You can be an ambulance driver at the bottom of the hill, or you can build a fence at the top.
This statement describes the work Bread for the World and other political advocates do—instead of focusing on feeding people at a local food pantry on a daily basis they ask why are these people hungry, which is really asking why are these people poor, and going from there. The overwhelming majority of food assistance in the United States comes from the government and a fraction comes from private programs like food banks and feeding ministries, so it makes sense that the faith community, dedicated to ending hunger and poverty, should be present and use its voice in the political process involving these issues. Not that direct service programs are not important—they are vital programs that save people’s lives on a daily basis– but they cannot “cure” chronic hunger.
My work here in Boston is in the tension between direct assistance programs in Cambridge and being involved with the political process to change a broken and unfair system—and learning how they are inextricably intertwined.
I spend most days on the computer reading articles and doing research about the farm bill, cuts in SNAP, the sequestration, local programs in Cambridge, and meeting with people in the local area. There is only so much computer screen time I can take, only so many numbers and charts and maps I can look at before they start to lose their meaning. I balance this time with volunteering at local food ministries in Cambridge (and there are plenty to choose from, that will have to be another blog post) and putting a face and a story to the statistics of “the hungry” and “the poor” that get thrown around in conversation. I can only talk about food justice and feeding the hungry for so long until I have to physically do something about it and get my hands dirty, whether that’s through gleaning at a local farm, doing dishes after a free community meal, or handing out produce at a food pantry with a smile.
But after weeks of helping to give out groceries at a food pantry and preparing meals for the homeless in Cambridge it can be discouraging work—I’ve only been around a few months but I’m recognizing the same people each week at different programs all over Cambridge. I know how hard volunteers work and how much money, effort, passion, and creativity it takes to run a food pantry or prepare meals on a weekly basis. What we’re doing is a good and necessary thing, but sometimes you start ask yourself if you’re really making a difference if most of the same people will be hungry tomorrow, and the day after that, and the week after that… And that’s where I come back to the political advocacy systemic change computer work.
I guess I want to be an ambulance driver and a fence builder.
I have found a necessary balance between the heart— reading scripture about our call to help the least and the littlest, the head— learning about the reality and nutritional implications for a family relying on SNAP benefits and discussing how and why churches should be involved in advocacy, and the hands— chopping vegetables until my arms are sore. Personally I have found that I need to do all of this to truly understand what it means to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” in terms of ending hunger.