Tough Questions with Tough Answers

by Thomas Turner, Director of Bishop Sullivan Center


     I operate two food pantries and a soup kitchen in Kansas City, Missouri. The two food pantries combined serve about 1300 families a month and the soup kitchen serves about 150 people a night, five times a week. That’s a lot of people in need of food.

     There are many other pantries in our city. The numbers of people needing food must be growing because our local food bank, Harvesters, just conducted a multi-million dollar capital campaign for a larger warehouse.

     As you can imagine, I frequently receive phone calls from churches and schools wanting to conduct food drives or to volunteer. Some schools have competitions between their classes to see which class can bring in the most food for our pantry. The winning class either gets to wear jeans on Friday or they get a pizza lunch.

     I’ve been in the food pantry business for over ten years now. In all those years, I have never once received a phone call from a church, school or anyone saying, “Tom, is there anything we could do to help so that people no longer have to go to a pantry? Is there anything we could do to help so soup kitchens are no longer needed?”

     Unfortunately, food pantries and soup kitchens have become part of our economic landscape. Students in schools actually have fun competing with each other to collect food. Food pantries and soup kitchens should be a scandal. In the richest country in the world, we should be ashamed that so many people have to beg to eat. A woman who came to our food pantry said to me, “It takes a big piece of my pride to have to come here and ask for food.”

     When there is a disaster, say a tornado or hurricane, and we see the victims on TV with their houses blown away, there is a sense of urgency and sympathy to help them. People not only are willing to donate items or money for these causes but do so with a feeling of sympathetic sadness. We say, “How sad those people lost their home.”

     I do not sense this same kind of urgency or sadness around the issue of people needing food in this country. Collecting food happens around holidays, though people need food all year long, and the collecting often takes place in competitive fun formats. The pervasiveness and seriousness of the issue seems to be missing.

     Fr. Richard Rohr, well-known Franciscan priest, author and speaker, once broadly described our church’s history in two phases. He said prior to 313AD, we were a church OF the poor. We were a church primarily made up of poor people. In 313 when Constantine made Christianity the state religion, we gradually became a church made of more well-to-do members and consequently, we became a church FOR the poor. We became a church that does things for the poor: collect food for them, build them houses, donate our old clothes and toys for them. Rohr opined that we will probably not go back to being a church OF the poor again; however, we ought to start looking at becoming a church WITH the poor. What does that look like?

     I think a church that is WITH the poor willingly looks at issues of social justice. A church that is WITH the poor raises questions like: Why are so many people in our city in need of food? Why does our local food bank need a larger warehouse? Why do we collect food in our church EVERY Thanksgiving without seeming to put a dent in the problem? A church that is WITH the poor is willing to advocate for changes in our government’s laws and policies that might help the poor become self-sufficient, even if it means a change in my own lifestyle and paycheck.

     As a church we do an outstanding job of charity. Or, in Richard Rohr’s words, we do a great job of doing FOR the poor. The challenge made by our church leaders, especially of late, is to do an outstanding job of justice, or an outstanding job of being WITH the poor. It will mean asking tough questions with tough answers.

Thomas Turner is the author of “That’s Not Fair!” , a curriculum designed to help students (6th grade and up) understand the main themes of Catholic Social Teaching. The program, having been endorsed by Bishop Raymond Boland, Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, includes activities and materials to help students gain a realistic understanding of the poor. The final outcome of “That’s Not Fair!” is to involve students in advocacy on behalf of people who are less fortunate, or who cannot speak on their own behalf.

© 2004 Thomas Turner - May be reproduced and used by teachers and catechists in their teaching ministry. Strictly for non-profit use.