[Episcopal News Service] In Christianity, food is inseparable from faith. It underlies a wide spectrum of the Bible’s teachings and Christian traditions, from individual fasting to Jesus’ Last Supper and the celebration of the Eucharist. The faith journey is a path from hunger to fullness.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” Jesus says in Luke 6:21.
But Jesus’ followers also were called to give to the poor, providing physical food along with Jesus’ spiritual food. Defining that mission, let alone fulfilling it, can be difficult, and churches and believers have wrestled since Jesus’ time with the question of how to best address the problem of hunger. Today, physical hunger remains a persistent scourge around the world, including in countries of great wealth like the United States.
‘Food and Faith’
Episcopal News Service kicks off a five-part series on anti-hunger efforts in the Episcopal Church. Future stories will focus on food pantries, a soup kitchen, a food truck and the church’s advocacy on government programs that fight hunger. Part 2 will post Nov. 6.
Hope remains, too. Episcopal News Service found it in a homeless outreach program in Seattle, Washington, in a food truck ministry in Houston, Texas, and in a New York City soup kitchen. Those and other examples of faith-based solutions to the problem of hunger form the heart of the “Food and Faith” series this November, in which ENS tells the stories of various anti-hunger efforts underway in all corners of the Episcopal Church.
The need is well documented. More than 41.2 million Americans and 12 percent of households are deemed food insecure because they lack access to enough food to maintain active and healthy lives, according to Feeding America’s most recent “Poverty and Hunger Fact Sheet.” And hunger is not solely a problem of poverty. More than half of all food-insecure Americans live in households above the poverty line.
Nor is hunger a sudden emergency for many households. It can be an unforgiving, intractable fact of daily life.
“For a lot of people that live below or close to the poverty line, they’re left wondering where their next meal is going to come from,” said Catherine Davis, chief marketing and communication officer for Feeding America, which distributes food through its member food banks to faith-based and secular food pantries across the country.
The Episcopal Church emphasizes anti-hunger efforts at all levels. Congregations everywhere operate food pantries and meal ministries to assist the needy, one canned good or bowl of soup at a time. There’s Grace Food Pantry in Madison, Wisconsin, distributing food to needy guests for 38 years. There’s Abundant Harvest, a relatively new Episcopal food truck ministry in the Houston area that is part of a congregation aimed at finding communion around the dinner table.
For ministries like these, the goal is to do more than put food in needy mouths.
“It’s a witness to our community and our neighborhood of what it means to live a Christian life,” said Sara Bates, coordinator of the Edible Hope Kitchen at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, which serves free breakfast every weekday to hundreds of homeless residents of its Ballard neighborhood.
The fight against hunger isn’t just local. Money donated to Episcopal Relief & Development supports programs fighting famine overseas in places like South Sudan. Churchwide advocacy campaigns seek to influence U.S. policy on hunger relief in ways that reflect Christian values through the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations.
In May, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined “For Such a Time as This,” an ecumenical campaign of prayer, advocacy and fasting, timed to the 21st of each month during the current Congress to highlight the difference government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, can make in the lives of people struggling with hunger.
Curry told Episcopal News Service the church was following in Jesus’ footsteps by feeding both the body and soul.
“Jesus fed 5,000 people with physical, tangible bread because they were hungry. At the same time, he fed their souls by teaching them the Gospel way,” Curry said. “Sacraments, the word of God, worship, bible study, prayer groups, feed the soul. Soup kitchens, food pantries, ecumenical and interfaith food shuttles, community gardens, feed the body. In these ways, we seek to end hunger … hunger of the body and hunger of the soul.”
Biblical roots for feeding ministries
Jesus also alludes to this duality in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” he says in Matthew 5:1-12.
The Greek word for righteousness was the same as the word for justice, noted the Rev. Jane Patterson, associate professor of the New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. How the ancient world understood hunger and fasting, though, was different from how we understand it today.
“Most people in the ancient world were hungry most of the time,” Patterson told ENS, and the prophets made the moral case for feeding the hungry.
The idea of Jesus as the “good shepherd” has roots in Ezekiel 34, Patterson said. God asks the shepherds why they feed themselves but don’t care of the flock. God pledges to tend to his sheep, the Israelites, and “provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations.”
References to abundance and scarcity continue through the New Testament. The words “hunger” and “hungry” are found 19 times in the Gospels. “Eat” appears several dozen more times. In Mark 11:12-14, Jesus is hungry but finds no figs on the fig tree, so he condemns the tree to wither. The prodigal son in Luke 15 is so hungry he covets the pigs’ food, “but no one gave him anything.” And in Matthew 6:25, Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink. … Is not life more than food?”
For the disciples, Jesus shared his Last Supper in a time of uncertainty and with a great injustice about to happen, Patterson said. It is recounted today before every Eucharist because of how Jesus joined the meal to his coming sacrifice, offering himself as bread and wine.
“Food is so basic to life,” Patterson said, but spiritual needs are just as essential. There often is little distinction between the two in the Bible. “People who are hungry need real food, and they also need spiritual sustenance.”
One of the best-known gospel stories involving food is the one cited by Curry, the feeding of the 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish as recounted in all four gospels. That miracle is followed by Jesus’ teaching about “the bread of life.”
“Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” he says in John 6:35.
Jesus’ disciples “needed to be taught as much as they needed the bread,” Patterson said. She also emphasizes the communal nature of the miracle. Jesus is not said to have multiplied the loaves and fish. The miracle is that all who gathered are fed from what little food was available, and no one lacks food for giving to those in need.
“In God’s economy, it’s never zero sum,” she said.
Giving much, lacking nothing
The Rev. Melanie Mullen, the Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, looks to Proverbs 28 for inspiration in the fight against hunger: “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing.”
Mullen oversees Jubilee Ministries and the United Thank Offering, two programs in which the Episcopal Church provides substantial financial support for antipoverty efforts. Jubilee Ministries focuses specifically on poverty through its network of 600 Jubilee centers, which provide a range of services, including food, shelter and health care.
United Thank Offering, or UTO, collects donations from individuals across the Episcopal Church and distributes the money to a wide variety of worthy ministries, many of them feeding ministries.
More than $1.2 million in UTO grants was awarded this year. Recipients included a farm run by the Diocese of Ohio, a church garden in Connecticut and food ministries in central California. Food ministries regularly benefit from UTO grants, such as the $12,500 given in 2016 to support this garden at St. James Episcopal Church in Kent, Washington.
The Episcopal Church can lead from a position of moral clarity based on Jesus’ teachings, Mullen said.
“When we help the poor we’re not just doing charity work, we’re living as Jesus did,” she said.
The Episcopal Church, through the Anglican Communion, also can leverage a worldwide network of believers willing to give their money, supporting strangers who need help putting meals on the table. Episcopal Relief & Development plays a leading role in those efforts on behalf of the Episcopal Church.
Alleviating hunger is a core area of Episcopal Relief & Development’s work, with an emphasis on community-based programs. “These locally developed programs address the specific context of hunger and have a wider impact on the health and economic well-being of the community,” the agency’s website says. “Working with church partners and local organizations, we empower people to live healthier and more productive lives.”
Episcopal Relief & Development was able to spend $6.9 million on food security in 2015 and nearly $4 million in 2016, according to the agency’s annual reports, with help from Episcopalians who have been financially generous through the years.
There also are seemingly limitless examples of Episcopalians working in their own communities to help next-door neighbors put food on the table.
The food ministry at St. Luke’s in Seattle started about 30 years ago as a weekly community lunch, the labor of love of the church’s Bible study group. More recently it also has helped save the congregation, which was struggling after a major split over gay ordination.
In 2011, the church lost an estimated 80 percent of its members in the split, leaving attendance at worship services as low as a dozen people some Sundays, Bates said. Among those who stayed were the older women who hosted the church’s food ministry, and they were determined to keep it going.
By that time, the meal had become a breakfast served five days a week, as the group noticed more and more homeless people in the neighborhood but with no feeding programs in the morning. As the meals became more and more popular, they took on the name Edible Hope Kitchen a couple years ago based on the suggestion of one of their regular guests.
“He said, ‘You guys don’t just serve food here. You serve edible hope,’” Bates recalled.
She began working at the church as an intern in 2015, soon after a new vicar arrived and began injecting new life into the congregation. Bates, 33, now works 20 hours a week as the church’s paid coordinator of Edible Hope Kitchen, partly thanks to the $22,000 UTO grant St. Luke’s received this year.
St. Luke’s gets most of its food from donations or at a reduced cost from the Feeding America-affiliated food bank in Seattle. The UTO grant will also help the church upgrade equipment in its kitchen. Buying a new bread slicer, for example, is a big improvement, because Edible Hope offers unlimited slices of toast from loaves that often are not precut.
The goal is to be able to feed up to 250 people from 7 to 10 a.m. each weekday by this winter. That means a lot of toast. The church also goes through at least six dozen eggs a day, sometimes as many as 14 dozen. Four to 10 volunteers prep the meals the night before, and about a dozen people help each morning by setting up the meal, serving it and then cleaning up.
“Honestly, it shouldn’t be possible to do all that we do with what we have. It’s truly miraculous,” Bates said.
The meals have helped connect two groups in the neighborhood – the homeless and the affluent – that otherwise may find little reason to interact. Bates also thinks the food ministry is one of the reasons new people are finding the congregation and becoming members, especially young people and families. Edible Hope Kitchen offers a way for them to be active in their faith, she said, noting that Sunday attendance at St. Luke’s now is sometimes as high as 80 people.
“It’s not always convenient to have 200 homeless people on our property. It’s not always clean and comfortable, and yet we want to be a place where all of our neighbors feel welcome and comfortable,” Bates said. “We feel very, very called to feed our hungry neighbors.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected]