May 19, 2019
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Sherwood, Oregon in the Nineties and early 2000’s had a lot of hungry people. HUD housing and section 8 apartments neighbored subdivisions with $400,000 custom homes that somehow all looked the same. These neighbored working farms, some of which had century farmhouses, next to hobby farms with mansions, next to run-down trailers, next to migrant farmer shacks. There was a wide range of economic realities in our small town, but one experience united all of us kids; Honey and Peanut Butter Sandwiches. You see, at my public school, no one ever went hungry. If you forgot to bring your lunch, or lunch money, or if you were waiting for the paperwork to clear for the free lunch program, our lunch ladies always had massive jars of honey and peanut butter, and whole grain bread. All of us, at some point, ate one of those sandwiches. We all knew the taste of lean times, of families pushed to the brink. To this day, that taste combination is associated by my classmates with lean times, be it of families struggling financially, or overwhelmed by work and forgetting to pack or pay for a lunch.
I never experienced going hungry as a child, but my mother raised me to be on the lookout for those who didn’t have enough. She was aware that when she would drive me over to a friend’s house, we never quite knew what we would pull up to; I could be going to a mansion on acres of Christmas Trees, a working farm with a hundred year old farm house that recently switched from a party line to a private number, to HUD housing. In her own quiet way, my mother always made sure my friends ate. She would call ahead to my friends’ parents, and sometimes would send me with food to share. From Boy Scout camping trips, to band competitions, to swim meets, my mother quietly slipped money to kids, or picked up the bill, when she could sense that getting fed was a struggle. She made sure that folks didn’t have to ask for help, because growing up with a home-making mother, and High-Tension Power Line Union worker, she knew what it was to have to care for one another. My Mom’s family, before they moved West, were grocers, owners of the Kaiser Family Store in Hibbing Minnesota, where little Bobby Zimmerman used to steal candy. If I ever meet him, now that he’s all grown up and going by his stage name of Bob Dylan, I’ll have to remind him. In Hibbing, if folks were hungry, people knew and did what they could in small ways to help. During the depression, it wasn’t uncommon for families to survive off the support of the community in informal ways, and by hunting. My Maternal Grandmother came from New Zealand as a War bride after World War II, where hunger was understood to be a communal problem, with bread and provided to families with children. So, my Mom did her part, trusting that collectively we could meet the challenge, but always did her small part.
Between my Mom’s silent charity and our school’s lunch room, I saw, over and over again, the social safety net that our communities had built to prevent the direst consequences of hunger. That is, until the net started to fray at the hands of the myth of folks pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. A cultural shift was under way, marked by the vilification of folks utilizing public assistance, with white supremacist dog whistles of welfare queens and white trash that pushed hunger into the shadows. Reductions in food stamps increased the need for food banks and private support of hungry people. Emergency food became the main source of nutrition for large swaths of our country. Hunger in Oregon was hard when I was a kid. At first, the Oregon Food Bank figured that the effects of gentrification and the disruption of our traditional economy were just temporary blips. So, they stepped up their canned good collections and worked with local farmers and distributors to fill the gaps. But it wasn’t temporary. By the time I was in High School, as our government pulled back, Half of Oregon’s population was accessing emergency food at least once a year. Logging Communities were decimated by fires and changing forestry policies, and the promised recovery and new industries never emerged. Steel mills closed, and word got out that Oregon had cheap lands and affordable homes, with good public schools, and while many folks experienced a boon, lots of folks got left behind. Thousands of children grew up in isolated food deserts, many in rural towns. The politics of the age didn’t help. For decades, Oregon had a hybrid hippy and pioneer mentality that we were all in this together, that we were our sibling and neighbor’s keeper. But as steel mills and fisheries closed, more and more folks found themselves desperate.
Hunger is a growing challenge in our society, one that has become increasingly invisible, as it paradoxically grows. Nearly half of our public school students utilize free breakfast and lunch programs, and on weekends backpacks are filled with food so that students can eat.
One of the perversions of this age is that the vast majority of folks accessing emergency nutrition programs are employed full-time but are paid such low wages that they cannot feed their families. Whereas food insecurity used to often be temporary, we now have multiple generations of neighbors who are living in poverty, while the businesses and institutions they work for are reporting record profits.
This kind of wealth inequality is hidden from most of us. When we look at unemployment numbers, we can miss the shocking reality of those who are underemployed and underpaid, and those who have stopped looking for work after years of unemployment. Some of our neighborhoods have 40% unemployment, but if they often don’t fit within the requirements to be counted as “unemployed.” For folks who are returning citizens, who have been incarcerated, often for non-violent drug crimes of survival, it can be nearly impossible to get a job, let alone one with a living wage.
The hiding of hunger has led to a false sense among many of us that hunger is a problem “over there,” in foreign countries destabilized by violence and famine. And while it is true that we desperately need to help eradicate global hunger, Scripture reminds us of how vital it is to practice hospitality to those hungry in our midst. Because when we bring the homeless poor into our homes and synagogues, mosques, and churches, when we physically share our food with those who don’t have their daily bread, something changes. We can’t look away as easily. That’s one of the reasons our Muslim Siblings fast during Ramadan; during this holy month, fasting from food and water while the sun is up is an act of solidarity. Muslims give 2.5% of their income to charity, and often the vast majority of that is given during Ramadan when folks are experiencing what hunger is.
I’ve spent a lot of time with hungry people in my short 33 years. But I have to tell you, I have been surprised lately how seldomly it has happened since I moved to Baltimore. In Philadelphia Eric and I would walk down the street and he would be recognized by actors and queer community leaders, with folks yelling out “Hey, are you the Guy from the Moth!” Meanwhile I’d be recognized by folks experiencing poverty and housing insecurity, with folks yelling out “Hey! Broad Street!! When is the Mail open today? What’s for dinner?”
Part of our calling as Disciples is to be in relationship with those who are hungry. Isaiah 58 even calls for this kind of relationship to be our version of a fast. In the midst of the recent collapse of their nation, the people of God are instructed to rebuild their society with an eye to
The Maryland Food Bank estimates that one in every nine Marylanders (including one in six children) suffer from food insecurity. Food insecurity causes more than just hunger pains. It can lead to ongoing malnourishment and struggles in school due to an inability to concentrate.
Our friends at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches encounter hungry people every day and hear the stories of what’s leading to folks struggles. If you’re looking to volunteer, they offer a unique opportunity to serve. And I want to share another opportunity with you as well.
At Towson Presbyterian Church, after worship each week, they have a unique hospitality hour. Each week, Lunch is served from 12:00—1:00 PM in Thompson Hall for anyone in the community who is hungry. Teams from the congregation cook a meal, and provide salad, milk, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for guests who would like to take with them. These intergenerational teams often include folks who entertain with piano or guitar music or play a game of chess, and after serving lunch, volunteers make a plate for themselves and sit with their guests for conversation and build relationships.
If you’d be interested in going after worship some time, once we shift to worship at 10:30 AM starting June 9th, let me know. We can grab a plate and have a conversation with our often invisible neighbors.
Because something changes when we sit around tables. It’s not about information gathering, or research; it’s about hospitality. When we know the face of hunger, we can find the courage to ask the hard question of “Why? Why is it this way?”
The people of God were called to know their hungry neighbors and break every yoke of oppression however they could. As we advocate for federal programs to eradicate international hunger, let us also remember how close to home the need is for creative solutions, for well-paying jobs, effective public transportation so that people can afford the time and energy to cook for their families, and the need for food stamps to be adequately funded so that our local grocers can stay in business, while hungry families can have access to healthy food that provides adequate nutrition.
Hunger is a symptom of cultural challenges, and people of faith and good will can only start to unravel its complex causes when we know, and work with those struggling in hunger’s grasp. Let us risk hospitality, so that we can partner with the Living God who is making all things new and spreading a joyful feast in our midst.