A Free Lunch: The Spiritual Economics of the Church’s Most Cliché Ministry

Another taste of our recent issue on Food & Drink! Order your copy here!  The soup […]

CJ Green / 3.14.17

Another taste of our recent issue on Food & Drink! Order your copy here! 

The soup kitchen at my church is currently in the midst of a cold war among its volunteers. On one side we have the pro-oil-and-vinegar contingency, armed with organic produce and health concerns; on the other side, the crusaders of ranch dressing are stuck in their ways. You’ll find me standing unapologetically behind oil-and-vinegar lines, and I don’t mean to brag, but, as one of the soup kitchen’s head cooks, I make a bitchin’ salad. Fresh greens (often from a local garden), walnuts, cukes, strawberries if they’re in season, and the freshest orange and red tomatoes that pop-splash in your mouth, drizzled to perfection with a scientific balance of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It could be dressed no other way.

Anyone who’s ever worked in food service knows, however, that the customer is always right, and the soup kitchen is no different. I recently caught sight of a guest picking at his plate, saying, “This salad ain’t got no dressing.”

Unable to stop myself, I craned over and said, “Actually it has oil and vinegar—there. And there. See?”

He nodded knowingly. “Got any ranch?” A chorus of agreement rippled from the rest of the table.

I felt that time and space were collapsing around me. “Sure,” I said through my teeth. I stalked back to the kitchen and extracted a massive bottle of ranch from the refrigerator. White crust had gathered around its plastic screw-top. I flipped the bottle, and with a fart it oozed out into a paper cup, up to the brim. I brought the cup back to the table for all to share and watched one man pour the entire serving onto his salad; it spread out over the spinach like a large white cat. “This all you got?” he asked, scraping out the rest with a fork. “Ranch dressing…this stuff is the truth.”

Before we go any further, we have to acknowledge that a soup kitchen’s reputation precedes it. You can’t even mention it without someone nodding knowingly as if to say, “I get it. You’re a good person.” In many a church sermon about the futility of good works, the soup kitchen is the first to go: “God doesn’t need your good works! He doesn’t need your soup kitchen volunteerism. Sola gratia, friends!”

True enough: even the most touristic volunteers will catch a whiff of self-righteousness hovering over the stovetops. In the kitchen, we’re a lot like the vindictive Elder Brother in Luke 15, counting our hours, boosting our egos with the idea that we are the good helping the needy, the stable bracing the wobbly.

It’s not without its challenges. As with every expression of Christian ethics, ideological disputes force us to ask ourselves, when it comes to giving, how much is too much? Every once in a while, aspiring politicians disguised as “volunteers” show up to explain how soup kitchens are bad for the local economy.

Let me be upfront and admit that I did poorly in AP Economics, but I do remember a few things from that class—namely that my tall, high-waisted teacher had the thinnest, longest fingers I’d ever seen. He had a heavy Boston accent, too, and, on the first day of class, he explained that the key to passing was in one core principle: “TANSTAAFL!” It was an acronym, he explained: “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!” At the time, my classmates and I ate it up—we loved it. We wanted T-shirts that said TANSTAAFL, we wanted mugs. We wanted everyone at school to know that nothing was really free, that someone had paid for that. (We really just wanted everyone to know we were learning economics. Nerds.)

TANSTAAFL, it turns out, is a principle that holds true even in the Bible. In Exodus 16, for example, we read the story of the bread from heaven: after circling for years in the wilderness, nary a GPS in sight, the Israelites are dizzy and uncertain of where their next meal will come from, so God agrees to “rain bread from heaven” for them. Though seemingly given at no cost to God, the bread arrives with something of a price tag attached: it’s not a gift but a test, and one that the Israelites fail. (In order to assess their trust in him, God demands that they leave no leftovers for the next day. Anxious and hungry, they store up anyways.) This is one of several examples, particularly from the Old Testament, in which God makes a lesson out of what seems to be a gift, not unlike, for example, a parent who lets his kid eat a family-sized bag of Cheetos to teach him a lesson about belly aches. A price is paid.

In the New Testament, the Bread of Life is given with no ulterior motives but at a grave cost to God. The payment here was made by the giver, not the receiver and, because it was paid in full, it was and remains a totally free lunch for anyone who comes to the table. Free, in this sense, doesn’t mean that no one paid for it but instead that it arrives with no ulterior motives. Likewise, the soup kitchen is totally free for anyone who walks through the door but is paid in full by…well, someone else.

When I started volunteering there, I learned pretty quickly that the adage “beggars can’t be choosers” is idealistic baloney. Beggars tend to be choosers, in fact, and if a giver is really a giver, and not a seller, then he will allow them to be. No volunteer could anticipate the choosiness with which our guests approach the serving station. You’d expect picky eating from your great aunt who had a childhood maid, but it’s a great oxymoron when someone with dirt-caked hands and a halo of must says, “Are there onions in this? I really don’t like onions.” “Oh, tomatoes? Not for me.” “I’ll take just a little bit of rice, in the corner. Just a little bit. Just—does that look like a little bit to you?” Boiling beneath our placid servant smiles is the desire to scream that beggars can’t be choosers—“You’ll take what’s given to you, and you’ll like it!” Instead, usually, we comply, because it would not be a free lunch if we demanded a thank you with every bite.

Which may explain why, from a volunteer’s perspective, the soup kitchen is a place where all hope of control is lost. The jostling crowd is unimaginably diverse, in both prspective and appearance, often seeming unruly. They tend not care about noise levels or hygiene. They tend not to care about healthy food options.

At the soup kitchen, you’ll find kids whose plates of Mexican casserole are bigger than their heads and moms who will only eat goldfish. You’ll find middle-aged men injecting insulin at the table and teary-eyed girls breaking up with their boyfriends. Perplexingly, you may also encounter some very collected, clean-looking individuals in button-downs. You may find some guests asking for seconds, some of whom will re-enter the line incognito, hoods drooping low, pretending it’s their first plate. Some will ask you for the recipe, and some will tell you point blank, “I did not like this.”

It’s around 12:45 when you realize that your own stomach is rumbling, that your head hurts a little, that you’re cranky because you had hoped to please everyone, and you glance over at that casserole, which is already cooling off and crusting over, but you no longer care because you’re hungry after all, so you grab a fork and grab a plate and stick it out and ask Nancy to slap something on there, and you realize, then, that you are one of them. You sit down.

The real beauty of a place like the soup kitchen is that the Elder Brother in Luke’s parable will only be able to hold out so long before he begins salivating at the sight of the fatted calf steaming on the dining room table. Here, the older brothers are as close to the party as they’re ever going to get. The soup kitchen gives everyone a chance to get right in the mix, not leaving their issues at the door but bringing them to the table, slamming them down for everyone to see.

My goal as a soup kitchen cook isn’t to help the poor; it’s to make a meal so good-looking that everyone, no matter who they are, will smack their chops. Hunger helps us take a seat. A recent article by Susan Rinkunas in Science of Us explained that “hunger is a more powerful force than thirst or even fear”:

[Scientists] scented a chamber with a chemical that foxes produce and put food in those areas. There were two sets of mice in the cage: ones that had specific neurons activated in order to make them hungry and a control group. The hungry mice overcame their fear of the potential fox and chowed down while the others stayed huddled in safe spots.

If there’s one popular sentiment among soup kitchen volunteers, especially the nubes, it’s a fear of “them”: the crazies, the hungries, the loose cannons. You never know what they’re going to say or think or smell like. But this is only one side of the fear coin. Flip it, and imagine how, for so many of the guests, walking into a church for lunch may be similar to a mouse stepping into a fox-scented cage.

But filling an empty tummy is one surefire means of disarming the threat. The prophet Isaiah conveys as much in his foretelling of a “peaceful kingdom” in which predators lie down with prey to nap. His is not just a vision for breaking social barriers—though it is that—but descriptive of a world in which fear has been subsumed by contentment or, specifically, full bellies: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child shall lead them” (Is 11:6). In any other place, the wolf would tear the lamb to shreds and feast, so it can only be inferred that the wolf has already feasted. He has eaten himself into a food coma. And the lamb knows she’s safe because of it.

I don’t mean to suggest that a paper plate of Mexican casserole can heal all wounds. That would be unrealistic, not to mention a big fat lie. At the soup kitchen, fear lingers at the tables even after the plates are cleared. When I sit down to eat with our guests, I’ve often noticed they have the tendency to explain how thankful to God they are, that they pray every night. It’s a perfect example of what Woody Allen famously quipped: “the lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” It’s clear that they only say these things, not because it’s a topic they tend to talk about with strangers, but because they know I’m a religious person, and they want to be judged well. Fear keeps us justifying, when the truth is that no one has to earn their place at the table, not even by praying for it, and neither do I, because this is always a place for the hungry, and that is who we are.

Often, we relegate the title of “hungry” to those other people, to the kids on commercials and in documentaries; there’s no denying that world hunger and social welfare are real issues. But hunger, like death, is something we all have in common. When we hear about “the hungry,” rarely do we think of ourselves at three o’ clock in the afternoon, whipping into the drive-thru, paying cash for a McDouble with sweet and sour sauce. No matter who you are in the world, no matter what you’ve done, hunger comes nagging. In the Exodus story, when God rained food on a schedule—bread in the morning, quail in the evening, gather, rinse, repeat—he showed his people their routine dependence, their perpetual need to be filled. Even if it’s the slightest itch, even if it’s just a little cramp before dinner, it serves to remind us that we are fragile beings, and that there is, at the core, no distinction between us and our neighbor.

St. Peter learned as much during the time of his ministry in Caesarea. In a curious turn of events, his own hunger heralded a vision from God:

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:9-16).

True enough, Peter’s vision (which, in its downward motion, mimics the bread from heaven) was about more than a reorganization of the food pyramid; it was about opening Christianity’s doors to outsiders, specifically non-Jews. But that the vision involves food is of a particular significance for two reasons. First, it is impossible to separate God’s acceptance of the Gentiles from his acceptance of their unprecedented food preferences. Second, as the soup kitchen has demonstrated, all people, whether poor or bougie, whether Jew or Gentile, are picky about what goes on their plates.

God serves Peter the thing he won’t allow himself to have, and in typical Peter fashion, he refuses three times. His refusal is not unlike the Elder Brother’s refusal to dig into the fatted calf. Pride prevents them from even considering the possibility of “defiling” themselves, of lowering themselves to a seat at the table.

The feast that God envisions for us may ultimately lie outside our expectations of good and bad. It may, in the end, be several large platters of unclean animals—soggy microwavable pizzas, tacos with extra mayo. Maybe your wife’s spongy tofu will make an appearance, or your roommate’s potent curry, or your grandma’s bland potatoes. Maybe even the soup kitchen’s fatty white salad dressing.

All this to say, I’m still waiting for the moment when the heavens open up and a large sheet of ranch falls from the sky. Until then, I’m plugging my ears and serving oil and vinegar.


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4 responses to “A Free Lunch: The Spiritual Economics of the Church’s Most Cliché Ministry”

  1. PatriciaF. says:

    This is so good. Thanks, C.J..

  2. David Zahl says:

    What she said ^^ !

    “I learned pretty quickly that the adage “beggars can’t be choosers” is idealistic baloney. Beggars tend to be choosers, in fact, and if a giver is really a giver, and not a seller, then he will allow them to be.”

    Oh man.

  3. Josh Retterer says:

    Excellent work, truly.

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