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Presbyterians Today columnist hungers for ways to feed others

Charity is not food justice

by Derrick Weston | Presbyterians Today

Derrick Weston

When I began writing this column, I talked about how the community garden I manage led me to bemoan the word “charity.” I soon realized that I was not alone in this. More churches seem to be moving away from charity models, reorienting themselves to justice models.

The common analogy is this: Someone is throwing people from a waterfall. Charity is caring for the people in the water after they’ve been thrown. Justice, by comparison, is finding out who is doing the throwing and dealing with the root cause. As we’ve begun to reexamine our ideas of mission and service, more of us are moving toward thinking about ways to right wrongs. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that. And yet there are still people in the water.

I think about this weekly when delivering produce to the places our community garden serves. When I go to the food pantry, there are always lines. People are hungry. And while I’m glad to be a part of many efforts dealing with the root causes of hunger, I question our willingness to let people drown (or starve, as the case might be) while we come up with big solutions to the big problems.

It’s critical that we not abandon the work of mercy while in the process of seeking justice. What that requires, though, is better models of feeding others — physically and spiritually. One of the places our produce is shared with is Soul Kitchen, which is housed in Baltimore’s Govans Presbyterian Church. Carolyn Anewich is the force behind Soul Kitchen, where she provides meals at no cost to the “guests” who come through the door. For Anewich, the dignity of the people being served is the motivation behind everything Soul Kitchen does.

Since the 2011 release of Robert D. Lupton’s “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help,” congregations have been examining their efforts in hope of finding more holistic ways to serve. That is a good thing. But there is the danger of overcorrecting. The answer to “toxic charity” isn’t no charity. Rather, our acts of mercy should be done in ways that restore people to wholeness.

Food is central to our acts of mercy for good reason. It is hard to pursue all the other things that God might have for us when we’re running on an empty stomach.

As the needs in our communities rise to the surface, especially as inflation remains high, may we be challenged to remember that God is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. Therefore, we should be a church that hungers for doing acts of mercy while pursuing paths of justice.

Derrick Weston is the co-host of the Food and Faith podcast. He is a member of Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

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