MEMPHIS, Tenn., September 15 (AP)--Darnell Yancey didn't mind having to pray over his hamburger and cupcake, regardless of what the federal government thinks.
"If you're down in spirit, you need to pray," Yancey said after lunch Thursday at the Christian-run Memphis Union Mission.
The mission, which feeds 200 to 300 homeless people a day, lost its federal aid two months ago when inspectors realized there were mandatory religious services before meals. Federal law prohibits agencies receiving food from the Agriculture Department from putting stipulations on it--religious or otherwise.
Rev. Mark Calhoun, who has overseen the ministry for the past three years, said he didn't know of the rule until an inspector pointed it out to him. He worried how he would feed the homeless without the government aid, worth about $30,000 a year.
But when news of the aid cutoff reached the airwaves of Christian radio stations last week, $100,000 in private donations came in from people as far away as Seattle, New York, and Portland, Ore.
Calhoun said the support shows "God is bigger than government and we never did put our trust in the government."
The shelter, founded in 1945, has received USDA commodities, such as meat, for 10 years. The aid represents about a third of the mission's budget, which comes mainly from private donations.
Terry Minton of the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees USDA programs in Tennessee, said the intent of the rule is to ensure there are no restrictions prohibiting the poor and the needy from getting food. If the religious services were made voluntary, she said, the government would restore its aid to the shelter.
The USDA did not readily have statistics on how many shelters have lost aid since the rule was put in place more than a decade ago, but Minton said many religion-based shelters choose to make services voluntary rather than risk the lost support.
Calhoun said it's not a choice for his mission.
"It's the old 'give a man a fish or teach him to fish.' We've chosen the later and the government has chosen the former," Calhoun said.