Let the church be the church

Several years ago, when I was serving in my first appointment as a pastor on the near eastside of Indianapolis, our small church ran a weekly food pantry ministry every Monday for residents of the community that needed some help with groceries. Each week out little sanctuary would fill up with anywhere from sixty to two hundred women, men, and children for a brief 30-minute worship service we offered before distributing food. The service was optional – no attendance required for groceries – but most chose to come out of respect, and many called us their “home church” thanks to the Monday morning service. As time went on, I gradually began to learn the names and recognize the faces of our regulars. Their stories were often quite heart wrenching, but even so they never failed to offer me a smile and a grateful handshake each week:  Gary* whose Vicodin addiction had led him into homelessness. Karl whose abusive alcoholic father drank away the family’s monthly support from the government, Peggy whose mental illness had alienated her from her children, Rob the gang-leader who had just recently become a father… they gradually became part of our odd, dysfunctional family.

            Frankly, the work of the Jesus Food Pantry, as we called it, could at times be quite tiresome, tedious, and discouraging. Were we just perpetuating cycles of dependency and poverty by offering these bags of free groceries every week? Why did so few join us on Sunday mornings when no food was offered, and we simply gathered to worship? And what about the many reports of those who pawned off the groceries for drug money? Some expressed gratitude for the sacrifices our little church was making on their behalf, but others just took us for granted and even heaped abuse on us when in a particularly bad mood. I admit that more than once I hid away in my office rather than face the exhausting task of building friendships with the poorest of the poor in the city of Indianapolis.

            As time went on, I realized that what we were truly offering our “Monday morning congregation” was not just groceries. After all, the government did that and with a far larger budget.  These folks were almost all on SNAP (aka “food stamps”) which was why our largest crowds came at the end of each month.  But what we were offering was a place to be known, a home base where their faces were recognized, their stories known, and where they were not simply a nameless number. To this day, I remain immensely proud of that little church on 12th Street for offering them something that no government program could ever offer:  a place to be recognized as an individual human being created in the image of God. The folk in our community craved this even more than they craved a bag of groceries. After all, as Christ reminds us, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

            Sadly, the church has often surrendered care for the poor to the government. And I personally believe it is right and proper for the government to offer a robust safety net for those who fall through the cracks in our nation.  But this should not absolve us of our God-given responsibility to care for the least of these. That we live in a land where church and state are separate from one another is one of the marvelous inventions of this American experiment. But we need the church to be the church in this broken land of ours:  we need a city on a hill where names and stories are known, and each human is valued as created in the image of God. We are not merely another social club; the church is the hands and feet of Christ himself in a hurting world. Let us demonstrate an alternative way to be a community within a society spiritually hungry for alternatives.

  • Names changed for anonymity