Update: the second (and final) part of this article is up, where we discuss some ways to look at this theologically.
Just over a month ago, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia announced a controversial plan to ban the outdoor feeding of homeless individuals in the city parks and on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, home to many of this city’s finest museums, including the soon-to-open (and just as controversial) Barnes Foundation.
This has been met with the expected and understandable anger and protest from many of the city’s hunger-based non-profits and faith-based homeless ministries that participate in these outdoor feedings (the ban is still in process and has not been enforced yet). Some leading homeless advocates support it.
Many of these religious groups understandably feel like this move is an over-reach of cold, heartless government, trying to keep the church from doing its God-given call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Many have felt like this is an imposition on the religious freedom of the Christians of Philadelphia.
I would like to, as humbly as possible, disagree.
I’m a social worker in Philadelphia, and many of those that I serve (one of which is pictured above) have either been homeless, are homeless, or have bounced around from shelter to shelter while looking for permanent housing. I get to spend a lot of time talking about these issues with those that have and are bearing the brunt of these policies. This also means I’m connected to the intricate system of resources the city provides for the homeless; a system that has lowered the homeless rate dramatically in recent years. I get to rub shoulders with those doing the policy work; those that have really been working at this problem for years.
Hunger’s Not the Point
My sense is that the initial concern of religious groups over this ban is that they believe the city is taking food out of the mouths of the homeless; that people will starve not having their meal on the Parkway.
There is a wide variety of resources throughout the city that provide free food to whomever needs it. Do some people not know of these resources, and are these resources sometimes of lower quality? Absolutely. More work surely needs to be done. That’s why the Mayor formed a commission to work with those groups displaced by the ban to ensure that every mouth on the parkway, and in the wider Philadelphia area, has adequate resources.
Strictly speaking, only a minority of folks that currently get food on the Parkway will actually go any more hungry because of this ban. If you talk to them, many of them know the resources available to them, and just choose to come to the Parkway because they think the food is better, or they don’t want to be bothered with the counselors and case-managers at the shelters.
But if you listen to the words of those that have been feeding the homeless on the Parkway for years–those that truly understand the Philadelphia homeless scene–when they decry this ban, notice they don’t appeal to hunger as the reason why. Their reason is most often choice. You do not tend to hear them say “people will go hungry because of this”, instead they say “people should have the freedom to decide for themselves where they eat”. These leading outdoor-feeding advocates know that these individuals, for the most part, won’t actually be missing a meal because of the ban.
Choice may still be a valid point (more on that later), but let the Christians involved in this issue take note: that is still a very different reason to denounce this ban. Hunger is a pretty easy sell as reasoning to fight this. But Choice? I hope some of us pause and re-consider.
Religious Freedom’s Not the Point Either
I completely understand the immediate reaction by the Christians in Philadelphia to this issue (and I certainly sympathize with distrusting the government on these sorts of things), and I applaud that impulse in us to want to stand up for the powerless. But when we’re talking about “religious freedom”, what exactly are we talking about? Are we referring to our freedom to fulfill our sense of duty or to fulfill the goal to which we are called?
In other words, we need to be careful not to confuse the purpose for which we do these ministries with the plans we execute to accomplish them. The calling that God has given us as Christians is not simply to “feed the homeless outdoors”; it is to extend to them the same loving-kindness and mercy that was granted us when we were in our neediest state before God. It is to exalt the image of God within them, treating them as fellow image-bearers deserving of just as much good as ourselves.
Outdoor feeding has been a means to try and accomplish this call in Philadelphia. This ban is a limit on this very particular means, and not to the call itself.
“Religious Freedom” is an idea that is meant to protect religious people in their attempts to fulfill the callings they believe they have–not to ordain and bless every means they might employ to try and accomplish it. How we fulfill our calling is subject to many of the laws of the nation we find ourselves in: Church buildings must be up to code, tax forms by church employees need to be filed, and churches are subject to noise/nuisance regulations.
I’ve written before about how I believe the Church should submit to its earthly governmental authorities in all things until that authority prevents the Church from fulfilling its call to be the Church to the world around it. I honestly do not believe this ban does that. While it may restrict one particular way that religious groups and individuals have long used to serve the poor of Philadelphia, this ban in no way infringes upon the basic religious freedom we have in general to serve the poor around us in Philly.
Dignity vs. Choice
A word used several times by the mayor (and his opponents) in announcing this ban was “dignity”. He said that this ban has been put in place not in an attempt to rob the homeless of their dignity of relationships and being fed, but to restore their dignity holistically, guiding them towards the system of supports and resources the city has to offer.
As I said above, many of those that denounce this ban have done so on the basis of choice. They say that “true dignity” comes from the freedom to choose. As Christians, we must ask ourselves, does it?
All humanity has dignity because it is made in the image of God. We all are well-aware by now (hopefully) that when it comes to our choices, we so often want things that are not good for us. We frequently want to engage in things that in the end rob us of this dignity as the highest of God’s creatures.
How does God honor our dignity? I propose that it’s less about letting us do what we want, and more about acting for our good, sometimes even in spite of our choices.
Adam did not choose to receive the breath of life. Abraham was not wanting God to speak with him, nor did he choose to ask God for a covenant. David was not trying to be king. No one chose to have Jesus die for them. Paul was choosing not to follow God. I was never planning on living in Philadelphia.
And now we have a group of the homeless in Philly that want to eat unregulated food outside, while staying far from the supports and services that could help them and act for their good.
How then might we truly honor their dignity?
Tomorrow, I want to look at the story of the Bible and build a theological framework from which we can view and talk about these issues. It’s not enough to try and talk about why Christians shouldn’t be opposed to this ban; we need to have a positive and biblical idea of what we should do for the homeless in this great city of brotherly love.
Update: Part 2 is up.