Even those who don’t believe in the Bible as a source and guide from a higher power would be willing to concede that the stories of Christ’s social mission to feed the homeless speak to a degree of efficiency and discipline that could be a model, especially in today’s world where, in these precarious economic times, there is an imperative need to focus our efforts and limited resources. There are no accounts of the disciples stepping on each other’s toes as they went out into communities to work among those in need.
Contemporary inspiration, for me, arrived thanks to an impassioned plea by Brother Tim, of the Franciscan Friary, who addressed one of the potentially divisive issues that separates some of those eager to serve from the greater whole. While we are all here to serve others, he said, internal conflict arises when we are more interested in helping “because they are Christian” versus the idea that we do so “because we are Christian.”
In recanting his words, and the effect they had on me, I am failing to do justice to the power behind the idea.
What he was clearly getting at was the notion that so often, especially for religious and faith-based organizations, there is a drive to proselytize while providing a helping hand, and the aim becomes conversion over compassion. History is littered with examples of the wrongheadedness that results from such thinking.
One of the reasons I joined the executive board of the Over-the-Rhine Soup Kitchen was Father Tom Bokenkotter, who founded the Kitchen here in Cincinnati back in 1976 after checking out Dorothy Day’s House of Hospitality in New York City. As the story goes, Father Bokenkotter returned home and consulted with various social service organizations to see if there was this type of need in the Queen City. There was only one group at the time offering a free meal with an accompanying prayer service.
Father Bokenkotter started out with $700 and a collection of volunteer recruits, but what made his efforts unique was the fact that he never linked the support with an obligation to pray or be subjected to any kind of evangelization. Father Bokenkotter understood that we might never know how to address the reasons people find themselves in need, but that we should always do the best we can to be there to support them. And it is incumbent upon us to serve those people, no matter their color, creed or origin.
Over time, the Kitchen program has grown — it now includes kitchens serving warm meals on Vine Street and in Walnut Hills; the Walnut Hills location also has a pantry — but that basic principle from the mission has not.
Brother Tim spoke from a religious perspective when he said that we should do so because our “Christian” beliefs compel us to provide aid despite the religious affiliation of those we seek to serve. I would go a step further to say that it truly doesn’t matter on either side of this equation. Even though I may be Christian, I do the right thing because it is the right thing, and that right thing is not defined strictly by any one religious or political institution or its prevailing dogma.
People with the means and resources, whether time, money or manpower, should step up to help alleviate the suffering of others. At some point we have to break through the social and cultural categories and blinders we eagerly enlist to limit human kindness.
This is the same sad mindset that allowed the political season to limp along to its anti-climatic conclusion and continues to mire the sore losers in the mud. It is difficult to win votes and elections if you fail to see the universality of people and their needs (beyond their party affiliations) and strive to support them while working diligently to solve their problems. Now that’s a more perfect union of church and state.
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