I want our legislators to come sit in my office for the last two weeks of the month.
My church runs a small, volunteer-stocked emergency food pantry. We receive no state or federal aid, but are dependent on the canned goods that folks bring to worship or to church events. Yet, as small as this pantry is, it is open for more hours than any other in this town of 30,000, and we are looking to increase those hours beyond the normal business day.
Why? Because so many of our neighbors are hungry. And we know that the nourishment a church provides should not be restricted to that of Word and Sacrament.
Yet I am also aware of the church’s call to feed the hungry must be not only a practical, but a prophetic one. We can feed a few: 821 in 2015, and although the number promises to be much higher in 2016, this is still a scant handful of those who are in need. It is not enough to feed them, although this is a needed first step. We are called, as well, to advocate on their behalf before a society that would rather blame them for their poverty than try to do anything about it.
And so I want our legislators – all of those who administer the funds that should be helping the least of these neighbors – to come sit in my office for the last two weeks of the month.
I want them to hear that the town food pantry can give more assistance than we can, but, is open far fewer hours, with plenty more red tape between the hungry and a good meal.
I want them to hear how many people come in here – not one or two days, but one or two weeks before SNAP benefit checks are sent – requesting food from us, because $85/month in food stamps is not nearly enough for a single mom and four children. I want our legislators to understand that $16 in benefits isn’t enough for any human being to eat, even for a week, although it is what several local single people each get for a month.
I want them to understand that even if those who receive benefits had transportation to the warehouse stores, and the ability to buy in bulk and portion out single meals, it doesn’t help without reliable freezers, refrigerators and stoves; without prep time. I want them to consider how far they could make $16 stretch without the privileges they take for granted.
I want them to hear how SNAP benefits don’t cover common hygiene products – toilet paper, soap, shampoo. I want them to hear the awe when a woman is offered a rare box of sanitary napkins. I want them to consider what it is to seek a job, knowing you haven’t been able to wash your hair or body.
I want them to hear how heavy and unwieldy grocery bags are, when they contain a month’s worth of food. They’re even heavier when the local bus line doesn’t get you nearly close enough to your house. They become more unwieldy when you’re walking with a child.
I want them to hear the importance of new socks.
I want them to realize that working a 40-hour week is no guarantee that you’ll be able to feed a family. I want them to see that only offering food and housing services during business hours makes people choose between working and receiving the assistance that even a full-time job can require.
I want our legislators to know how very privileged they are; how much they take for granted on a daily basis. I want them to hear how their own privilege is projected into assistance programs, where it is turned into blame; where those who are suffering are deemed “lazy”, “entitled”, “unworthy”.
I want them to hear what I hear. I know they won’t, because they don’t want to: it is more comfortable to keep suffering and heartbreak at arm’s distance. But I want their hearts to break, looking at the human face of social welfare. Because my heart breaks, each and every day.
I can’t change more than my tiny corner of this world. I can’t increase SNAP benefits, or aid to communities.
But they can.
So consider this an open invitation: NH legislators in both Washington DC and Concord: come sit in my office. Legislators everywhere: there are similar offices near you. Come, not to speak but to listen. Come, not to be seen, but to see. Come, let your hearts be broken by humility and compassion.
For this is the call of the church: to ensure, by all available means, that our neighbors are being fed. We are doing our part; we call upon you to do yours.
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