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.