Monday, December 2, 2013

Doing Good Works Among the Poor

The first Monday of every month, St. Anonymous UMW provides volunteers at a food pantry run by Hope Ministries, an outreach program of the United Methodist Church. It began as a project of one circle, but it began to be too much for them, so they asked for volunteers from the other circles as well. It really only takes about 5 people to do the job, which is to escort the users of the food pantry around; tell them how much of each product they can have, based on family size; help them bag groceries; weigh the groceries they have; and escort them to their cars (to make sure we get the baskets back). Food donated is weighed in and food given out is weighed, as that seems to be the best way of keeping track of how much food the pantry provides to the local recipients.

I learned on my first visit to the food pantry that the items I donate at church (when I remember)  are a drop in the bucket compared to need. Most of what is distributed comes from government programs or is bought in bulk from cash donations. What is usually availabe for a family is pasta, canned tomato sauce, rice, beans (dry or canned), whatever odds and ends people donate like cake mixes, seasonings, salad dressings, couscous, and the like, beverages, frozen meat of some kind, sometimes fresh vegetables or fruit, cereal (hot and cold), canned meats, soups, and vegetables, and bakery items. Sometimes there are cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, and baby items, but not always. 

Most people are cooperative about taking the items and amounts that we distribute, but sometimes people try to get more, or bargain, “I’m not going to take any canned carrots, so can’t I have another can of tuna?” No, because we don’t have enough tuna. I can’t blame people for asking; different families have different tastes or needs. Occasionally, however, someone gets belligerent, and as a small old lady, I am only willing to fight so hard to stick to the rules. I don’t know what it is like to be poor. I don’t know how belligerent I would get under similar circumstances. I try to remind myself of that.

Several months ago I read a blogpost online talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats:

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 31-40, NIV)

The author made the point that it was the “least of these” who represent Jesus in this parable. Often we say that we, the helpers, will represent Jesus to the people we are helping, but the parable makes it clear that it is the other way around. The author went on to talk about a time that either he or another person had preached a short sermon making that point for a group that was about to go out and minister to some needy people in similar circumstances. Predictably enough, when the speaker was finished, the leader of the group of volunteers said something about how the volunteers would represent Jesus to the people they were helping that day.
I try to see the people who come through the doors of Hope Ministries as representing Jesus to me, even the belligerent ones. I think about Benny (not his real name). Benny is the father of 5 or so children. He obviously has a number of issues. He has a hard time following rules and staying in line, not in a malicious way, but because he doesn’t seem to be aware of social boundaries. He learns routines and sticks to them: if he could get two bags of pasta last trip, he believes he should get 2 bags of pasta this trip even if there are only a few bags of pasta on the shelves. Benny can’t read much: he is constantly asking what the writing on the soup cans say, but he can match one can to another, so once he knows which ones are the Chicken Noodle Soup, he can find more. To me, it seems like what Benny needs is medication, a case manager, a life coach to help him learn some social rules, and some tutoring in reading. I wonder how the educational system failed him. I wonder how his children are going to make their way through the world with a parent with his disabilities. I try to see Benny as representing Jesus, and think of Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor. I have so many assets that Benny never had or will have, and would have them even if I gave away my last cent: a smarter than average brain and an early ability to read, a childhood spent in a home that was well organized and imposed limits, access to an excellent public education all the way through college. None of those benefits were earned or even chosen by me (except the college). 
The next person I help, let’s call him Chuck, is easier to deal with.  I tell him I have having a little trouble opening a bag because my eyes are watering due to an eye condition I have. “You’ll be okay,” he tells me. “God has you.” I wonder how often he tells himself and his family that.
After we are done with our stint at the food pantry, we go out to lunch together. Yes, I know. I laugh about it myself. The lunches, however, have given me a new appreciation of my sisters in UMW. I often gripe about how the younger people on my cyber-hangout, the OT, think about me only in terms of my age, but I have learned in the course of my months volunteering that I have been dismissive myself of women my own age, seeing the members of the day circles as an amorphous group of old ladies instead of a collection of intelligent and interesting women. Today one of them, B, has noticed a food pantry client with a shopping basket, not the store kind but like a tote on wheels, and says that it would be a good ministry to try to provide more people with baskets like that. 

It was like this, only black.
I suggest we bring it up at the next general meeting. I can search online for similar baskets, get a price, and even contect the sellers to see if  we can get a bulk rate for a large order. As I have learned from our more belligerent clients, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

So maybe I met Jesus today. If not, maybe I’ll meet him next month.