I was able to get out of the office yesterday and attend a special meeting of the Law and Public Safety Committee of Raleigh’s City Council. The meeting was called in response to the firestorm that erupted Saturday when Hugh Hollowell of Love Wins Ministries was prohibited from sharing biscuits and coffee with hungry people in downtown Raleigh. The meeting was well attended. After a brief report from Raleigh’s police chief and an overview of the city’s efforts to connect with some of the Christian groups1 that routinely take food to people living outside, the floor was open to public comments. Speakers included many homeless and formerly homeless citizens of Raleigh, a few downtown business owners, directors of a multitude of large and small social service agencies, and several clergy. Nearly all of the speakers came to give support to Love Wins and other organizations that serve the hungry and unhoused in Raleigh. If nothing else, at least this unfortunate episode has spurred some conversation about how we care for the most vulnerable among us. People are asking questions that often get glossed over and shuffled past, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion.
One person’s comments before the council left me with a question that I think is worth sharing. Who is this really about?
The man was from a local non-denominational church who, like Love Wins, had sought to share food on Saturday and, also like Love Wins, was stopped by police and forced to move out of downtown. Unlike Hugh, though, the man didn’t have any issue with the new policy. He continuously offered praise to the professionalism of the city’s police force as he described moving to three different locations, and being stopped from serving at each one, before finally locating a place where some unhoused people willing to eat his food were congregated far enough out of the public eye to avoid prosecution. “We had cooked hundreds of meals, and we weren’t going to be stopped,” the man said, “because helping the homeless is a very good experience for our youth. We found a place under a big old tree that was absolutely beautiful. At the end of the day, we had food left. Praise God!”
Being pushed out of the three public spaces by exceedingly polite law enforcement officers was an inconvenience, but not a serious problem for this group. In the end, they were able to find some homeless people they were able to serve hot food to. The youth group had a good experience. Hunger had been alleviated. Food was even left over, in abundance! The man couldn’t understand why other ministry groups like Love Wins were causing such a fuss.
That’s where my question comes up. Who is this really about? Why do we bother sharing a meal with people who don’t have a kitchen table to invite us to gather around? There are lots of reasons, of course. For Christians, the simplest reason is because Jesus said to. But what is our goal? If the goal is simply to give away food to people who have less money than we do, or to create a “good experience for our youth,” then moving on out of the public square is no problem. Any old poor person will do, really. If, on the other hand, our goal is to break bread with and build relationships with our neighbors who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have any bread of their own, then moving on to another group of more conveniently located homeless people simply won’t do. One approach treats the hungry people as passive objects for our benevolence, the other as human beings made in the image of God who might have something to teach us.
In my quest to understand what it means to live an authentic Christian life, Hugh has helped me understand that relationships are the beginning and the end.
Unfortunately, charity, as it is typically understood, often works against building authentic relationships because it is so easy to let charity become about us. Sharing a meal becomes less about sitting down and getting to know a person and more about how good it makes me feel to solve a problem, if only for a day. It becomes more about producing a good experience for religious consumers than cultivating an authentic relationship that is mutually transformative for all involved.
This isn’t a new problem. It was evident in the early church, too. The Apostle Paul fought tooth and nail against an ingrained system of Roman patron-client economics that encouraged charity as a way to pacify the lower classes from questioning the larger injustices of a stratified society. The new communities Paul was forming were to be built around mutuality, and the central practice of these alternative ekklesias was a meal at a table over which everyone who gathered was a guest, and no one held power over another.
When your goal is building relationships, and your friends know to meet you at the park at 9:00 AM on Saturday to share breakfast and catch up with each other, moving on to another part of town, and giving your food away to another group of poor people, just doesn’t work. That’s missing the point. It’s missing out on relationship.
- Not all of the groups working to care for people on the streets in downtown Raleigh are Christian. Other faiths are represented, as well as some excellent humanitarian organizations that aren’t, as a whole, motivated by faith. However, from the meeting, it appeared the city’s primary avenue for engagement was limited to WAMM, which is a relatively narrow coalition of service providers who all identify as Christian ministries.