As a seminarian over twenty years ago, I was sent to help out during breakfast at the Hoboken Shelter. I was eager to fill people’s plates and bring them coffee because, after spending an entire year in the mahogany halls of Princeton Seminary, I wanted to do anything that seemed even remotely connected to Jesus besides reading about him. What could be more Jesusy than slinging eggs at a shelter?
But when I got to the shelter Sr. Norberta wouldn’t let me “do” anything. She told me to go have breakfast myself and talk to the people at the table. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I could barely keep down the powered eggs and watery coffee. Not that I hadn’t had plenty of both as a student in cafeterias, but these were the powdered eggs and watery coffee of charity. They were bought for people who couldn’t afford their own and even my swallow reflex insisted that I was not one of them. What if I was mistaken for a homeless woman while sitting at the table with a bunch of other homeless women? And worse, what if a “civilian” came to the shelter with a bag of clothes or a box of canned goods and thought I was homeless?
I learned two lessons at the shelter that shaped me forever. First, I saw that my ideas about ministry objectified poor people and glorified me. Second, I got to feel what it’s like to be on the receiving end of other people’s charity and I didn’t like being a problem instead of a person.
Volunteers at Grace Community Service’s Breakfast Program make hot breakfasts every Saturday and Sunday in our church gym for about a hundred people. Our staffing has always been volunteer so there isn’t much overhead but the food is expensive and we’ve relied on federal funding to buy it. About two years ago the governmental eligibility requirements for people to receive this food were tightened, stretching our shoe string budget and volunteers almost beyond capacity to meet them. And then, just last month, the requirements became stricter. Now to continue to receive federal funding to buy food we’ll need to make copies of our guest’s social security cards, pay stubs, disability and insurance information.
How can a church morally ask people for their social security cards to make sure they are eligible to receive a plate of eggs? Are little faith-based organizations and charitable institutions being tasked with the job of weeding out the eligible from ineligible hungry? The people from the problems?
Bottom line: anybody who comes to Grace Church Van Vorst hungry has to be fed. The heart of the Gospel is that no one is ineligible, unwelcome or an alien. The testimony of the church at its best has been that people are not problems and when we share there is enough.
As plans to build a ten-billion-dollar border wall along Mexico take shape and federal funding to feed hungry people dissolves, I think it has never been more important to be the church. When has welcoming the stranger, offering forgiveness and sharing what we have been more important?
Whether it’s over a bowl of grits or a paten of communion bread, I’ll see you at church.
Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm