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Opening Arguments

Eat, pray, lose

OK, separation of church and state. I get it. Can't have the government trying to impose a religion on us. But so many of the complaints against religious impulses these days are too trivial to take seriously. I'm supposed to believe this is a threat against my religious freedoms?

SEYMOUR, Ind. – Food pantry volunteer Shirley Sears patiently walks a young woman through a series of questions on an application for emergency assistance. After they complete the form, Sears tells the woman she has one more question.

"Is there anything," Sears asks, "that you would like us to pray with you about?"

Yes, the woman replies without hesitation. Reaching across the small desk that separates them, Sears grasps the woman's hands and begins to pray.

That scene has been repeated thousands of times over the past 15 years inside this small, southern Indiana food pantry operated by non-profit Community Provisions of Jackson County. This month, the practice was found to be against federal policy, leaving the pantry's founder with a Solomon-like choice: Stop the prayers or give up truckloads of free food provided through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Granted, if I needed food from the pantry, I'd probably be annoyed by the prayer requests, but I don't think I have a constitutional right to not be annoyed. They're just asking people if they want to pray; they don't withhold food if people say no thanks.

I also get that money comes with strings. You take federal cash, you play by federal rules. But what the government is saying here is that it can put conditions on what it grants, but the people accepting the grants can't. Is that fair, huh, huh, huh?


Harl Delos
Tue, 03/27/2012 - 12:07pm

I'm not a Mennonite, but one of my favorite charities in the Mennonite Central Committee.  They are often on site when disasters hit before anyone else, and they deliver 5-gallon buckets with washcloths, towels, bar soap, laundry soap, comb, toothbrush, etc., inside.  Mennonites are big on cleanliness, I know, but if you want to be a little less cynical about it, when you feel really crummy and depressed, there's nothing like a shower, a shampoo, and clean clothes to cheer you and energize you.

Moreover, the MCC doesn't label anything, they don't tell anybody where the aid is coming from unless they are directly asked, and there's none of this "yeah, we'll feed you, but first you gotta sing a hymn" nonsense, nor do they pack bibles in those buckets.  They figure that god's children need help, and they should share the gifts that god has blessed them with.

If someone inartfully asks to pray with you, it can be perceived as (and sometimes is) a put-down of the heathen by one of god's elect, so I understand the reason for the regulation, but sometimes the message that someone cares, the message that you're not alone, is as cheering and energizing as a shower, shampoo and clean clothes.  When you're having to seek charity, you're often short of hope, not just food.

I hope they decide to seek other sources of food so they can continue to care for their clients' complete needs.