Welfare, Charity and Ministry: Postures in the Helping Relationship

by Gilbert R. Rendle, Jr.

Gilbert R. Rendle, Jr., is pastor of Central United Methodist Church, Reading, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  May 2, 1984, p. 464. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


What makes running a soup kitchen and food pantry such a tough job is that so many others want us to do it differently. Some want us to “save their souls before we warm their bellies.” Some want us to help the hungry, but to “keep them in their place” while we do it. Some want us to screen people according to income and possessions before we feed them, and some want us to close down before we lower property values.

Running a soup kitchen and a food pantry has turned out to be a pretty tough job -- for surprising reasons. Donations of food and money are sufficient. There is a core group of volunteers, each of whom gives ten to 20 hours every week to keep things running. They are backed up by 150 volunteers who cook the soup, clean the kitchen, buy the foodstuffs, and tend to a thousand other jobs. And the 150 to 300 people who come to us for food on any given day are great. They are, for the most part, polite and gracious. We laugh with them, cry with them, sometimes argue, sometimes yell with them. So, all things considered, the daily operations run pretty smoothly.

What makes running a soup kitchen and food pantry such a tough job is that so many others want us to do it differently. Some of our sister churches want us to “save their souls before we warm their bellies.” Some of our contributors want us to help the hungry, but to “keep them in their place” while we do it. A local state legislator wants us to screen people according to income and possessions before we feed them. And the local neighborhood historic district committee wants us simply to close down or move our operation out of the neighborhood because its members don’t like the way we attract “those people” to our church building; it’s bad for property values.

All in all, one of the hardest parts of running a food program is trying to remember who we are: a local church in an urban setting that has extended its active ministry to address the issue of hunger as it manifests itself on the streets of our own city. What posture are we going to assume in our relationship with the hungry? Experience over the past two years has taught us that different people (and different institutions) choose different postures from which they offer help.

As a matter of fact, one of the gifts and challenges the food ministry has given us is the opportunity to learn about the various helping postures that institutions adopt toward groups of people with substantial needs. We have learned the differences between “welfare” “charity” and “ministry.” We have come to understand some of these postures more clearly, to fight openly against others, and to struggle to achieve the one we cherish most. Perhaps a description of these positions would help in explaining our struggle.

Welfare: This is the institutionalized stance that many community agencies and helping groups take toward poor people in our society. It is backed by local, state and federal financial support and a bureaucratic organization. Welfare is clearly a major element in the helping relationships in our nation. It has a history that includes governmental participation under the New Deal and the Great Society. That history also includes substantial religious and secular participation by the local community through United Way and local crisis and support centers.

But there is an underlying factor in the posture characterizing welfare: the question of eligibility. The essential question asked from the posture of welfare is: “Who deserves to be helped?” Clearly, this question is asked because the helping agency needs and wants to be equitable. Nonetheless, the person turning to the agency or institution for help discovers that if one doesn’t meet the eligibility requirement, one doesn’t get helped. Working along with our local food bank, an outgrowth of the national Second Harvest net-work, we have been given recommendations (not requirements) that recipients of our food ministry have incomes under 125 per cent of national poverty guidelines ($6,075 for a family of one or $8,175 for a family of two. etc.) and that we inquire about any government assistance they might be receiving before we offer help.

We understand the need for such questions and can support the effort to be just and equitable. Limited resources in the face of growing local and national need for help require that ways be found to use resources to their best advantage; this is a matter of stewardship, a fundamental Christian principle. But in our own situation we fight quietly against two basic assumptions underlying the welfare system. The first is that someone other than the recipient can always determine that person’s need. At times others can perceive our real needs better than we can. But the fallacy of the assumption at the heart of welfare is that this determination can be made statistically for all people and defined in eligibility guidelines: “If you don’t have a need defined by our guidelines, you don’t have a need.”

Our food ministry experience has turned up many exceptions to that rule. For example, one man who eats at our soup kitchen sleeps outside under a local bridge for protection. The unemployment check he receives pays for a tiny apartment for his wife and children. But his marriage is failing and he can no longer live in harmony with his wife; however, he cannot provide for both himself and his family. According to the guidelines, he receives his fair share. But a man who sleeps under a bridge in winter without wanting to does have a need.

The second assumption we fight a against is that the institution and the workers who provide welfare are somehow “better than” the people coming for assistance. Accompanying this attitude is a technological approach analogous to the nation’s pervasive medical model. Like the cardiologist who treats the patient’s heart without ever listening to the patient’s concerns about relationships, work problems or diet frustrations; like the orthopedic surgeon who sets broken bones but never hears about the patient’s need for attention from family and friends (making a broken hip a “valuable” possession); so the posture of welfare offers prescribed help without paying attention to the underlying human need. How else can we explain “emergency assistance checks” that take six to eight weeks to reach recipients? How else do we explain FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds that can be poured into a community for a 16-week period, and then withdrawn -- as if the need had been satisfied and the help were no longer needed?

Charity: It is with this concept that we have our largest quarrel, for charity, unlike welfare, belongs to us. It is part of our Judeo-Christian history and tradition. Charity is hard to fight because it looks a lot like ministry (which will be described later). But charity has become distasteful to us because its sole foundation seems to be the personal (not institutional or national) assumption, “I am so much better than you that I will help you, even though you don’t deserve it.”

Charity is much more subtle than welfare because it often does help people according to their needs instead of according to prescribed guidelines. But the people helped are never included in the helper’s life, values or understanding. For example, a few volunteers in our soup kitchen work hard to get the soup ready, but tell racist jokes in the presence of a black volunteer who also eats his meals there. A few helpers in our kitchen make the classist assumption that cleaning the pots and wiping up spills on the floor are jobs for the kitchen’s clients who assist with the program, not for the church or community volunteers, who are “above” that kind of labor. The message, over and over, is that by virtue of race, class or status, the helper is better than and apart from the one being helped.

The posture of charity is the hardest for us to deal with, because it excludes awareness that we need the people whom we are trying to help. It considers only their need for us and assumes that although we participate in their salvation, they have neither the resources nor the abilities to participate in ours. For these reasons we must oppose charity forthrightly because it is for our own salvation that we are fighting. Charity is ultimately hardest on the helper, since it permits a false sense of power and independence and so undercuts our awareness of our dependence on God and interdependence with others in the gift of life.

Ministry: In our own church life and involvement we struggle to assume a posture of ministry. We acknowledge that we have come to this posture partially in reaction to the aspects of welfare and charity that most disturb us. We seek a helping relationship instructed by faith and informed by experience.

Ministry establishes no eligibility requirements for being helped. The posture of ministry does not allow room for numerical or statistical judgments of a person’s needs. Insofar as possible, eligibility is mutually determined -- by what we have to offer and what others feel they need. It becomes an issue of responsible “sharing.” People engaged in ministry run the risk of being “taken” or “used” by some who do not need what we offer but who take it nonetheless. We live with examples of this problem, but we continue to put the burden of eligibility on those who come to us. Our willingness to run this risk has kept our programs open to some people who might not meet an eligibility requirement but who come to our church because of personal needs. Eddie, for example, used the soup kitchen to get through a debilitating emotional depression-connected with a job loss; and Hill, though financially stable, is so socially limited that his personal contacts are only with people who share our lunchroom with him.

We try to address the differences we see between helpers and those being helped. without drawing the quick conclusion that the helper is somehow “better.” As we watched people’s hunger needs met by a bowl of soup or a bag of groceries, we have also watched helpers’ needs for self-understanding and self-acceptance met as they learn to live and work with people whose lives differ from their own. It has been a stroke of God’s grace to experience how nervous, self-conscious middle-class people whose identity, happiness and self-worth are tied to job, possessions and community status can be moved by people who continue to be happy and have feelings of worth -- yet have no job, possessions or status. We have come to understand that ministry is the paradox of the gospel: the first shall be last, and the last first. But contained in that paradox is the new awareness that first and last are in fact interdependently connected in a way that often makes it hard to distinguish who is first, who is last and why.

Ministry operates not only in relation to the human needs it seeks to satisfy, but also in relation to the promises and values of one’s own religious faith. According to the Bible, sometimes when one encounters the “stranger” one is, in fact, encountering God. Abraham welcomed passing strangers into his tent and was confronted by God. The two men who walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, talking with a stranger, discovered to their surprise that their companion was the risen Christ. The parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 tells us that when we have fed, clothed, visited and cared for the strangers in our midst we have done these things for God.

Ministry is the effort to grow past, to evolve beyond, the limitations of welfare and the indifference of charity. It recognizes that our own relationship with God is not different from our relationship with the people of our own world who may seem most unlike us. It is here that the notion of “hospitality” offered by Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out most applies. For ministry is possible when we are able to convert our hostilities (our racism, classism, sexism, ageism) to hospitality which will allow us to convert our enemies (those most unlike us) into our guests (those valued for their differences). Ministry discovers that in seeking to help others who become our guests, we paradoxically experience God’s grace in our own lives.

Is ministry the only posture the religious person should assume in helping others? Clearly, our answer must be No. The welfare model is necessary in American society because it is so difficult to effect an equitable distribution of our large portion of the earth’s resources. Major inequities between groups of people continue to necessitate a large-scale effort to gather resources from some and distribute them to others. Similarly, the posture of charity, as limited and as seductive as it is, has some value. It does permit people to participate directly through acts and indirectly through monetary gifts, in an effort to alleviate the injustice that is part of our world. And it invites people to share from a perspective of faith and from a desire to address need.

But above all, the struggle we are experiencing in our center-city church, its soup kitchen and pantry program is a struggle to recognize and defend the legitimacy of the posture of ministry. We are struggling to maintain a posture of ministry, while understanding stewardship as a process of gathering foodstuffs from a complex network of sources, and of making them available in a hospitable way to people who need them. We struggle to maintain an attitude that invites the stranger to be our guest; in this process we can discover our own relationship with God and the paradoxical truths about ourselves that God would have us know.