Making connections

I went to a potluck supper last night. I knew of a couple of people who normally attend who wouldn’t be there, so in addition to the salad I made, I picked up some bread to bring as well. It was a modest offering. As people began to arrive, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one who had decided to bring a little bit extra. The lineup of food on the table grew and grew until a true feast had been spread. There was an abundance of food and when the meal was finished everyone was packing up leftovers to take home.

The irony of the scene was that earlier in the day - between our morning service and a service at an area retirement center that I was leading - I had taken a sack of food to a family that was staying in an area motel. They had been involved in a car accident and though their injuries didn’t require hospitalization, they had no transportation and were remaining in town for follow-up medical appointments. They had called the church to see if we could offer assistance with paying for their motel room and noted that they were out of food. While we don’t have funds to support motel rooms we could offer food, so I packed up a bag of food and delivered it.

I always wonder what I might have done - what other decisions I might have made - when I come to a situation where I feel like I can offer help but not provide a solution. I am a problem solver by nature and am often left pondering when a problem is left unsolved. I wondered what might have happened if I had simply invited the people to join us for our meal. We clearly had plenty to offer and had they been invited to the buffet, they could have chosen what they ate instead of being handed a bag of food with limited choices. There were even two different kinds of apple crisp available at the potluck. The problem is that I compartmentalized my day. With three different services and a limited amount of unscheduled time, I wasn’t making the connection between the people who needed food and the potluck feast later in the day. Theres was an item that I had to get checked off from my list before I got to the meal at the end of the afternoon.

It is our instinct to feed hungry people.And that is a good instinct. I’ve been to many meetings where we have discussed nutritional insufficiency in our community. We have a lot of people who occasionally don’t have enough food. Children come to school hungry. And we have put in place a number of programs to feed hungry people. We have a large community food pantry and several smaller pantries that distribute food. There are feeding programs in place in public schools and backpack programs to send food home with hungry children. There are community gardens that produce abundantly for a few weeks each summer. It is a good thing to feed hungry people.

However, when we do so we don’t decrease the number of hungry people. In many cases we contribute to an increase in the number of people who need food assistance. We develop dependencies. Worse yet, we take away from parents and grandparents a basic instinct and responsibility - that of feeing their own children. We say to parents and grandparents, “Don’t worry. We’ll feed your child.” And while we are doing that we take away from parents and grandparents the choices about what their children will eat.

It is the old adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Feeding hungry people is a short term solution and often necessary. However the long term solution is teaching them how to obtain food for themselves. While we persist in offering food we fail to offer the means to provide food. In our community it is relatively easy to find food, but it is much harder to find shelter. Yesterday, I offered food, but did not have a solution to the desire for another night in the motel. I don’t even know if the family found the money to pay for another night.

In classes on backcountry survival, we are taught to prioritize our needs. In inclement weather, shelter is the first priority. They teach that without shelter you will survive for only one hour. You can go a day without water and a week without food, so while those things are important, you must focus on shelter first. When that problem is solved, you can turn to hydration and only when those two are solved do you look for food. People who live on the edge of survival learn those facts by instinct. So when the gap between wages and rent is so severe as it is in our town they skimp on food. They invest so much energy trying to find a place to live that they run out of food by the end of the month. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but we could reduce the number of hungry children in our town more effectively by providing affordable housing than by inventing another feeding program. Travelers who find themselves stranded in our town would have cash to buy food if there was temporary housing available at low cost.

Faithful people often quote Jesus words in the gospels, “The poor you will always have with you.” The implication is that we will never solve the problem of poverty and unequal distribution of resources. Jesus never implied that we shouldn’t invest time and energy in solving the problems of poverty. Jesus words were not offered as an excuse and we ought not to use them as an excuse for not helping when we are able.

The reality is that we have abundance at some tables while others lack the bare necessities. The two phenomena are connected. The family requesting help and the potluck are not two separate realities, but part of a larger reality. Next time, perhaps, I will remember to think of the connections. I may even find the grace to invite others to share the meal.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!