Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Canned Compassion
Outlook Section, Washington Post
November 18, 2007
by Mark Winne

Mark Winne's article is generating a lot of discussion in our congregation. I had it on my desk this morning, and by noon two different people had brought me copies of it, wondering if I had read it and what I thought. I came home from church on Sunday very pumped. We held our annual Thanksgiving luncheon and it was a joyful time, with well over 100 people attending. We always do a canned food drive as part of the Thanksgiving luncheon, and we all felt justifiably good about the fact that we had collected 689 cans and other non-perishables. When I opened the Outlook Section of the Washington Post Sunday afternoon I had to at least ask myself if the time, energy, and money spent collecting, counting, sorting, and delivering all that food was the best use of the aforementioned resources.

Winne's article is right on target in my opinion, but short on offering real solutions, perhaps because those are hard to come by. He hypothetically discusses taking all the hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers who keep food banks and pantries open across the nation and bringing them all to Washington D. C. to pressure Congress for living wages, affordable health care, and other measures that would go much farther than food handouts to eradicate the root cause of hunger, which of course is poverty. Maybe what Winne suggests would do some good, but how long could we sustain that kind of pressure on our elected officials before people had to return to some semblance of a normal life?

I think this is a dilemma with which most people of faith wrestle. We believe that we have a responsibility to care for the poor and feed the hungry. That should include both charitable contributions (like food and money) as well as the harder, less immediately rewarding work of social advocacy and work for systemic change. As important as providing direct assistance is, there is no doubt in my mind that the direct assistance projects funnel volunteer time and energy away from advocacy and agitation for social justice. But I would never (at least in the foreseeable future) say we should stop the charitable contributions. It does not seem right to deny someone a Band-Aid just because they also need surgery. Likewise, when someone is hungry or food insecure in the moment it would not feel right to alleviate that hunger if we have the power and means to do so.

It makes me proud that our congregation is also engaged in ministries that make more of a difference in the long term. We have an English for Speakers of Other Languages program and several volunteers who mentor children at a local elementary school. Many of our members are well-informed about social issues and write to elected leaders in an effort to get legislation passed that gives poor people a chance to improve their circumstances. I also am proud of the direct assistance that our congregation provides from our own food pantry and the contributions we make to other local assistance organizations. However, Winne's article has raised this old tension between the two.

I do not foresee a quick or easy end to this dilemma. But 9.5% of the population of Maryland is hungry or what is termed "food insecure." Different people will attack the problem different ways. Political beliefs, theology, and culture are all factors in our choosing the approach that we do. I think we all agree, though, that people of faith should be concerned about the issues of hunger and poverty. Maybe if many people with different ideas and perspectives put their heads together, we can come up with some solutions that have a real impact. Let it be so.

Reverent Reader


At 11/26/07, 10:02 AM , Blogger LeAnn said...

This brings me back to my recommendation that you see Pursuit of Happyness. There are some scenes that illicit so much empathy for imminent needs, especially when they involve children. But I also agree about the tension... isn't that so often the way of life! Who was it that coined the phrase "Standing at the tragic gap?" (I hear Parker Palmer say that, but not sure it was originally his... nevertheless a good phrase!)

At 11/27/07, 10:08 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Leann - you might want to check out a colleague's posting about this same article at tribalchurch.org She has some good things to say about it.


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