We Serve Food, Not Faith

I was worried about associating with the Catholics, confides a woman at our monthly community meal. But this pasta is good! She asks me to wrap up a plate to go, for her friend next door. She leaves with a box of groceries, two blankets and a stylish red winter jacket.

We are here each month to offer a hot meal, groceries, and coats and blankets to those in need in our small community. We serve about 60 meals and give away 60 boxes of groceries. Because we rely on donations from the community and our membership in the county food bank, our offerings vary. Sometimes we have a wealth of bread or 100 pounds of pinto beans. Once a local orchard let us pick their apple trees clean at the end of the season. After Y2K passed without disaster, a survivalist donated his entire stash of nonperishable foods. We’ve lucked into overstocked Easter candy. We never say no to a donation. And yes, we work out of the local Catholic church.

I’m thinking the people outraged by the newly created White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives have probably never volunteered at a soup kitchen. Otherwise they would know that the physical act of helping people is separate from one’s spiritual motivations.

The ever-changing roster of volunteers who help here each month may or may not be Catholic. We have welcomed Girl Scout troops, the service club from the public high school and individuals obligated by law to do community service. No one bagging oranges is evangelizing.

No one eating at the table is required to name the seven sacraments. No one is asked, while receiving groceries, if they have been baptized or saved or registered for Bible study. As far as I know, no one in the line has converted to Catholicism as a result of our way with pasta.

Feeding someone is not a religious act so much as a human act. We are on the giving side of the line, rather than the receiving, but for the grace of God.

The holiest thing I ever hear is an older gentleman who lingers over his meal, and makes a point every month of shaking my hand and saying, God bless you for being here. He comes for the companionship as much as for the food.

So I must say from experience that the Bush administration is right on in supporting local programs that work, whether they are Catholic, Muslim or Wiccan. Feeding, clothing, sheltering and visiting the ill or imprisoned are the examples Christ gives us. But they are also within the responsibilities of a government to its least able citizens.

Last month, the leader of a women’s goddess group called me. One of their members had visited our meal and deemed our soup bland (no convert there). The group wanted to contribute something invigorating to our next meal. Would a green bean casserole complement our next menu? She wanted an answer before their next meeting.

When was that? I asked. I often don’t know what we’re cooking until the last minute.

We meet on the new moon, she said. As though I would naturally know the date. My calendar was no help: no little drawings of the moon phases.

I’ll get back to you, I said. Right now I’m due back on the planet Earth.

I didn’t really say that last sentence. But I offer our cooperation as proof that the particulars of one’s faith do not dictate how one helps another. Faith may call one to serve others, and people of Catholic faith are called to see the face of Christ in every person who comes through our line. Whether they see his reflection in us is not up to us. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement said it best: we are called simply to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

To those who say faith-based organizations will be selling their souls to Uncle Sam by taking advantage of the new White House office, I can only say that we already work with the government. The county food bank, in our case, is a government institution. But just as we do not require any recitation of catechism before we give someone a bag of rice, neither do we push any government party lines.

Actually we Catholics have, as they say, issues with our government. (For those requiring a list: defense spending, nuclear arms, the death penalty, treatment of immigrants and abortion, to name a few.) Working together to provide a service does not presuppose silence on matters of dissent. In fact, the faith that prompts one to serve also goads one to protest injustice, wherever it is found.

Surely there will be opportunities for abuse in any new White House program. There always are, when money and religion are involved. We can only look carefully to our own motives. But faith-based or community organizations that work will be able to expand their services with government money, and will not foist their religious beliefs on those served any more than they do now.

A case in point: the goddess green beans were deliciously belly-warming along with our Catholic baked fish. The goddess women are friendly and helpful people. Next month, they’re bringing the stuffing and cranberries to go with a nicely roasted donated turkey. We have no plans to convert each other, or anyone else. Whether it’s the full moon or a holy day of obligation, we’re just cooking dinner for 60 together.

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