In recent years there have been critiques of church-based direct service ministries, with most authors arguing that churches should engage in community development and end all direct service programs, save emergency ones. While it is clear that many types of local and national systems need to be changed to improve people’s access to affordable food, it is wrong to conclude that fear of dependence and/or other harm means that Christians should end their involvement in direct service food pantries, meals ministries, and community gardens. With 17.4 million U.S. households without access to adequate food resources, these food ministries are critical to the health of our nation. But these programs must be changed to account for their failures, namely the lack of interaction between those ministering and those being served: people who serve food need to be eating with people who need food, and people who lack food resources should be serving with those who have enough food. I call this shared ministry. While engaging in shared ministry, food ministries need to look for, and liberate themselves from, oppressive structures—i.e., classism—that separates people with material resources from those who lack them. This paper will explore the problems with direct service ministry, consider what Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 6:1-6 contributes to the discussion, engage with Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell for a liberation theology perspective, and then grapple with what it is that keeps ministries from shared ministry. I will then describe three examples of shared ministry found in the literature, propose a research plan to observe shared ministry, report on what I found, and the conclude with a description of shared food ministry.
In most direct service ministries in the United States, people with enough material resources are allowed to see themselves as almost god-like in their ability to give—they give not only resources but also services to people who are in turn seen as unable to contribute either skills or knowledge. People in need are not recognized as possible members of the congregations where they receive food, and are encouraged to adopt -middle class values as the only path out of poverty. Direct service ministries can perpetuate the focus on individuals as problems rather than identifying the systemic causes of poverty. Most importantly, direct service ministries often perpetuate the stereotype that people who lack material resources are defined by their needs—they do not have gifts to contribute to ministries, or presumably, anywhere else. One concern with direct service ministry is whether the programs create dependency, and whether as Christians depending on one another is necessarily inappropriate behavior. Several critiques conclude that Christians should stop all except emergency direct service ministries and instead engage in community development and systems change. While systems change is certainly necessary, direct service ministries should not be eliminated; they should be converted to shared ministries.
The Biblical witness concerning giving people the things they need is clear—in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says each person’s final judgment is based on whether they have given food (drink, clothes, welcome, visits, and healing) to people who need it. Christ says that he is not only within, but actually is each person in need. Even those who do not have material resources must be givers. Presumably, as someone gives to Christ, they will want to sit and eat with him, and will believe that he/the person in need has gifts and skills to offer. Acts 6:1-7 builds on Acts 2 in identifying the importance of eating and serving together in order to be part of the community of Christ’s followers. When a few in the community are neglected in the chance to serve the others, perhaps because of a language or cultural barrier, the apostles respond by fixing the meals program to be more shared—they create a leadership team made up of those who are culturally outsiders. In Acts a sense of belonging is created not only by eating together, but by serving together, regardless of an individual’s material resources. These biblical texts suggest that Christians are called to direct service ministry where there is an equal sharing, and an equal sense of belonging, between those who have many material resources and those who have few.
Liberation theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Letty Russell use the language of solidarity to describe the relationships that Christians both with and without resources are called to have with communities that have few material resources. Gutierrez emphasizes that material poverty is effectively a death sentence and that it is important that the Church does not spiritualize it. To effectively address poverty, conscientitzation is required—the people in poverty need to see the systemic nature of it, while the people who have enough need to see the role they play in perpetuating those systems. Gutierrez addresses the difference between community development and systems change and warns against helping people adapt to systems that are meant to oppress. Russell focuses on the wide depth of leadership among people who are oppressed, and notes that when we stop identifying leadership with those in power, we will find extensive leadership within the community. Direct service food ministries are called to build solidarity, conscientization, and leadership by eating with, listening to, and making safe space for the gifts , abilities, and even the leadership of the people who come to eat.
The biblical and theological consensus is that direct service ministries must engage people deeply enough to create solidarity and a sense of community. Ministries could do that by learning the gifts and skills of the people who need food, but for the most part they do not. Why is that? There are technical reasons for creating systems that prioritize fairness, equity, and order over relationship-building: it is easier, people want to feel good about themselves, funding rewards efficiency more than building relationships, and people fear being confronted with their own plenty. Not all reasons are specific to food ministries; there are systemic reasons to avoid building relationships across the gap in material resources. Our segregated communities isolate people of one kind from others who are different, and that isolation creates fear. Similarly, classism keeps us separate and wary of one another. Therefore a more liberative direct service ministry must not only create opportunities for interaction between the people with material resources and those without, but the program must consciously engage the systemic oppression in our society and in our programs, opening up the topic for frank discussion and working toward ending that oppression.
Direct service food ministries can do three things to address their problems of maintaining inequality. The first is for people who are serving food to engage with the people receiving the food by eating together, waiting in line together, gardening together. The second is to share the leadership of the program so that those with and without material resources are planning, cooking, organizing, serving, and cleaning up together. And the third is to attend to oppression—as a community the food pantry, meal program, or garden must learn about how class-based oppression works, notice the systems that are perpetuating that oppression, and work together to overcome oppression. Three books propose shared ministry. Using these books and the biblical and theological conclusions from above I will develop a research strategy to describe shared ministry in action in four U. S. congregations.
The four congregations identified for study were in Columbus Ohio, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Portland Oregon, and Granbury Texas. Two are Episcopal, two are United Methodist. I visited two food pantries, one community garden, and one meal program. All of the programs engaged in some level of shared ministry in that people who need the food were engaged in some of the work to produce and distribute the food, and some people who didn’t need food helped also. Interestingly in some programs there were very few volunteers who didn’t need the food. At the garden the spring schedule and transportation challenges meant that no one attended who needed thee food, but they reported that at harvest time there are volunteers who come in order to take home the food they harvest. Shared ministry in all the contexts was inefficient, chaotic, and awkward, there were conflicts and struggles. At the same time all of the volunteers reported a significant level of involvement, were proud of their contribution, and most reported feeling like they belonged to the ministry and were respected for their gifts. Everyone felt the food ministry they were part of was using the right approach in including a diversity of people as volunteers. The study was limited by some poor decisions I made for the surveys and by the short time spent at each program. Still, it is clear food ministries are trying to run themselves differently, are trying to be in solidarity with the people who need the food, and are finding shared ministry as an appropriate way to deliver food to people who need it.
Direct service ministry needs to adapt, but not be eliminated. Arguments suggesting that direct service creates dependence are unfounded, but there are real problems with the inequality that is perpetuated by ministries where only one class of person is allowed to serve. Food ministries can fix those problems by engaging in shared ministry, e.g., including the people who serve the food in the eating, and the people who need the food in the serving, and by addressing the issues of oppression between people with more resources and people with less. The biblical tradition calls Christians to serve others, regardless of whether we have plenty or little, and calls us to eat together to create communities of belonging. Liberation theology calls us to solidarity—deep solidarity, not just friendship. Both the people who serve and the people who need the food need conscientization—the ability to see the systems that keep poverty in its place. Our programs must face the way they oppress those they mean to serve, and work to be liberated from those structures and assumptions. The result will be ministries that start with food but are most importantly creating communities of belonging. Further study would find more programs where the ministry is shared; spend more time to look for evidence of belonging, solidarity, and conscientization; and look more explicitly for how they do, or could, address oppression. Another valuable study would explore the how to change an existing food program to shared ministry. It would be interesting to learn whether congregations who engage in shared food ministry become more motivated to engage in community development and community organizing. Crossing the boundary of difference in material resources may lead to additional community building, stronger belonging, and perhaps a changed neighborhood. Shared ministry is a step toward that.
 United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx Accessed July 22, 2016.