Christian Ethics and Issues

View from the Food Bank

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

Target Audience: Evangelical Christians, The Wealthy, The Poor

In this article I will discuss:

  1. Food Bank Communities
  2. Three Observations
  3. Helping the Poor
  4. Teaching People How to Fish
  5. Conclusion

Preface

Some things that I write on this blog are analytical. They may not be personal, but this post is very personal to me. I grew up in an upper middle class home in Mississauga. We were not rich, but far from poor. I never thought about poverty or what it was like to be poor until later in my life. I have battled various disabilities most of my life, and my father, being a gracious and dutiful parent, tried his best to shield me from some of the harsh realities other people who battle similar disabilities face every day. When he died, though, for the first time in my life, I was really on my own. I had heard about food banks, but had never had to use one until I returned to Toronto from Moncton, New Brunswick in 2013. I began frequenting a food bank that was just out of my area. I would go there for lunch every Tuesday. I am not sure what your concept of a food bank is, but this food bank served amazing meals every Tuesday. I had some of the finest meals at that food bank I had eaten in a long time. They would serve dinners like roast pork, with roast potatoes, fresh veggies, and dessert — for free! Sometimes, I sat down to meatloaf, cottage pie (often mistaken for Shepherd’s pie), roast beef, and at Christmas, turkey.

Food Bank Communities

Every social structure in our society has a community, a group of people who identify with that community. The community that you might find at a country club golf course, would likely be really rich people who preen their egos, get a bit of exercise, and plot how to protect their wealth. [I am not even going to try to hide my contempt for self-absorbed wealthy people.] The community in a sport’s bar would be sports enthusiasts of a particular sport, perhaps, or maybe people who enjoy the atmosphere of a sports bar.
At a food bank, the common denominator, or the community is poverty — living below the poverty line.

Three Observations

In my years of attending food banks, I have observed three things about people who live below the poverty line.

Constant Debt

It has been my observation that poor people are constantly in debt. For much of my life, I was constantly in debt. I am blessed by living in a low-market rent apartment building (rent controlled/subsidized), and that has freed up some income, but I am still well below the poverty line for my region of Canada. Most poor people spend more than they take in. Unlike people who are gainfully employed, people who live under the poverty line, often spend money trying to catch up with the rest of society with things like clothes, technology, food, housing, transportation, and even assisted living devices. If you take in less than $20,000 in a year, even if the money is tax free, it does not take long to blow through that $20,000 and be in debt.

Constant Borrowing

Life below the poverty line can often be one of constant lending and borrowing. Imagine sitting at a meal at a food bank when someone shares their need for $10. One person at the table pulls out a $10 bill and gives it to the person in need. As soon as the needy person takes the $10, the one who had just parted with the money turns to another friend and asks if he can borrow $20. It may not be that stark. The pattern, though, is quite accurate. In reality, the community of poverty merely circulates the money amongst themselves. Over the course of a month, or a year, the ebb and flow of cash will even itself out. It may not be money. It could be cigarettes, food, alcohol, clothing, or any other commodity that is often in short supply.

Constant Bad Money Management

Say you get about $15,000 per year from disability. The money is tax free. The government also chips in a few hundred dollars in tax rebates throughout the year, but you are unlikely to hit $16,000. You do not have a car. You live in a renovated home with 5 other people. You share one kitchen, and two bathrooms. On paper, you have enough to live, barely. There is no money to save, even if you can stay between the lines every month for the entire year. There is no money for new shoes, a new winter coat, a new TV, or computer. You buy your cell phone on a plan and it can cost you almost $100 per month for the plan, which is $0 down. Any extra expenses, such as medical costs that are not covered under your plan, can send you into oppressive debt. Often people who are living below the poverty line struggle with addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, and things like cigarettes that merely add pressure to an already thin budget — well no budget really because you don’t have enough money month to month. Credit card debt is oppressive, but it is also part of your life. You can, by the way, be working, poor, and have this experience too.

Helping the Poor

I am so thankful to the many, many wealthy people who give generously to my church, to local food banks, and who have been kind enough to help me through tough times. They are people who see their wealth not as a trophy to be held, to be shined, to be hoarded, but as a means to help others who are less fortunate than themselves. These are people who do not judge people who live below the poverty line. They are people who are thankful for the surplus God has granted them and want to help others in their community. I am so grateful to those people.

A lot of people want to help the poor, but I believe that wealthy people (and “wealth” really depends on your perspective) are radically different in the way they view money, how they handle their money, their ability to budget, spend wisely, and deny themselves gratification that money can offer.

Earlier this year a rather well-to-do couple from my church decided to begin helping me. At first they would help me with cooking because I have arthritis and often find chopping vegetables and food preparation difficult. Then they began helping me by buying groceries. This was an amazing gift for me. Having lived below the poverty line for so long I had some catching up to do. I needed clothes, and I decided to buy other items, some needs, some were things that I merely wanted. For the longest time, life was really great. Each week I thanked them profusely, both in person when the groceries were delivered, and in text messages. Each week that I got the groceries and the food they prepared, I heard this little voice in the back of my head (not a real little voice) Enjoy it while it lasts Bob. You know it isn’t going to last.” This is a voice that I often hear about friendships or virtually anything in my life that is good. It won’t last.

I looked at my bank account one week and decided that I could make a significant purchase. Within in a week, a misunderstanding happened (I misunderstood a text message) and the support suddenly stopped. All of it — gone! No more prepared food. No more groceries. Nothing. It had vanished like the morning mist. I had not been doing any significant food shopping for months. Suddenly, I had to shift gears once again. What that little voice in the back of my head told me was true. I should enjoy it because it wasn’t going to last. I did enjoy it. I am still so grateful to this couple for their amazing generosity, compassion and support.

After the support came to an end, I realized that life for this couple continued pretty much as it always had. They are well off financially. One of them even told me they were “moving on to support others”. Perhaps they were upset with me for misunderstanding the text message. I handled it badly. I own that, but I had to wonder how often people who engage people living under the poverty line bring their support to an end without notice, thus abandoning these people and not thinking about what that does to the finances of these people. Do they have an alternate community that can pick up the slack? I was fortunate. I was able to shift gears, but what about others who might find themselves without food?

My point is that if you are a person who has the means to help people, such as myself, helping people like me is a bit more complicated than just handing someone a bag of groceries.

Teaching People How to Fish

There is an old story about this man who would go down to a river every day to fish. He would catch enough fish to feed himself for the day. One day another man was walking along the river and saw this man fishing. The man who was fishing asked him if he would like lunch. The hungry man said yes, and they enjoyed fish for lunch. The next day the hungry man showed up again. This was repeated for several days. Finally, the hungry man showed up for lunch and the fisherman handed him a fishing rod. Puzzled, the hungry man asked if they were going to have lunch. The fisherman said that they were, but he was going to teach him how to fish so he could catch his own fish. After that, the hungry man never showed up for lunch again.

I believe I am like most people who live below the poverty line. From one month to another I barely have enough to get by. Things like going to the dentist once or twice a year is just not an option. Buying clothes can only happen when I get a boost from the government or someone offers to take me clothes shopping. Most other things are beyond my reach.

I am probably like most other people living below the poverty line because I am one of the world’s worst money managers. I have no idea how to manage money, although it isn’t that difficult. I am subject to impulse buying. Sometimes I will buy something and before it is delivered I cancel it. I am so thankful that Amazon is set up so I can often cancel my purchases when I realize that I really don’t need something.

What would happen in my life if someone, instead of “buying me fish” every week committed himself/herself to creating a budget for me and was willing to monitor my spending until it became a habit? So, instead of constantly shelling out money to support me, they spent their time teaching me how to fish, and were committed to the long game. So far, everyone that has offered me help has been content to feed me fish instead of teaching me how to fish.

Conclusion

Jesus said that we will always have the poor (Matthew 26:6-13). They are an ever-present reality in our cities. We see them sleeping in parks, in subway stations, in entrances to buildings, but we also worship with people who live below the poverty line every week. There is this huge gap between people of wealth and the poor. It seems to get wider and deeper as time passes, or perhaps it is just that I feel it more than I did when I was younger.

King Solomon wrote: Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done. (Proverbs 19:17 NIV). It is interesting that Solomon did not mention money, but kindness. The prophet Micah encourages us to “do justice”, “love kindness” and, “walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8 NASB).

Like so many things in the Christian life, the Bible lays out principles, then expects us to apply them to out lives. Perhaps being kind to the poor, for you, might be involve hospitality, including people who live below the poverty line in family celebrations if they do not have family. It might mean paying for a week’s groceries, buying clothes, helping them upgrade technology. It might also be mentoring them, teaching them “how to fish” (manage money and save, even a few dollars per month). It might be helping people who live below the poverty line feel more included in a faith community, or in the larger community.

Comments

How do you feel when you see someone who you believe is living below the poverty line? What do you think is an appropriate way to help them? Do you feel any responsibility, if you are a person who has money, to reach out to them? How did you feel when you read this article? Is it fair that my bias is with the poor? Do you think God has a bias to the poor?

Your comments help us connect to the larger blogosphere. Your comments also help me develop this blog and they help me develop as a writer. Please offer your comments. Thank you.

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