Creating Conversation: Charitable food programs OK, long-term relief essential

Shadia Qubti was born and raised in Nazareth and is now studying at Vancouver School of Theology.

Our weekly Creating Conversation editorial gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church to respond to.

We asked Shadia Qubti to respond to Jonathan Bird’s accompanying comment, in part to model healthy conversation.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue either here on Church for Vancouver or on the CityGate Vancouver website.

I still remember my last in-person communion as if it happened yesterday. It was mid-March 2020 just before the pandemic restrictions started.

My church had organized a farewell dinner for a few members who were travelling back to their countries and, as was customary for our church, we took communion before eating dinner. At the time, we shared the same wine cup, and I remember that as the cup was passed around, I was anxious.

Initially, I regretted not sitting next to my pastor because then I would be the first to sip from the cup. By the time the communion cup reached me, more than a dozen would already have sipped from it. I felt conflicted. “Should I refrain from taking part this time? But if I do, would that offend anyone?”

Yet again, I thought to myself, “All the members show no symptoms and most likely have been self-isolating as a precaution, like me.”

I felt like I had to make a choice between participating in this sacred tradition or rejecting it out of a legitimate fear. At the time, my desire to participate trumped my Covid anxieties.

This story resurfaced as I read Jonathan Bird’s accompanying comment, ‘Eating (as) the Body of Christ during COVID-19.’ He addresses the new reality of digital church services, its benefits and shortcomings.

The main shortcoming he elaborates on is the inability of technology to deliver the full meaning of the Lord’s Supper. This shortcoming exposes a larger question – what is the impact of the mediation of technology on the character of both participation and the participant, and how the latter understand the relations between themselves?’[1]

Pre-Covid, I took for granted the meaning of an in-person gathering of individuals who commit themselves to be a community of God. The current reality poses an existential challenge about what it means to be a human community amidst social distancing, and whether digital gathering conveys an embodied community?

To my surprise, Bird presents his argument in a refreshing and creative way, connecting the Eucharist with food programs. He explains that “to celebrate the Lord’s Supper properly is to take our worship public for – and as – the common good.”

This understanding of the Eucharist challenges the dichotomy of the church as a spiritual caretaker and government as material caretaker (prosperity, legal equality and social peace). In this way, when it comes to the pandemic, the churches elevate private belief as essential while the government elevates public goods and services.

Yet at the same time, churches have been encouraged by the government to continue, if not increase, hosting and conducting charitable food programs, due to increased demand.

Bird does not encourage churches to accept the government’s call to provide social services. He does ask us to share with “neighbours in whom God is visiting you (Matthew 25)” – not only because the church has the facility to welcome them, but also because these programs are an embodied expression of the Eucharist.

To Bird, sharing meals with the poor should be part of the church routine, and not just during a crisis.

This is the first time I have come across a public theological understanding of the Eucharist which I hope can encourage more Christians to consider their churches’ engagement in charitable food programs. In a way, Bird uses a different theological entry point, but we both meet at the same outcome.

The church has a role to play in addressing the city’s needs, especially among the most vulnerable. As members of the community of God, more so in a time of crisis, we should do all that we can to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isaiah 61).

I do not have potent disagreements with the article, but I mention two points for further thought.

In my experience, when theological understandings are applied to the charitable sector, whether intentionally or not, they tend to locate ‘people in need’ as passive characters (recipients) in the larger Christian narrative.

Though Bird does not say that, this is part of the problem. He does not mention who they are or what their needs are besides the fact that 1 in 10 British Columbians can’t afford enough proper nutrition.

Moreover, if a food program is meant to address food insecurity, then the church needs to discern whether their intended beneficiaries suffer from any level of food insecurity. According to a 2018 report, the following are indicators of most food insecure households: female single-parent households with children, low-wage job holders and households reliant on social assistance, just to name a few.[2]

So, if the church is in a neighbourhood with such households, the church discussion should be around scope and frequency of food programs as well as complementary (online) programs to support long-term relief (I will talk more about this in the next paragraphs). But if a church is not located in areas where food insecurity is prevalent, then the church might need to reconsider.

The second point is related to the absence of the theological understanding of church engagement as an application to restore God’s peace (shalom), or what I consider social justice activism.

In short, this understanding states that poverty, due to sin, has caused broken relationships on multiple levels (self, God, creation and others). Through Christ (vertical reconciliation), we have been restored and as Christ followers, we are to extend the same restoration to others (horizontal reconciliation).

This understanding not only encourages me to engage in charitable food programs, but also to reimagine ways (with other stakeholders of course!) how to address their root causes. This is especially important, bearing in mind that food programs provide short-term relief.

“While using a food bank may provide temporary food relief for those who access these programs, there is no evidence that food banks are a solution to the very serious problem of food insecurity in Canada.”[3]

This is not to say that churches should not be involved in offering food programs, but rather that they should be also be engaged in long-term relief.

“Research suggests that increasing the economic resources of low-income households reduces food insecurity, providing a foundation for effective, evidence-based policy responses to this problem.”[4]

The challenge of reimagining is especially hard under the shadow of the pandemic, where food insecurity has increased. To assert some self-criticism, this understanding, too, can position ‘people in need’ as passive characters in the larger Christian narrative. Even more dangerously, it can create a saviour complex and we need to be mindful of that.

Engaging in charitable food programs, or any other social justice initiatives, does not depend on a successful outcome, but rather on our social ethic to restore relationships to the best of our abilities.

Going back to my last in-person communion experience, I can’t say I would do the same thing if I could go back in time. (I did not get infected.) However, what keeps recurring is the internal conflict I experienced then.

A few months ago, I was introduced through a friend to a food program in Coquitlam. I was conflicted whether I should engage in a charitable food program considering the pandemic. Should I partake in such a program despite the (very low) risk of getting infected? Or, considering Bird’s theological understanding, should I partake in a public Eucharist during a pandemic? Double yes!

I accepted the invitation because now is the perfect time to live our theology. The interaction with other volunteers so far, while adhering to Covid protocols, has been an unexpected opportunity to learn about some of Vancouver’s vulnerabilities as well as its resilience.

1 Jason Goroncy, “Holy Communion and COVID-19,” ABC Religion & Ethics, April 07, 2020, accessed May 26, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/jason-goroncy-holy-communion-and-covid-19/12129848
2 Tarasuk V, Mitchell A. (2020) Household food insecurity in Canada, 2017-18. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF). Retrieved from https://proof.utoronto.ca/ see also, “Household Food Insecurity in Canada,” PROOF, accessed May 26, 2021, https://proof.utoronto.ca/food-insecurity/
3 Tarasuk, V., Fafard St-Germain, AA. & Loopstra, R. The Relationship Between Food Banks and Food Insecurity: Insights from Canada. Voluntas 31, 841–852 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-019-00092-w
4 Tarasuk, V., Fafard St-Germain, AA. & Loopstra, R. The Relationship Between Food Banks and Food Insecurity: Insights from Canada. Voluntas 31, 841–852 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11266-019-00092-w

Shadia Qubti has worked in peace-building and advocacy initiatives for 15 years in local and international organizations in Israel and Palestine. As a Palestinian Christian, she is particularly focused on amplifying the voices and perspectives of women and other minorities in a variety of ways, one of which was in the Women Behind the Wall podcast.

Shadia was born and raised in Nazareth. She studied International Relations and English Language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Conflict Resolution and Nonviolent Action at Trinity Dublin College in Ireland, and is currently pursuing a degree in Interreligious and Indigenous Studies at Vancouver School of Theology.

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1 comment for “Creating Conversation: Charitable food programs OK, long-term relief essential

  1. Thank you for Shadia’s learned comments in reply to J. Bird’s reflection.

    It too intimates pertinent research and the active life of a committed student connecting to the wider community and world.

    Two themes come to mind that I wish they’d been developed further.

    One is that understanding of poverty which is rooted in one’s sinfulness. Is it the person that is sinful or those sinning against them by withholding justice (St. Augustine: charity is no substitute for justice withheld)?

    Secondly, I would hope for reflections on how ‘relief’ is extended beyond mere charitable measures – does this mean and involve organizing power for change via justice-making?

    In Shalom/Saleem,

    Barry

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