Making poor people pray

Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor.  As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor.  And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.  I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.

That part of it was great.  But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning:  Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.

I hated that part.

Let me explain.  I pray.  I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.

But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need.  Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.

Well!  You may say.  Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God!  Should we leave these poor souls in their misery?  Man does not live by bread alone.  Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?

Also:  what, should we be ashamed of our faith?  Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?

The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate.  It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.

Okay, then.  How come you never insist that rich people pray?  When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute?  Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?

I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions.  They meant it like this:  we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people.  So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray!  That’s all they meant.  And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.

But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:

1.  “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”

2.  “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor.  So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”

Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray.  Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.

But I was there.  I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.

Being poor means you never have a choice in anything.  Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings.  It makes you feel like crap.  Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human.  It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.

So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time:  be quiet.  Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts.  But don’t say a word, unless someone asks.  At the very most, extend an invitation:  “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.”  Poor isn’t the same as stupid:  people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.

So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help.  The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else?  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s never mandatory.

Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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28 thoughts on “Making poor people pray”

  1. Guys, grace is a prayer you pray before meals. If you’re hosting a meal, it’s appropriate to pray if that’s what you would ordinarily do. This was not a meal. It was a store.

    1. Respectfully, if the food pantry is sponsored by a church and not a government or secular agency, and there is a line of people waiting to receive, I think it is absolutely appropriate to pray. It is what we do.

      As I understand it, Simcha, no one was asking you to pay, so it was not a store. Again, it is the custom at my parish, whenever we get together to serve anyone in any capacity, to pray first. We even prayed before setting up our Christmas trees in the church.

      I’m not trying to be contradictory, but I do believe it should not be looked on as a burden or as some kind of oppression to say a prayer with those in need, whether they ask for it or not.

      For instance, maybe your teenager is so angry with you they slam a door in your face and won’t speak. Would that keep you from praying for him or her? From what I can see, you are a good mother and I think you would keep right on praying, no matter what. Why wouldn’t I or anyone serving someone in need refrain from offering a prayer?

      Peace to you and all here, and best blessings of Advent.

      1. The second sentence of the post:
        “And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.”
        We did indeed pay. I am sure the people who ran the store were volunteers, but it was a store.

        1. You are correct, of course. I did not read that part correctly. My parish has never made anyone ever pay for food pantry items, and I misunderstood that you paid.

          1. Simcha, I am sorry to go on so about this, and I am sorry you were in the position of turning to a resource like this to feed your children.

            As I said, I have been involved in feeding the street people and other people in trouble for many years. It is something I love very much, and I take it seriously as a way of serving God.

            I care about our clients, and not just their physical well-being. It may sound hokey to you, but I remember what Mother Teresa said about seeing the face of Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor”. When I am honored to say grace and pray personally with our clients, I cannot tell you how close I feel to God.

            So when you wrote about poor people being “forced” to pray, it hit a nerve. To pray with them, for me, is to offer them human dignity as well as Christian spiritual support, which is not always easy to find when one is very poor. The poor people I serve are holding onto their connection to God with both hands because sometimes that is all they have left. And yes, maybe my fellow parishioners and I are the only people they are in contact all day long to whom they feel they can display their faith to safely, without being bullied or thought of as weak.

            Advent blessings to you and your family – smk, ofs

            1. I didn’t use the word “forced.” You’re getting that from other people’s comments. I am quite certain that you do good work, and I thank you for your service. I would like to gently remind you that your service ought not to be about how close to God it makes you feel. I am simply relating my experience to you. You can take it or leave it as you like. I am sure that many of your clients are glad to have a chance to pray with someone. I am just as sure that others resent the implication that they need you in order to have some contact with God.

      1. I do not think anyone was *forced* to pray. How could anyone be physically forced to pray anyway? Again, if there was a prayer said, if anyone did not feel like praying, he/she could either stand aside silently or leave.

  2. I agree with you.

    A mother that is going to great and possibly humiliating lengths to feed her family IS a prayer in motion.

    My sister and her dance group danced burlesque style for the homeless while they were waiting to be served on Thanksgiving. Christopher Lloyd was there helping as he always is. My eight y.o. daughter joined in on something called “the cake dance” . She doesn’t think it is abnormal for grown women of all sizes (many reaching their expiration date!) to wear bustiers, corsets and short shorts/skirts, shaking it, for a huge, motley group of homeless people, as the entertainment. Ever-joyful Fr. Larry got up, hugged my sister and blessed ALL of them, making sure to mention every faith he could think of. He has a heart as big as the planet. (He writes poetry, and recites it before every sermon. Most are canticles of praise for the beauty of creation.) The man is like happiness incarnate in a brown robe.

    One of my sisters won’t speak to my older sister because she thinks she’s being obscene. Some of it makes me cringe a tad, but it’s my sister’s own art form. She choreographs everything, employing all kinds of music–from classical, to jazz to Lady Gaga and Latin. I used to judge her too, but then after much thought and soul searching, realized how much our social constructs can be hypocritical. When she was a girl, she used to spin around on the point of her foot with her other leg straight up in the air and a tutu around glimpses of a satin crotch. The guy that would spin her was wearing tights without pants, not leaving much to the imagination. (I always would crack up when he first showed up).
    –Consider that this used to happen on stages all over Europe where many who were attending wouldn’t dare flash a calf.

    the funny little posturing and the idiosyncrasies of humans must keep God laughing.

  3. My parish has a daily lunch program (bagged lunch – bologna sandwich, cookies, and a piece of fruit), with coffee and juice, as well as a hot meals program several evenings per month where a home-cooked meal is served in the hall to anyone who comes – no questions asked. These are meant for anyone who needs help – from homeless street people, to those who simply do not want to eat alone. I have been active in serving in both ministries.

    We *always* pray before any food is served, and I have been one of those who are called to lead the prayer occasionally. I start with a personal prayer for all of us, who have a mission to serve God in some way, that we may be protected and be worthy servants. And then we remember Jesus, who came to be with us on earth and could have been born a king in a palace, but instead was the poorest of the poor, like us. And then we pray an Our Father.

    Not once has anyone ever objected to this. The poor street people respectfully remove their hats, bow their heads, and pray along. They often ask those of us representing the parish to pray personally for them. As an aside, we who are parishioners do not place ourselves on a lofty pedestal, expecting gratitude. We do not pray *for* them – we pray *with* them, on the spot.

    Respectfully, I do not think it is ever out of place to thank God for his care, particularly when we are hard up. Those of us who offer help at my parish are united with those we serve – all of us are children of God. I would hope that if it was me who was hungry and cold, one of them would help me in return.

    God bless and protect all here.

  4. I am sorry you saw it that way. In many Christian circles, prayer happens before everything, no matter what. I currently attend an Evangelical church, and it’s just part of the culture.

  5. I appreciate what you are saying and it’s food for thought. However, I will say that I “make” my children say grace before meals and it is not to humiliate them or make them have a spiritual experience, but rather because God deserves our thanks. I mean honestly, if they mumble or don’t say part of grace I don’t deny them dinner, although I might send them out of the dining area if they were just being really rude about it. But I expect that they generally say grace before meals, not for me but because God is due thanks and reverence from everyone. I wonder if that plays into their thinking. I think if they are just leading people in prayer there really shouldn’t be a problem. I suppose the reason rich people don’t get the same treatment is because they aren’t there, but I can tell you that going to a mom’s group at a church there were rich people and we were led in prayer, regardless of our background. Churches are houses of prayer.

    1. You have authority over your children, and it’s your duty to teach them to pray. You have no such authority over strangers simply because they are hungry.

      1. I doubt they are trying to impose authority over people. Rather I think it’s their church and that is what churches are for…giving thanks to God. If they offer thanks for the food, they are giving God His due…as we say at mass, it is right and just, always and everywhere.

        1. Well said, AH. Praying is not a burden. It is a blessing to know we have a loving Father who cares about all of us, and not just the clean, warm, well-fed people who show up at Mass once per week.

          I think also that those who live on the street have precious few opportunities to be with good people who love God, and to have the opportunity to be at ease with those who believe. They live a hard life, often with very hard, dangerous people. It may be a luxury to pray and remember that God loves them too.

          1. I don’t think Simcha was talking about saying grace before a meal, but about a much more involved, personal prayer, forced to be made public.

  6. Over the years I’ve come to agree with this notion. It’s also important not to expect poor people to accept food that is way past its sale date just because they are poor. And don’t donate stained and holy clothes either. I was impressed to learn that my 15 yo daughter, while preparing Christmas baskets for the poor for her confirmation class, had upon seeing some expiration dates were over a year old, chucked the food items into the trash.

  7. You’re on fire today! Thank you for bringing up an important issue. Charity should be given with as much respect and lack of condescension as possible.

  8. Simcha, I too have a question about this. My church small group serves supper at the Salvation Army one Sunday a month, to both those who are staying there and to others in the community who drop in. It’s my understanding that Salvation Army staff say grace over the food at other meal times – we certainly do before we serve, while everyone is standing in line. Are you saying that this is offensive? I don’t see it that way, because I do exactly the same thing in my home when I’ve invited guests in. And the grace lasts about as long – 10 seconds. I’m a short pray-er.

  9. I have that original article bookmarked, because it was brilliant and true then and it is brilliant and true now. Thank you!

  10. Can you clarify please: Were you made to pray out loud/share your story in prayer? You seem to imply this when you say they were “insisting …[on]…giving intimate details” in which case blech. Or were you merely present while the organizers conducted a prayer? There is a huge and important difference, I think.

    I am no fan of politicians/preachers/leaders/etc. using the guise of “prayer” to pontificate (look up some prayers said in state houses before votes are being made and you’ll see they are mini-speeches as opposed to humble prayers). I am no fan of forcing people to share their situation in a prayerful way, or even forcing them to say a prayer of gratitude for whatever service I might be about to do for them. I’ve been there when it’s done and it is nauseating and unfair.

    But, just like grace at my dinner table, I’m going to pray before a meal whether I have a guest or not, and whether that guest holds my same convictions or not. I wouldn’t expect a church to behave otherwise.

    So, it makes a difference. If you were forced to add your voice/story to the prayer, or if the prayer was constructed to call you out or preach to you, shame on them. If it was an honest and humble prayer of thanksgiving for the opportunity to share with those in need, then good for them.

    1. If I remember correctly, it was a prayer sort of on behalf of all the people there to get food. No one was forced to join in, but it was very much: 1. Come in and get food! 2. But wait, let’s pray first. 3. Lord, we’re just so grateful for the food we’re about to receive . . .

      1. I do not understand why praying before you receive food is a problem. Even if it is, perhaps there are others there who *do* appreciate and cherish being able to pray with others for what they are about to receive.

        I have worked in my parish for years serving the poor in our food programs and the food pantry, and no one has ever expressed resentment at waiting a minute or so for a simple prayer of thanks.

        We force no one to pray. If anyone has a problem with it, they are gracious enough to respectfully wait until the others have finished their prayer. We are on our parish’s property, and we always pray grace, and privately with those who ask.

        I think it is a grave mistake not to pray for our visitors and in thanksgiving for the bounty of God, especially when representing our church.

  11. I’m sorry people have to go through that too. My husband and I oversaw a food distribution every month, and although we and the other volunteers prayed together before we opened the doors, we didn’t pray otherwise, unless someone asked, and then it was privately. We had plenty of volunteers because they got to go through the line first, before the doors were open, although they got the same amount the others outside would be getting
    . We weren’t poor, just middle class, but I tell you, those unusual mushrooms that came from some co-op made delicious soup! The produce was “take all you want”. We loved it, and loved dealing with the “salt of the earth” – all kinds of different people.

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