in the charity food distribution system, and what things really needed to change, I and the other staff of the Food Bank in our conversations with agencies that the Food Bank serves began making the case for those changes being made. To say that our entreaties on these matters were severely rebuffed would be something of an understatement.
Many agencies became openly hostile as we gently suggested that they make changes in their operations such as letting needy people draw food as food aid was needed and not just once every 30 days or three times a year, or whatever other sort of arbitrary limit had been placed on their getting help, or that clients be permitted to make their own food selections instead of being given an arbitrary selection of product, or that clients be permitted to take as much food as they needed instead of being given a quantity of food totally without regard to the amount of help they needed, etc. Many agencies found these sorts of suggestions to be very offensive and threatening, and in rebuffing our pleas, they frequently disparaged the people that they served in ways that I had never heard before.
I had always assumed that everyone who worked in a charity food agency, particularly people who worked there as volunteers, were there because of a love of the poor and a desire to serve them. It turns out that instead many of those who gravitate to working in such agencies are there apparently more as a result of their dislike and distrust of the needy and a desire to “protect” their church from “being taken advantage of” by “those people.” It was brutal, what I heard.
I had never considered the possibility that agencies operating almost entirely out of churches or other faith based organizations could have such a negative attitude toward the poor and could be so callous in dismissing the importance of needy people being served in a way that the needy found comforting and welcoming. The general sense that I got from many of the agencies I visited was that how needy people felt about how they were treated simply did not matter. That was a shock.
I am not an overtly religious person, but I did go to church just enough as a child to be somewhat familiar with what the Bible and similar texts have to say about dealing with the needy and the poor, and I was pretty sure that it had a much more positive attitude toward the poor and about how the poor were supposed to be treated than I was hearing expressed in my meetings with churches and other agencies about these matters. So one day just to see if my recollections were correct, I got out a Bible I had been given when I was doing some work for The Salvation Army and started thumbing through it to see what sorts of things it did say about dealing with the needy.
I was quickly astounded at how often, how clearly, and how forcefully it spoke of generous, open-handed, unconditional, “cups overflowing” sorts of charity ought to be provided to the needy very much in a servant/service relationship in which how the needy person served felt about how they were served was and is of paramount importance. I hadn’t remembered most of those quotations that were so startling to me, and decided that if I was unfamiliar with them, that perhaps other people might be as well, and so I decided that I would go back to the beginning and I would read through the entire Bible and make a collection of everything it said on the subject of aiding needy people and particularly anything related to providing them with food assistance.
It took me several months to complete the collection because, if I remember correctly, the King James Version of the Christian Bible is over 600 pages long, but at the end I had developed a collection that was about 13 pages long of saying after saying after saying from the Bible that pointed very much in the direction of generous, open-handed, unconditional aid being provided to those who need it.
My thought was to begin offering copies of that collection out to the agencies the food bank serves, suggesting to them that as many of them regarded their food program as one of the ministries of their church, that they review the practices of their food ministry in light of what the Bible says ought to be the case. We did start doing that, and I also brought copies of it to my board meeting to show my board this project that I was quite proud of having done.
At that point I had only expected to do the Christian Bible because all but one or two of the agencies my Food Bank serves were Christian or staffed by people who were Christian, but after I had handed around my collection, the nice Jewish lady on my board cleared her throat in an expressive way in my direction that clearly communicated that I probably was not done with going through religious texts and making collections of what they said on this subject. Specifically, I knew that I needed to make a similar collection of sayings from the Jewish Tanakh, so I proceeded to do that, which again took months, and resulted in a 14 or 15 page collection, I believe, and I fully expected to stop there.
But then my son and I went to the downtown Grand Rapids library and just as you walk in the front door, they had a new book display that essentially put those books right in your face as you entered the library. The one at eye level directly in front of me was a new, gold-foil covered translation of the Koran. It was absolutely right in my face in a way that I could not interpret any other way than as an admonishment that I needed to go on and do a similar collection of the Koran. I closed my eyes, turned my back, and pleaded with the angels to leave me alone, pleading that I am a food guy, not a theologian, and that I really had enough work to do in handling food and couldn’t they please give me a break and not make me continue on in this effort. I concluded my prayer, turned around, and there it was, still in my face, so we took it out, and I began making my collection.
I was sitting out on our front porch one evening making my notes from the Koran when two young Mormon missionaries came calling. Upon seeing what I was reading, they insisted upon giving me a copy of the Book of Mormon. After they left, I raised my eyes heavenward and I could hear the angels giggling, and I shook my fists and thanked them for making sure that I never had any free time. But at that point I also resolved to continue and make similar collections from the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Taoist Tao Te Ching, the Hindu Upanishads, and the Analects of Confucius, so we would be able to offer to people of all of the world’s major religious faiths collections of what their faith’s guiding scriptural text says about how they ought to treat those they serve who are in need of food aid.
What I found both intriguing as well as encouraging from that 5,000+ pages of reading was that for all the ways that the various religions might vary from one another, they were essentially in perfect agreement on how people of faith ought to deal with people in need of help such as food assistance. One day we decided to make a list of how a “Scripture-based” charity food program ought to be organized and operated. How often would it let needy people access help? What kind of hoops would it make them jump through in proving themselves worthy of help? What kind of food would they be offered? Etc.
That list ended up next to the list of practices our research with MSU had identified as necessary to make adequately addressing America’s hunger problem possible. We all suffered a severe case of goose-bumps when we realized that the two lists were virtually identical! That is: If faith-based charity food programs would operate as their faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever! – says they should, we appear to have the wherewithal to turn the dream of a hunger-free America into a dream come true. It is only by straying from all faiths’ teachings that charity food programs manage to achieve failure.
We didn’t know it when we started the Waste Not Want Not research, but what we identified in that research were the practices that were outlined thousands of years ago as how people ought to take care of one another. The “radicalness” of our findings doesn’t arise from how they vary from what the great books teach, but rather from how they embrace those teachings.
When a faith-based charity food program tells a needy family that they can only get food aid once a month, or has to bring picture ID, proof of income, and Social Security cards to prove themselves worthy of getting help, or gives out quantities of food aid without regard to how much help people need, that isn’t a reflection of what gets taught within that faith community. It is an insult to those teachings! And it will forever handicap efforts to eradicate hunger until truly-faith-based practices replace those that arise from suspicion, distrust, and a desire to somehow punish the poor for being poor.
Ending hunger in America, in the end, comes down to simply getting the faith communities in America to walk the talk.
Who knew it could be so simple and easy? Or so hard to get many faith-based groups to do?