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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

November 4, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 32

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

Visit "Pray with Us," a new feature on the Web site of the Erie Benedictines.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Who's being sacrificed for what -- and why?

By Joan Chittister,OSB

"No one," Woodrow Wilson wrote once, "can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach." No one, Wilson was warning us, can possibly be the kind of person -- the kind of citizen--we all like to think we're developing in this country: God-fearing and kind, law-abiding and civil. Hunger, by this measure, is as much a political lesson as it is a social one. Too bad we seem to be forgetting it.

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We have a lot of people in this country who do not eat. In fact, we have a lot of children in this country who do not eat. A recent Department of Agriculture survey determines that 11% of 108 million families in the United States either have no food in the house or worry about not being able to buy any -- an 8 percent rise in that figure since 2000. In 3.8 million of those families at least one person skipped meals regularly because they couldn't afford them -- a 13 percent increase since 2000. Of those, over 500,000 of the subjects of the survey were children.

My Benedictine community knows that the figures ring true because feeding children is one of the things we do. "I never knew you were supposed to eat three times a day," one child told us as we put vegetables and meat on her plate after school one day.

Never in history, the government says, have we had more hungry people in the United States than we have right now. And we have never had more crime either. Go figure.

Soup kitchens have been around for a long time, of course. They emerged in the greatest number in U.S. history as a response to the Great Depression of 1929. Then, they stayed on to our own time, both a conundrum and a fixture. Who haunts such places? And why? And why can't we get rid of them?

A mental picture of the average soup kitchen clientele persists. The hobo image of the Depression drifter who rode the rails from one part of the country to another, looking for day jobs and begging at the back door of churches and convents when no work existed has become an icon of hunger in this country.

True, the picture of the itinerant jobless morphed a bit after the depression into an image of shiftless derelicts from Skid Row districts. But the change did little to put the issue of hunger in America into proper focus. These, the popular imagination decided, were simply irresponsible creatures who got what they deserved from their wanton ways. Even some churches ignored the problem. If they simply sobered up, stopped "sinning," got a job and worked hard, ministers taught, they wouldn't be sodden drunks sleeping on sidewalks. Morality itself, the preaching implied, required that we ignore such people-"for their own good."

To feed a person like that, the preachers felt, simply contributed -- "enabled" -- the sin. "Rugged individualism," -- the old "anybody who wants to do it can get ahead in this country" -- warred with the notion of public responsibility for the poor. It also refused to acknowledge the changing nature of work in U.S. society.

People who had ever been out of work themselves understood the problem, of course. Politicians, by and large, did not.

Now, in the year 2003, here, in a country where high paying jobs require highly developed skills in science, technology and finance, a whole new population -- a permanent underclass fueled by natural causes like lack of education, physical sickness, poor mental health -- is developing.

Low-paid service workers on minimum wage salaries struggle to feed themselves and their children. To do it, many of them -- the working poor -- do full-time work for part-time pay. Others work two jobs for part-time pay and no benefits. At night, in order to pay the rent or buy the used car they need even to be able to get to the work they finally find, they go to bed hungry. And so do their children-- with all the stunting of brain and body that implies for future citizens of the United States.

The local soup kitchen in the town where I live began to fill up with children. The situation affected everyone. Parents were ashamed to have to feed their children there, so many asked for takeouts instead. The children were uncomfortable surrounded by the silent, and sometimes sick, adults around them. The staff -- all nuns and volunteers -- shocked at first by the change in population, found themselves more and more saddened as the number of children grew and grew.

It was time to open a "Kids Café," an after-school soup kitchen for children.

Now, though a total of 60 children per meal would be nearer the ideal serving capacity, sometimes close to a 100 children, ages 6-17, all of them certified "needy," find their way to the Kids Café every day after school. Before they eat, the volunteers tutor them. Afterwards, they play games with them in the gym. They provide a "store" where "money" earned for doing Kids Cafe jobs by the children themselves -- wiping off the tables, picking up their dishes, taking out the garbage -- can be spent on supplies. Most of the soup kitchen children bought their Christmas gifts in the Kids Cafe store last year. The most popular items were not toys and candy. The most popular items were cereal for their brothers and sisters and shampoo for their mothers.

Nevertheless, the new national budget continues to cut human services for the sake of human destruction while we crow about the surge in the economy and give more tax breaks to the wealthy -- and 9 million Americans, a rising number, are still out of work.

To trim its own budget, the State of Pennsylvania has plans to "reauthorize" (read "redefine") school lunch programs by distinguishing between "needy" children, those 30 percent below the poverty line, and "very needy children" whose families are 85% below the poverty line -- and providing school lunch programs for only the "very needy."

Result: A lot of our children won't be eating three meals a day again -- in the wealthiest nation in the world -- while companies who gave to George W. Bush's election campaign will get millions of dollars in unbid contracts to rebuild what we destroyed in Iraq.

"The Kids' Café" is a program of Second Harvest Network. When the program began in 1998, there were 180 Kids Cafes in the country. There are more than a 1,000 of them now.

"A hungry people," the Roman writer Seneca said, "listens not to reason, nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers." But few if anyone listened to Seneca's warning and we know what happened to Rome despite all their vaunted Roman Legions.

From where I stand, it looks like our children and our schools and our medical insurance plans for children are being sacrificed for our Legions. It seems that somebody here and now ought to pay attention -- if not to Jesus at least to Woodrow Wilson and the Roman poet, Seneca.

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