In the realm of human life, hunger is omnipotent. It can level a city, throttle a kingdom, halt an army, empty a countryside, stunt a growing body, shrivel a grown one, and wrench God out of our heaven. Images of hunger are terrifying, largely for the suffering they portray but also, I think, because they remind us that we are, in the end, much more animal than angel.
Among the cultural watersheds dividing middle-class North American Christianity from the world of the Bible is the crushing power of hunger. I’ve never preached in hunger–not with the kind of hunger that results from skipping a meal or two but from chronic undernourishment of the sort that alters one’s body. If I get to feeling peckish during church I can usually make time to bolt a donut between services. And yet hunger is all over our Scriptures, from the wail of the Israelites in the desert to the multitudes fed by Jesus. It’s lurking in places where we are not necessarily prepared to see it. The prodigal son, for instance, is not stung by what a later and more moral age would call compunction, but rather by hunger. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” he says to himself before planning to repent and try to get back into his father’s good graces.
There is a deep, perhaps ineradicable tendency in Christian theology to see an empty belly as an unworthy motive and a full one as an unworthy goal. Much church-based charity relies on an implicit bargain in which the recipients feign interest in the spiritual uplift they are offered by the givers, so that the givers may feel virtuous and the recipients may be fed or clothed. In the 1948 Italian film The Bicycle Thief, the victim of the theft chases the thief through a charity organization that marches its needy through a prayer service before serving them spaghetti. It’s a scene you may have a hard time forgetting if you’ve been close to church-related charities.
There is at the same time a very intense spirituality latent in the practice of sharing needed food. I saw it in two years of monthly outings with The Night Ministry, a Chicago outreach organization founded by an ecumenical group of congregations in 1976. A reliable presence in a half-dozen Chicago neighborhoods on six nights of the week, The Night Ministry doesn’t impose any religious tests or obligations on its constituents. But the staff of its 38-foot Health Outreach Bus and its official documents still refer to the people it serves with meals, coffee, hygiene kits, HIV tests, and urgent medical care as “parishioners.”
In Lutheran theology, as I understand it, this term would be highly problematic. We have tended to say that church takes place where there is preaching, where sins are identified and forgiven, and where the sacraments are celebrated. Yet I came to understand why The Night Ministry thinks of its neighborhood as a true parish. When members of my last church brought meals to the crowd at the bus in the poor and working-class, largely Mexican community of Pilsen, we saw much what we would see on Sunday morning: a mix of familiar faces, first-timers, and people just passing through.
In fact, people line up for a meal, just as we do for Communion, and those who come forward will sometimes bless and thank you for bringing it. We were out on the coldest night of the winter in 2010, a night when the coolers of soup sent billows of steam into the air and a small but determined crowd lined up for food and warmth. “I forgot what real soup tastes like,” I remember one veteran telling us. Prayer intentions–whether joys or concerns–were sometimes shared in the table talk. “How much food do you have at home?” one minister asked a woman who was lobbying for some extra provisions during a July meal. “Hardly any,” she replied. Two months earlier I’d seen her there with three kids, two of whom helped us distribute hot dogs and condiments.
Some people come for an emergency referral, some come for food, some come just for coffee and conversation. No unctuous attempts at improving anyone were made, no rules apart from general neighborliness were laid down, and no tests for eligibility were given. An investment banker who was willing to rub elbows with day laborers and schizophrenics to get a ham sandwich would not be turned away. And why not? If only a free meal were more of an incentive, people might learn a lot about what goes on in the places their eyes pass over.
That is why food, and the hunger it satisfies, is so theologically important even before the words of Christ are added to the bread and wine, or before a free meal turns into an opportunity for self-improvement. Hunger and its alleviation are at the boundary between “nature” and “culture,” between the world as it unfailingly is and the world as we shape it together. We love to eat sugar because we evolved to like sweet things, but we see it in front of every cash register in the land because of economics and public policy. We are defensive and dangerous where scarce goods are concerned because we needed to be to survive, but scarcity is itself in part a product of our own choices.
In coming years, technology promises to free us from the need to eat in the usual sense, even as longer and deeper droughts, plateauing crop yields, and a growing population make global famines much more likely. Hunger, and bread enough to satisfy it, are not done with us yet.
The Rev. Benjamin Dueholm
Have you ever gone to work or gone to bed truly hungry?
How might God be calling us to alleviate hunger through deliberate and creative engagement at the boundary between nature and culture wherein we dwell?