Two weeks ago, when things slowed down for a few minutes during a food distribution day at Community Provisions, I popped my head into my friend (and fellow volunteer) Helen's little cubby, where she sat behind a desk, reading. Most of the morning, she's talking with clients -- finding out how many are in their families, explaining how our pantry works, asking if they need help with any other issues besides food security, making their next monthly pantry appointment and yes, asking if they would like her to pray with them.
I stepped out of my comfort zone for a moment, and asked her if she would keep my 6-year-old grandson, Nathan, in her prayers, as he was to have surgery on his hand the next day. "Come here, kiddo," she said, and took my hands in hers; as I am not inclined to say "no" to 80-year-old women who ask for my hands, I guess I was explicitly compelled to do so. Then, she lifted up my dear boy in the most sincere and loving prayer I have heard since Grandma H. died. Helen prayed that the surgeon's hands would be steady, that Nathan would be brave, that his healing would be quick and that all his family would have peace.
That's the kind of praying they do at Provisions. Prayers for renewed health, employment, family concerns. Prayer that is sincere, heart-felt and urgent.
And only if you want it.
I've only been working at Provisions for short time (compared to some of the others, who have been there since the beginning), but was quickly made to feel a part of the "family". And just to clear another thing up for Mr. Conte, there is only one paid staff member at Provisions, and that is Paul, the director. The rest are just there because they want to be there. Therefore, when the staff holds hands and prays together before the pantry opens, it's because they want to, not because they feel compelled to do so. In the interest of complete disclosure, it should be noted that sometimes, helpers come to the pantry to fulfill their community service obligations; they are always welcomed into the prayer circle, but not forced. This week, the helper opted out, but a few months ago, our helper, Jon, eagerly entered into prayer with the staff, and added his own petitions.
It's certainly not Catholic prayer. And it's not Lutheran prayer. Or Nazarene, or Methodist, or Presbyterian. It's just sweet, open, conversational, loving prayer, asking God to be with us all as we try to give a little comfort and peace to our clients, along with their bags of groceries (just as Mr. Conte says prayer should be: "out of love, faith and hope").
Although I enjoyed looking at the pie chart Mr. Conte linked to in his post, I would be hard pressed to tell you where most of the volunteers go to church, if they even do. I do know where my friend, Peggy, goes, and that Paul goes to the same church, and we know that the sweet girls who come to bag groceries on Tuesdays are Mormons on their mission, because they wear name tags. I think I'm the only Catholic in the mix, but believe me, that's not what it's about. The non-denominational nature of this agency is, I believe, the key to its success; it is a respected and integral part of our community services and an open-minded and open-hearted respite for those in need.
While the issue of prayer at Provisions has caught the national media attention, the primary problem is a rather simpler one, I think. Having read the federal guidelines for faith-based pantries which receive government food assistance, I believe that what they do at Provisions falls squarely in line with restrictions regarding prayer. The Federal government's main point is that no religious service or observation can be required before a client receives services -- I am 100% in agreement with that. However, the State of Indiana interprets that phrase differently. I'm not legal-minded in the slightest, so I'm not going to delve in to that any further, but I believe that with just a little open conversation between Federal and State regulators, this can be easily resolved.
The only other thing I will add is that last week, on Fox 59 News, I heard a representative from the State say that even if just offered prayer, a client may feel pressured, and not know how to say "no" to the offer. And that just makes me sad -- maybe even a little mad -- as I believe it makes a gross assumption about the strength of our clients. Although they are at a low point in their lives and must seek assistance, that does not in any way mean that they cannot stand up for themselves, think for themselves and make decisions for themselves.
You know how I hate to be political, but sometimes I just can't help myself. If I ran the State of Indiana, my concern would be more for WHY the residents of my state had to seek help from food pantries, instead of IF they are being emotionally damaged when asked if they would like to pray at one. Just sayin'.
But you know I don't want to be Governor of the State of Indiana, I just want to be Queen of my little corner. Where, as you know, I have my own personal theology: Do good work. Love your neighbor and the Earth. Don't be an ass.
And one thing I would never allow in my Queendom, in my home, or in my circle of friends and family, is a blanket condemnation of "grave sin". Especially from someone who didn't fully understand the people or the situation he was condemning. Once again, just sayin'.
Crap, Mr. Conte, I know I'm a sinner. I'm a really big sinner. I screw up on a constant and regular basis. That's why I'm such a big fan of the Corporal Works of Mercy (for all you non-Catholics, they're "good works"; we just give them a lovely name -- you can read about them here). Helping others gives me a little hope for mercy for myself. It is working at Provisions (or Anchor House Shelter, or saying the Rosary at funeral, or playing for the residents at the Lutheran Home, or taking a bag of clothes to Goodwill) where I feel farthest from pretense and sin. Honestly, if I get to go to Heaven and God tells me that indeed, I was committing a "sacrilege against" Him, well, I'll be really surprised. And, in much bigger trouble for much bigger things, I assure you.
(In some ways, I feel like a bit of a poser, attempting to defend the rights of prayer at Provisions. Since my sweet Alex died 2 1/2 years ago, I haven't really been able to pray. I don't avoid occasions to do so, but still feel hollow, and am waiting, and am thankful for dear Mother Teresa, who experienced the darkness and pain of "abandonment", and whose writings and example I cling to.)
But I still believe in prayer; more so, I believe in people of prayer. Even more, I believe in the people of Provisions, and in all people who daily commit their lives toward the benefit of others. And that includes all those on the State and Federal level who I know are just trying to do their best. We just need to keep working together toward the benefit of what unifies us -- our fellow humans.
Mother Teresa says it better than I ever could:
I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world. Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier. Good works are links that form a chain of love. Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand. Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus.
And by the way, the surgeon's hand was steady. Nathan was brave. His healing was quick. And the minute he walked out of the recovery room with Sarah, and I saw his amazingly sweet smile, I had peace.
Way to go, God. And thanks, Helen.