“Leaders must at least take an honest look at the outcomes of the congregation’s charity. Is there really unintended harm being done?” Robert Lupton in Charity Detox Chapter Six
No such thing as a free lunch?
Shaping ministry around forms of exchange rather than free goods or services, Robert Lupton argues, is healthier and preferable for individuals and communities. One important reason is that programs based on reciprocal exchange do not lead to dependency.
I see his point and I agree. Investing even a dollar in an item creates a moment when the buyer has to weigh the pros and cons of a purchase. That moment of reflection adds a value to the item that does not otherwise exist. The act of purchasing or bartering also reframes the relationship between the “giver and receiver” to a relationship among “equals.” Power is shared through exchange rather than held only by the party with the goods.
Handouts, on the other hand, may lead to a devaluing of the goods received, the creation of an adversarial relationship between those with the goods and those without, and, ultimately, to a dynamic of dependency as ministries like food pantries, soup kitchens, and clothing closets are utilized on a seemingly endless basis. Dependency, in Lupton’s world, is a bad thing.
The Community Meal
At First UMC in Manhattan we support all kinds of ministries that provide free goods, so we wrestled hard at last week’s book study with the questions of dependency, dignity, and harm. Are we doing harm, or at least doing more good than harm, through our ministries? Where and how?
As an example, every Wednesday and Saturday evening we provide a free meal to anyone who shows up at the church. These community meals are attended in large part by those who do not otherwise participate in the life of the church, while the food is usually served by those who volunteer through the church. There is plenty that could be said about these meals, but one thing that stood out to me in our conversation was the observation that some who attend are embarrassed for others to know that they do. Attendance, for some, is a source of shame. While this is not surprising to me, as a pastor of this church, it is still painful to hear. The last thing I want for anyone is for the church to be associated with pain instead of healing, love, and hope.
We can do better. I’m not going to suggest that we stop the meals or we start charging money for dinner or even that we create an alternative food ministry based on exchange at this moment in time, as Lupton might suggest. But I do think the better can come as community deepens, as relationships between “church members” and “community members” are strengthened, and ultimately as those lines dissolve. It’s time to mix things up. I’d like to see a meal where everyone takes a turn in the kitchen, in the serving line, and in fellowship at the table, a meal where “community” truly is the operative word. I believe this is possible and while it might not remove stigma experienced beyond the walls of the church, surely it could nourish the souls of those present.
For me, a free meal hosted in a church can always be sacramental, but only when God is understood to be the one inviting us all to the table. At God’s table, there is abundance and sharing, there is complete and utter dependence, there is life and there is communion. May we all find our way to God’s community meal.