What is it about the pew that makes it easier to help the person beside you than the bus shelter or the park bench?
I've had a few twitter arguments this week, which is a thing I generally avoid because the internet is dark and full of terrors, but now and then I get fired up about something and it happens. The obvious ones, of course, were to do with the Parkland shooting, but that's a subject too deeply embedded in my heart to even write about right now. The longer and more ongoing one, one I'm still partly having, came up on Tuesday, in a conversation about the proposed changes to SNAP benefits. (I haven't been able to find it again, but there was a thread of indigenous people posting photos of their commodity boxes as an example of what kinds of things the government thinks belong in poor people's diets; the examples are predictably absurd).
In the midst of a thread on the topic, I came across a woman who proposed eliminating food benefits altogether in favor of church pantries, and I experienced what I can only describe as a record screech in my brain.
Now, I bring up religions and faith and spiritual practices a fair bit here, so it might be a fair assumption that I'm religious myself, but that's not entirely accurate. I describe myself as Unitarian Agnostic; I know my Bible like I know many philosophical texts as a source of things to think about and a record of the way others have thought about them, but not as a rule book or as a definitive source. Deities, similarly, are in my mind a tool we use to better know ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and like all tools, we can use them well or badly. In practice, I like to think this comes out as expressing the better parts of what faith can offer: living kindly, thoughtfully, and wholeheartedly. It just doesn't come from a religious place.
That said, though, I do respect the ability of inclusive congregations of many kinds to provide comfort, support, and even aid to their communities. These congregations are, in many communities, among the last remaining places where people of all ages gather together for common purpose, and when they are at their best, they are vital resources for their communities and the individuals within them.
But they're not always at their best, and many people of a wide variety of religious backgrounds do not feel safe in the congregations they know. In those cases, my general rule is that if someone tells you they don't feel safe, whether it's in a place, with a person, or whatever, the solution is not to tell them "oh, you're totally safe." It's to find out why and address the problem. If someone tells you they're not safe, the first step is to believe them.
So the question that follows is this: what makes it more appropriate for people to help each other through a religious organization than through other places in their communities? When the congregation becomes a place where the neediest don't feel safe, our communities need other opportunities to gather and care. In theory, it's the same people, the same needs, and ultimately the resources come from the same root place: those who have enough.
Ultimately, I can't consider the question of caring for our neighbors as an issue of religion, but rather one of a personal sense of responsibility. I feel responsible for my neighbors and for making sure they have what they need, within my ability. Because my community is diverse and large, some of that care is mediated by government management of my taxes that fund services, which I gladly pay because I have enough to spare, and I live under a government now that, while it could absolutely be doing better, does a decent job of attempting to meet basic needs reasonably well. In the modern world, that's part of how we care for one another.
"Church will help you" only works if the community is working through the church. If "church will" doesn't mean "I will," then it's just passing the work along to someone else. If you do mean "I will," then the answer is not only to go to church, but to go out into your community to meet those who don't feel safe in your congregation and find out what you can do. It's to work to create and maintain functional government that prioritizes people. It's to make the calls, write the letters, pay your taxes, and offer to shovel the elderly neighbor's sidewalk.
There's a grace I love, and though I've been unable to get a reliable source on it, it comes to mind often. I think it's relevant here:
To those who have hunger, give bread;
to those who have bread, give a hunger for justice.
A newsletter on life, current events, media & culture, and living in wonder amidst it all.