As many Americans sit down at Thanksgiving to break bread with family and friends, there are some who feel a sadness that everyone does not have the means for a feast in late November and so they want to volunteer to serve a meal to the "less fortunate." There are thousands who reflect on the holiday and want to take a day to help the hungry. Reservations to serve Thanksgiving meals are typically full in June of the year, and some of the big providers take reservations the previous year for this Thanksgiving. Then there are those religious organizations who feel it is important to "minister" and serve those who stay outside. This is a core belief for some to bring their understanding of God to people having a rough spot in their life with something warm to fill their stomachs.
There are so many who call this month wanting to serve homeless people or want to take meals to people outside. We understand this thinking and we know that this is how many religious communities expand their reach. At the same time there are many cities cracking down on this activity such as Los Angeles and many Florida communities. Before there is any misconceptions about what we have to say in this post, it must be clear that NEOCH is absolutely opposed to any government regulating any religious organization from "ministering to homeless or hungry people." We have fought any attempt at legislation in Cleveland and in many of the Southern cities in the United States who try to restrict access to food. NEOCH would love to see all food served inside in a manner respectful of the population, but we understand that many churches feel that enduring the weather is part of the experience of distributing the food. It takes many back to a Biblical time with explicit directives from prophets and even God to serve the hungry. We are clear that we will fight any attempt for government to restrict religious outreach or restrict access to food.
In saying all that, there must be some responsibility among the churches and religious groups to not harm the people living outside. Too much food or too much junk food can kill people. We had a problem with volunteers wanting to come downtown to serve food only on Saturday or Sunday when there were a dozen other groups doing the same thing. Fragile individuals with various health issues would hoard the food and eat it Wednesday when there was no meal in the downtown. This food would spoil and rot without refrigeration and these guys would poison themselves. We had rats attracted to the sites where this bounty of food was being served. There were no bathrooms and not enough trash containers that created other issues. There was no coordination; no clean up, and people were going to the hospital because of the poor food distribution. Many of these mentally ill guys would throw away all the pasta or vegetables and keep only the Hostess cupcakes or sweets served with each of the 7 meals on Sunday. They would be sick and would be getting very little nutrition from the food being served. I have no idea how the spiritual enrichment was going, but the food was killing people.
Again, it is inappropriate for government to jump in to regulate this situation, but the religious groups need to act more responsibly. What we did in Cleveland to avoid legislation and avoid people dying was develop a "Covenant" for the groups. They agree to coordinate schedules and move to a more appropriate place to serve the food. The big issue was a large space with proper trash and a bathrooms available so people could wash up before they eat. The churches got to continue to minister to people who are resistant to shelter or those who are hungry outdoors in an environment that they were comfortable. The City got the groups to move away from the Public Square, but did not pass a law to restrict access to food. Everyone got what they wanted and we do not see the issues we had in 2006. The system is controlled and the church groups saw the potential harm they were causing. They had not realized the health issues and chaos they were causing among social service providers and City leaders.
Resist government restrictions, but don't close your eyes to the problems! Spirtual outreach comes with some responsibilities.
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