Solidarity with people who are different from us is unexpectedly difficult. Letty Russell tells a story of an African American pastor serving a diverse congregation where the majority of the power brokers were white. Over time the members complained about small actions of the pastor—like swaying to much in worship—and refused to take on big issues like racism and oppression. What she wanted was to create a church where newcomers did not need to decide to act white in order to be welcomed (Russell 155).
Similarly, solidarity with people who do not have enough food is a decision to look for ways we may have been asking others to act like us. We need to be able to accept people as they are, now, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies and unusual behaviors they have learned on life’s journey, and with all the culture and heritage they claim for themselves. Popular discourse has created a mythology about people who need food—a mythology about childhood abuse, addictions, and mental health challenges when we are kind, and a mythology about race, class, laziness, and dependence when we are not. To sit with someone in pity, or in judgment, is not solidarity, is not actual love, and is not contributing to our mutual salvation.
“Salvation is not something otherworldly, in regard to which the present life is merely a test. Salvation—the communion of human beings with God and among themselves—is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and lead it to its fullness in Christ (Gutierrez Liberation 85). All of human reality includes of course the areas where we are weak and distant from God—but it includes all of our weaknesses, not only the weaknesses of people who live in poverty. Until we see our own struggles and shortcomings as ideas in need of transformation we cannot focus on the transformation needed by those living in poverty. We must love people exactly as they are, now, and see their gifts and strengths and joys as clearly as we see their challenges. Together we can be transformed; together we can be saved.
Russell argues that we need to empower women to be “as co-strugglers in the gospel” (Russell 95), I am certain she would accept me suggesting that people without food are also equal co-strugglers, along with those of us who have plenty of food. Gutierrez emphasizes that we may also have an instructive role—that of helping those without enough to see how our systems have created this reality of some with enough and others with plenty. When individuals blame their life circumstances on their bad choices we need to expose the systems that have made bad decisions for poor people to be catastrophic, while bad decisions for people with plenty are merely annoyances and set backs. Part of our work is to “make the oppressed become aware that they are human beings” (Gutierrez Liberation 154) or even better help them to become agents of their own humanity (Gutierrez Liberation 155).
Many people who are poor already see themselves as agents of their own lives, but these are often the same people who fail to follow the restrictive rules of some food ministries. When we begin to see the humanity (and the divinity!) in the people who need food, we will begin to see the ways we are asking people who need food to adjust to be like us, and in response to that we will stop! The goal is a food ministry where people come as they are, and are respected for who they are, and loved as they are. Our goal must be to sit with the oppressed, even at the loss of our own social standing (Gutierrez Liberation 152). We cannot use the fact that we have more things than another person to lead us to the erroneous assumption that we are more important than that person, or that we should have more power, even here at this food ministry, than the person who needs food.
Do you know of a food ministry where people who need food, and people who have plenty of food, work together to create community? I'd love to hear about it!
Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation, History, Politics, and Salvation, Maryknoll NY: Orbis: 1988. Sr. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, Trans. 15th Anniversary Edition.
Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church, Louisville KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.