29 August, 2004

The evils of organized religion

I spent Saturday morning working at Catholic Parish Outreach (CPO). I volunteer every fourth Saturday of the month, unless I'm out of town. I've done this for a couple of years now, long enough at any rate that I can remember when CPO was in a smaller building on Capital Boulevard. We gave food to 36 families in three hours today, 12 families each hour, one family every five minutes. It wasn't the busiest of days; one day last year we had over 50. Part of this is the economy, but part of it is the fact that migrant farm workers don't need as much help in the summer.

My job is to assemble an order of food on a cart, then take it out to the clients' car. (As you see, we call them clients.)

This will be long again (sigh...) so I've divided the post into several sections:

What we do
We only serve people who have a referral, which they receive from various social service agencies. We give them what should be one week's worth of food. After that, they can't come back until 30 days have passed. If you do the math, it shouldn't surprise you that we gave food to a little over 900 familes in July.

A typical gift of food includes:
  • one bag (1-2 people) or box (3 or more) with:
    • detergent
    • pasta
    • pasta sauce
    • cereal
    • toothbrush and toothpaste (if we have it)
    • crackers and/or cookies
    • two cans of vegetables (maybe more; I forget)
    • soup (if we have it)
    • rice and/or beans
  • another bag (1-2) or box (3+) called the overflow, with:
    • snacks (peanut butter, crackers, etc.)
    • drinks
    • baking supplies
    • tuna
  • bread
  • dessert
  • meat
  • deli sandwiches and/or meats
If the family qualifies for TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) they receive an additional box (1-3) or two (4+) of cereal, raisins, soda, and various vegetables.

Our benefactors
Where does this food come from? This is one of the advantages of organized religion: a lot of it comes from the Catholic Church. Every month, each parish collects food and money from parishioners. The local bishop also gives money to CPO. The food we give away, obviously; the money we use to buy additional food, pay bills (electricity, water, rent, cleaning company, taxes), etc. To the best of my knowledge, everyone who works there, works as a volunteer. For some mysterious reason they ask us to sign an attendance sheet; the running joke is that if you don't sign in, you don't get paid.

Another source of food is, obviously, the federal government: that's where we get TEFAP. I don't know if the government gives us anything else, aside from referrals.

A third source of food is, well, the food retail industry: companies like Harris Teeter and Krispy Kreme. They give us a huge amount of food, not so much out of the goodness of their hearts, as out of the desire for a tax break. As I understand it, two local women noticed that grocery stores and restaurants were throwing away a lot of food that was perfectly good; they just didn't want to have it on the shelves the following day. The women canvassed around, and learned that a lot of companies were quite willing to donate this surplus food to charity, especially because they get some sort of tax deduction on it. So they started an Interfaith Food Shuttle with a station wagon (or something to that effect), driving from one store to another, and distributing the surplus food to aid agencies.

We also receive food from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, started by the local Episcopal Diocese.

The clients
Our clients are a mix of the American poor. Most are black, or Latino. The Latinos sometimes speak English, and sometimes they don't. Their children almost always speak excellent, unaccented English, even when the parents speak poorly. Latinos frequently drive a pickup truck or a van, and occasionally two or even three families will come along. It's rare for Latino men to enter CPO; their machismo prohibits it. They usually sit outside while their women (and children) wait in the building, pick out clothes, and wait for me, Lynn, or Kathy to bring out the food. There is an occasional Latino man who will come into the building, and today we had two. Both were carrying infants.

There's a fair number of whites, and on rare occasions I see an Arab family, with the women wearing head scarves and all that.

Almost all the clients come and go in their own vehicles. Most of the vehicles are in excellent shape; some are new and expensive. Sometimes I wonder if this new vehicle explains why they're at CPO: a new vehicle on a credit deal that turned out to be not so good after all. (If car companies were honest, they'd advertise: Low credit? No credit? BIG PROBLEMS!)

Some of the vehicles, however, are in obvious disrepair; I remember one lady's van's transmission didn't work quite right, so she couldn't go in reverse. A number of the vehicles are filled with work tools and/or toys, and frequently the client tells me there's no room in the trunk for the food; could I put it in the back seat?

Today was unusual in that the very first two clients didn't come in a car; they came by bus. I ended up leaving their food with them at the bus stop. It was a humid day, but a large tree afforded them some shade. They didn't have to wait very long at all, but that's the first time I've seen that.

The volunteers
To my knowledge, all the volunteers are parishioners of local Catholic churches. Most are in their 50s, or older. In fact, I know only one other volunteer anywhere close to my age, and I think Doug is younger than I.

The head honcho on Saturdays is Don Bierbeck. He knows everything there is to know about CPO, such as where to find plastic gloves, whether we have any baby seats available, etc.

Lynn has worked there a little longer than I have. She's a local schoolteacher, and her school year started again recently, so she was talking about that today. Lynn usually makes bags of produce, but sometimes she helps distribute food.

Two other long-time volunteers are Michelle and Kathy. One takes interviews; the other... actually she interviews, too.

Another Kathy helps assemble boxes and helps distribute food. She's a little hyper, and has to replenish her energy with an occasional doughnut.

Aline helps assemble boxes. She had a friend today, whose name I forget. I used to assemble boxes until she showed up one day, and that's when my main job became food distribution.

Silvia sits near the door; she greets people and gives them a wooden card bearing a number. Silvia speaks Spanish, which is a huge help. We used to use names instead of numbers, until some twerp realized that he could steal other people's food because we don't really know them; we just handed out food to whomever replied to the name. So, we moved to a system of numbers: the clients must gives us a card with the number of the order; otherwise, we don't give them the food.

We also have another interviewer who speaks Spanish. Unfortunately, I forget her name. I've also forgotten the names of the two women who help distribute clothes. There was a third one this last time, so I'm in even worse shape. What can I say? I knew their names once, but we only see each other once a month, and I rarely have occasion to talk to them.

On occasion, we'll get a group of high school or university students who have to perform some service project.

The Facility
The current building lies in a commercial center; we are part of a large building with Horne Moving Systems on one side, Sherwin-Williams Paints on the other. We share our space with some other departments of Catholic Social Ministries. I don't know all of what goes on at CSM, but I seem to recall a sign directing people to English-language classes, another directing people to computer classes.

Clients enter into the smallish greeting room, where they receive a number and are invited into a waiting room behind it. There, they sit and, well, wait. There's reading material, toys for children, and a television that sometimes shows cartoons.

When the interviewer is ready, she calls a client, asks to see the referral, determines how many people are in the family, shows the client where he can find some additional food we have available (potatoes, mushrooms and bananas today), also books, toys, and children's clothes they can take home. All this is situated in a large hall leading past the interviewers' offices.

Beyond this hall lies our "food assembly area" (for lack of a better term). Here we have four refrigerators and several stacks of shelves with boxed and fresh food. Interviewers bring back a sheet of paper that tells us how many people are in the family, as well as any additional requests they may have, and we assemble their order based on that information.

Finally: two double doors on the back wall lead to the warehouse, which is larger than the rest of the facility combined. There you find more stacks of boxed food supplies, a walk-in refrigerator and a walk-in-freezer, and usually Doug, who assembles TEFAP order back there.

Here and there, you find a crucifix with a dried palm leaf hanging between Christ and the cross, or an image of Christ. We have a few secular, feel-good posters too; today I saw one with a drawing of a bee that advised me to Bee Happy! Yeah, yeah...

Aside from hanging crucifixes, we do virtually no proselytism. We don't see that as our job; our job is simply to feed the poor. Sometimes we'll put a prayer card in with the food; sometimes I'll wish the clients, God bless! once they've received their food.

So, why do we feed the poor?

To begin with, it's fun. It gives me a reason to get out of the house for a few hours, to think about something outside the little world in my head. I get some exercise, some comraderie, etc.

In addition, our Christian faith demands that we care for the poor; for example:
  • Matthew 25.31-46; indeed the gospel of Matthew places care for the poor higher than performing marvelous works in Christ's name (cf. Matthew 8.21-23)
  • James 1.27 states that charity is requisite for pure and undefiled religion
Catholic spirituality advises the faithful to seek the face of Christ in the poor and in the suffering. This is what drove Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example; it's what drives her missionary order even today to live with no additional comforts than those they serve have themselves; it drives the Dominicans of Hawthorne to give medical assistance to terminally ill cancer patients who cannot afford it (and only to those who cannot afford it); for a long time, it helped drive Catholics into religious orders like St. Vincent de Paul's Congregation of the Mission.

On the other hand, we also try to be Christ to the poor: giving ourselves out of love for them. That's not always easy; the people who come are usually polite and grateful, but there is the occasional bad apple.

In any case, there's a world in need, and we try to fill that need, when possible. One day, we might be on the other end of that chain. Probably not, but how many wealthy Germans of 1910 expected to be miserably poor in 1920?

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