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Building relationships helps in the fight to end hunger, poverty

[Episcopal News Service] Street people used to frighten Edith Heller. "They were a little scary, and they'd say funny things, and they looked funny, and they were different."

"And now," she says, "they're my best buddies. I know the people on the streets … and I know why they sometimes hear things in their heads, but they have become friends to me."

Working at More than a Meal, the weekly interdenominational feeding ministry hosted at her Episcopal parish, Grace-St. Luke's in Memphis, Tennessee, made the difference. She got to know some of Memphis' homeless and other hungry people as "captain" for the program on fourth Sundays, when the church provides at least 200 servings of food to more than 100 guests at a point in the month when many people's pay and benefit checks run out.

Her experience shows what can happen when people put faith into action in combating hunger.

Developing relationships is the most critical part of mission work and leads to real advocacy, said Rev. Christopher Johnson, Episcopal Church officer of social and economic justice – which includes Jubilee Ministries and domestic poverty alleviation – and former vicar of Our Merciful Savior Episcopal mission in northwest Denver.  "You can't typically do genuinely meaningful advocacy until you have some kind of relational respect for the very issue and the people that you're advocating for. To really love your neighbor as yourself, that really requires a self-emptying … loving them because you actually are valuing them as much as yourself."

As Episcopalians across the country work to feed the hungry, they also are entering into relationships with those they serve, trying to offer "more than a meal" and to provide aid to help them out of poverty.

The first casualty of people in need is their sense of human dignity as they find themselves depending on others to solve their problems, Johnson said. "Every effort that we as an institution can make that fosters the development of relationship between the person who comes with an answer and the person who comes with a question, every relationship that we can create that helps incorporate a sense of dignity in those people: That is the most systemic, basic place where poverty is being addressed."

The 32nd Avenue Jubilee Center food bank at Our Merciful Savior, for example, feeds 200 families a week, Johnson said. "A significant number of our recipients were also the volunteers who helped make it happen."

At the national level, Johnson's office made 32 health and nutrition grants last year, funding programs such as community gardens. "They were really responding to the USDA's [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program, which was really targeting food deserts," he explained. "You might have significant urban places that simply don't have access to fresh food."

These gardens can provide a congregational fellowship activity but also often involve much of the wider community, including food recipients, Johnson said.

In another example of food providers and recipients working together, a husband and wife both feed and involve the community in a program they run at St. George's Episcopal Church in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, that serves three lunches and one dinner each week.

"You can't volunteer without actually also sitting around and sharing the meal," Johnson said. "You don't know who's giving and who's receiving because everybody is sharing together in that."

At More than a Meal in Memphis, "it's hospitality, but it's dignity," Heller said. "To me, they're guests that come in and sit down to a china plate, and we serve them and you get to know them. You hear their stories. It's a peaceful time, believe it or not, with 100 people to share a meal and chat and talk and serve."

Members of various churches volunteer each Sunday, and each meal includes a prayer time. Sometimes someone plays the piano, or a band or choir provides music. Sometimes local women knit winter caps and scarves for the guests. Some guests are homeless, but many are the working poor, sometimes families with children, Heller said. "And we have what I call the ‘widow table' – one table of very elderly women, and for them it's like going out to a restaurant, the only way they can afford to go out, and it's a special time for them."

"This is not just a feeding program," said Heller. She also serves on the church's outreach committee, which worked with other churches to launch a drop-in center where street people can spend time and meet with case workers who can connect them to services.

The church also operates a food bank, one of the first food pantries opened under the auspices of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, said parishioner Dorothy "Happy" Jones, who schedules the volunteers who bag and distribute the food. Grace-St. Luke's and other Memphis Episcopal churches help financially support MIFA, whose recently retired director, Margaret Craddock, is an Episcopalian.

MIFA screens and refers clients, who receive sacks of food based on family size. The pantry is open two days a week and typically sees three to 10 client families the first two days of the month, up to 25 later in the month, Jones said.

The bags are filled according to USDA proscriptions, she said. "We have to give them so much milk, so much meat products, so much vegetables, fruits."

"It's not fresh, it's frozen," she explained. The church has a freezer to store frozen food from the food bank and distributes powdered milk. The tough economy, however, has meant the pantry has had to buy more of its supplies because the food bank inventory has dropped, Jones said.

"The food banks – and I imagine this is true all over the country – are suffering," she said. "They're not getting in the stuff that they used to from the grocery stores."

As with the Sunday meals, the pantry seeks to respect the dignity of those it serves.

"I was in one room recently working quietly with the door closed," recounted the Rev. Gayle McCarty, associate rector at Grace-St. Luke's. "I could hear two of our long-time parishioner volunteers greet and serve our guests for the food pantry. It wasn't just … a cold exchange of handing someone a handout."

"There was warmth, there was politeness," she said. "It was treating someone with dignity and respect. There was no assembly-line rush."

Besides referring clients to food pantries, MIFA delivers 1,800 hot meals to seniors 60 or older in four counties five days a week. "It's mostly the 70- to 80-year-olds that are really in more desperate need," said Arnetta Macklin, vice president of senor programs. Some seniors face additional pressure in the current economy because their children have moved back in with them, she said. And MIFA is coordinating with other agencies to help seniors feed their pets. "Some of our seniors actually try to share their food with some of their pets when they don't have it."

MIFA offers utility and rent assistance. It also runs programs to help lift people out of poverty and hunger. The agency has a housing program for homeless people that lets them stay for a year, helps them secure long-term housing and tries to help them find jobs, Macklin said. A teen employment program that trains young people for college has graduated 161 since 2008, "which is huge," she said. "Oftentimes, when you're dealing with poverty and hunger issues, you're trying to just deal with the basic necessities, and college is not on the radar."

In Kansas City, Missouri, Episcopal Community Services tackles hunger in the dioceses of West Missouri and Kansas in various ways, including through feeding programs that served more than 1 million meals in each of the last two years, said President and CEO John Hornbeck. The Kansas City Community Kitchen, which serves lunch Monday through Friday, served 14,415 meals in June.

Marking September as Feeding America's Hunger Action Month, ECS participated in events to raise funds and awareness, including speaking engagements, a food drive, a wine tasting, a Slow Food culinary garage sale and a celebration of nutritious foods at Whole Foods. "We're hoping to elevate visibility as far as what we as a faith community do in service for the rest of the community around us, and at the same time we're also trying to elevate the visibility of the problem itself," Hornbeck said.

"People find it very easy to be drawn towards disaster relief, which is most definitely important," said Hornbeck, who attends Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Kansas City, Missouri. "The thing that is tricky to get across to people sometimes is that in our local communities around the country there are disasters happening every single day, but that we're so close to them and we have a tendency to become somewhat numb to them. Hunger and homelessness are two of the big ones."

Personal involvement is key.

"One of the strongest forms of advocacy for anything is getting people involved in it," Hornbeck said. "You can stand in front of a group of people and talk to them about hunger. You can provide flyers. You can have articles in the newspaper. But you get one of those individuals standing in a serving line feeding 500 hungry people in a two-hour period … that's a whole different level."

Beyond feeding people, ECS operates Culinary Cornerstones, which provides food-service training "for individuals that have significant barriers to getting employed," Hornbeck said. This includes individuals re-entering the community after incarceration and people who have completed substance-abuse programs. One student came from a domestic-abuse shelter. "She was an individual that had finally escaped a history of abuse that had gone on 15-plus years and, of course, had never worked because her partner never let her work."

Participants undergo 10 weeks of intensive, full-time training that includes classroom lessons, laboratory sessions in a full-scale production kitchen and in-service training ranging from upscale catering to preparing hundreds of meals a day in the community kitchen. They also receive job-placement help and extensive career-management training, Hornbeck said. Culinary Cornerstones works with more than 24 area agencies to provide referrals, training and continued case management.

It's a challenging clientele, typically homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, Hornbeck said. "All of these individuals are either currently in dire straights or are likely to become so fairly quickly."

Culinary Cornerstones, which places 65 to 70 percent of graduates, aims to help "those individuals that face truly significant barriers to take that step over to not only a job but some level of career stability," he said.

In New York, Cathedral Community Cares at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine pairs its Sunday soup kitchen – serving breakfast, lunch and a take-home supper – with tables of outreach volunteers who help clients with problems, such as their benefits running out, and connecting to agencies and services, said Mark Goreczny, program manager. Last year, the program served 15,000 to 20,000 meals.

A Food Stamp program prescreens people for benefits. Various health fairs provide free vision testing, HIV testing and other screenings.

"A lot of the hunger issues and health issues are interrelated," Goreczny noted.

Church feeding programs change lives of volunteers and clients alike. Heller gained a new perspective on the homeless by volunteering at More than a Meal. She also remembers a guest who had been struggling for years to obtain Social Security disability. When the money finally came through, she received a check for a lump sum and tithed $1,300 to More than a Meal.

"[She] had just been completely down and out, and she had lost hope," Heller said. "By coming to More than a Meal and by just listening to prayers and talking to people and having people be normal to her and kind to her – not giving things, not direction, just hospitality, just God's love – she remembered it, and so she wanted to give back."

-- Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Copyright © 2011 Episcopal News Service