The line begins to form well before eight in the morning, a colorful cross-section of humanity — homeless men with graying hair bushing beneath stocking caps, gaunt young women dragging on cigarettes, strong young men leaning nonchalantly against the building, obese women with preschoolers clinging to their dresses, non-descript people dressed in work clothes of various sorts. Soon, though not soon enough for the waiting crowd, the large church doorknob twists. The sound causes an immediate straightening and tightening of the line. The lock clicks back, the doors swing open, and the impatient stream of humanity surges through. They push down the hall to the sign-in counter where a well-dressed lady wearing a kindly smile waits to examine ID’s, record names and addresses, and issue vouchers. It’s Wednesday morning at old First Church. Time for the free food distribution. “Let the games begin!” Those familiar with the system know the routine. They have been through this many times before. For the newer comers, the rules are posted on the wall. One visit per monthâ€¦must have legitimate ID…one bag per household — that sort of thing. Some recipients play by the rules, somewhat. Others offer excuses. Still others have stories, heart-rending stories, stories that would cause a lesser-experienced food pantry manager to make exceptions and bend the rules. But the smiling lady at the sign-in counter has heard it all before. She politely points to the rules clearly displayed on the wall and welcomes would-be violators to return next Wednesday with the proper documentation or the Wednesday after that when they would be eligible for another bag. She takes the grumbling, the dejected expressions, the arguments, all in stride. Some might call her jaded but in fact she keeps a challenging ministry running amazingly well and with a consistently positive attitude. After all, she is representing Christ and his Church.
Over time, the smiling lady and those who volunteer with her come to recognize some of the faces of regulars. Even get to know a few names and a little bit about them. And on rare occasions food pantry workers have stepped outside their role to help a recipient with a personal problem. But that can lead to complications. It sets a bad precedent. When other recipients discover it they complain of favoritism. Much better to play by the rules, stay within the guidelines, keep interactions cordial, friendly but avoid personal involvement.
A few blocks away in the basement of an old brick church, another group of struggling humanity is gathering. They assemble not in an impatient food line but in a semi-organized team of food re-distributers. They spread out an array of food-bank procurements on folding tables, fill boxes with a balanced assortment, check their list of those who has paid the $3 membership dues, issue boxes to paid-up members. Fifty households are represented and everyone is engaged. Some make the run to the food-bank. Others do the set-up. Some sort and box. Still others are assigned clean-up duty. And there are joint decisions to be made. Who gets the canned hams (not enough this week for every household)? Who can deliver a box to a shut-in member? Should an inactive member be replaced? This is no prideless horde of hands-out welfare recipients. This is a food distribution business owned and operated by dues-paying members. This is the Georgia Avenue Food Co-op.
Unlike the food pantry at old First Church, the Georgia Ave Food Co-op fosters community. Co-op members, not church volunteers, make and enforce the rules. Co-op members select the food they desire, not the haphazard Bring-a-Can-on-Sunday food drive. No give-away charity here. Co-op members pay their own way. Their $3 semi-weekly dues are leveraged into $30 worth of groceries, a huge benefit to those struggling to make ends meet. If you don’t pay you don’t participate this week. Over time co-op members build friendships, share meals, listen to each others’ joys and woes, pray for one another — in essence they become church.
Now I ask you: which model of ministry brings more dignity to the poor and fulfills the Biblical mandate to care rightly for those in need? So why do we continue to demean people in the name of the Lord?