When our local foodbank was set up, we opted in. However, we decided to opt out a couple of years ago. Why did we do this?
We did not do this because we didn’t care about the poor in our community or because we thought that Christians should not be involved in caring for them. Nor did we opt out because we question the loving motives of those who run and volunteer for our local foodbank.
However, here are the reasons why.
1. We found that people were walking 30 minutes from a job centre opposite the foodbank to come and get a voucher from us so that they could walk back 30 minutes to pick up a voucher. The idea that you send people through a variety of queues and journeys apart from being a horrendously inefficient process does not communicate love and respect to vulnerable people.
2. The process is designed to give individuals a maximum of 3 vouchers. It’s an emergency system and that suggests it is designed for middle class contexts where people suddenly have a crisis due to a change in work circumstances or loss of benefits. The expectation is that things will get sorted out. We then used to get quite bossy phone calls from the centre if people fell outside of the process.
3. There was a mission confusion. My comments in my talk on Blessing the World about the vicar offering tins of beans as a real alternative to the Gospel were based on an actual conversation. I fear that when evangelical believers in their enthusiasm go to man food banks at liberal churches they are actually facilitating the on going idolatry of a social gospel.
4. The national charity at times seemed to get dragged into party politics and that’s not the business we are in.
Does this mean that practical love stops? No, again, as I said in the talk, a greater focus on gospel proclamation has led to a church family that is even more involved in its community, more hospitality, more watching out for those in need, more engagement with issues such as immigration challenges.
A lot happens in the context of our community cafe. This does include keeping some emergency food bags but they go hand in hand with getting to know people not as voucher bearers in the queue but real people in our community. We offer a community lunch where visitors have the option of putting a donation in a box, sometimes they can pay, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes people pay more than the asking price to cover others. We give opportunities for people to volunteer in the cafe. This may often be an opportunity to improve English skills, build confidence and gain work experience prior to return to employment. It’s a context where we can talk naturally about the Gospel and pray with people.
This is an alternative to the assumption that we do ministry to the poor by offering handouts.