As the Chicago teachers’ strike drags on, teachers and administrators remain gridlocked, while politicians with their eyes toward November treat the dispute like an electoral hot potato. Meanwhile, one facet of the crisis has received scant attention—actual potatoes.
Untold numbers of Chicago students rely on school cafeteria meals for their daily nutrition. Public schools provide not only lunch but also breakfast for many students. These meals often comprise the only food that students will receive in a given day. Already shortchanged their education, many Chicago children have also been left hungry.
In the midst of this crisis, Chicago churches have responded. Before government programs and social service nonprofits could fully satisfy the urgent need, local congregations from the communities affected mobilized to fill the void. Without lengthy deliberation or resource reallocation, churches from the same neighborhoods as the closed schools offered their services to feed dislocated children. These efforts often took the form of partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies meeting other needs. In at least one instance, churches provided food to a YMCA that found its resources exhausted by abruptly reviving its summer programming for the second week in September. These partnerships united multiple community service providers for a simple common cause.
These cooperative efforts are important for at least two reasons. First, providing food for hungry children is simply the right thing to do, especially for Jesus’ followers. Two millennia ago a boy gave up his own lunch to feed Jesus’ followers, and ever since then they have been returning the favor. The church has a rich and largely unbroken tradition of caring for the physical needs of children, and I pray that it continues.
Although cultural, political, and economic circumstances continually drive the church to adapt how it offers these services, the basic gift remains unchanged. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 25, whenever we feed a hungry neighbor, it’s just as though we fed our Lord.
Second, the lunch ministry of the Chicago churches is important as a testimony to the church’s identity and mission. This witness is increasingly precious within a culture growing skeptical and often outright hostile toward those who claim the name of Jesus. Embittered authors have made lucrative careers and launched an entire industry lambasting “the God delusion” and arguing that “religion poisons everything.” They have surveyed history for the church’s missteps, and in two thousand years it has made a few. When their critiques ring true, they sting, and so they should.
But what these ardent atheists neglect to notice is that these failures are not the norm. Far from endangering society, the church is an essential institution sustaining civil society. Never is this fact more apparent than during a crisis like the Chicago teachers’ strike, when those most hostile to the church 51 weeks of the year are the first to request its assistance.
The Chicago churches are doing nothing heroic in their efforts; they are simply doing their best to fulfill their mandate to serve as salt and light to the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. While the light from this city may well shine throughout Chicago, what may perhaps prove more important is how it shines in the hearts of the boys and girls who go to bed full tonight when they expected emptiness. Christians offered their food without condition, just as they should. Churches imposed no public prayers, decision card check boxes, or proselytism programs as a prerequisite to lunch. No litmus test demanded any expression of faith or even thanksgiving before eating or excluded any child from the table. The food was a free gift of hospitality. One might even call it a gift of grace.
Were these meals then a wasted opportunity? Did the churches squander an opportunity for evangelism? Hardly. Instead, they planted a seed within each child affected by their love. You see, these days will remain in these children’s memories for years, perhaps even for life. An unexpected day free from school is a momentous event for a third grader, especially when the weather is turning mild but still warm enough to play outside. As hard as it is for adults to fathom, Chicago’s elementary children may remember September 11 as the day they didn’t go to school rather than the day that the Towers fell, just as those under 50 may not immediately associated November 22 with John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
I pray that the children do remember September 11, 2012 as a day of hope. I pray that the labor disputes soon resolve so that the children can continue their education with regular access to nutrition. And I pray that as they walk or catch the bus to and from school, they pass by a church and remember, “Those are the folks who fed me.” I pray that they tell their parents, their neighbors, and one day, their children. And I pray that some of these children will enter the churches themselves, perhaps bringing family along, curious about what else these people who suddenly appeared bearing food might have to offer.
Image copyright Royalty-Free/Corbis.
Joshua Hays is a writer and a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.