This past week, I was encouraged to try living on the average food stamp benefit of a single person during Lent. Several Christians participated last year as a way to create solidarity with the poor. (I mentioned the Herman family’s 2013 journey before.)
However, I was leery of attempting it for two reasons.
First, it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice for me. Having been “food insecure” in the past, I keep a stock of canned goods on a dedicated pantry shelf. Currently this “emergency fund” contains vegetables, grain and fish that expire in 2016. With it on hand, I could eat very well on a little more than 136 dollars a month, the current average allotment for a Michiganian on assistance.
Second, it felt like a stunt, a competitive challenge I could “win.” If I stayed under budget, I’d have a bigger bank account by Easter. I win! Maybe I’d be thinner, like the non-Christians around here who go on “Lent diets” in mimicry of their Christian co-workers and/or friends. I still win!
So where’s the sacrifice?
How will it help me change my way of viewing the poor and the hungry?
By the way, if you’re reading this and think, “But you’re so compassionate,” I have news for you. I grew up in an area that often vied for the dubious honor of being Welfare Capital of the nation. There were people who legitimately needed assistance, but they often expressed shame at not being able to feed themselves or their children. As soon as they could get off it, they did.
Then there were some outrageous cheats. “Disabled” men drove snowmobiles and waterskied. There were people who sold their foodstamp-bought groceries at a discount to finance a lifestyle referred to as “partying.”
It’s the cheaters I remember most.
When I see a 300-pound man pull out his Bridge Card, I try not to roll my eyes. I shake my head over a fashionably-dressed woman dividing her government-financed food from cigarettes, make-up and/or booze she’s buying with cash. I don’t just judge them. I condemn them in my heart.
Did I mention I’m the future Patron Saint of Jerks? Why, yes. Yes, I did.
So here’s the heart of the matter: I’m going to set my Lenten food budget at $100. If I stay under that amount, I must pay the remainder to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and/or the local pantry. And if I go over? I treble that amount. Either way, I “lose.”
And if/when I have an uncharitable thought about someone I see using a Bridge Card? I must pray for that person each day throughout Lent.