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There is a church in Indiana which requires people taking advantage of the food kitchen and homeless shelter to also participate in the life of the church. In short hand – no religion, no food. Just to be clear, the church has allowed that the people do not have to worship at their church – it can be at another church or even AA. But they have to at some level engage in a spiritual practice if they are going to take advantage of the church’s material largess.
Of course, this strikes many of us as draconian and the worst kind of religious bribery. The mandate to help those who are in need has no strings attached. You do not feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked so they will believe what you believe. Rather you do it because, one, it is the right thing to do; and two, because it has its own spiritual rewards. So, the idea that you give with one hand while giving a head lock with the other is repugnant.
But there is another way to look at this. I have often seen churches which are heavily involved in social services to the poor, but on Sunday morning in the pristine sanctuary there is not one person who was there during the week in search of food or other help. This divide between who is welcome to come to the soup kitchen and who is welcome to the Sunday service is just as disgusting. Of course, it is never made explicit, but it is felt. The invisible rope of class often can be just as forbidding as the velvet rope in front of any other exclusive club.
Part of the reason this church in Indiana caused a ruckus was the question of federally funding for their programs. Of course, they shouldn’t receive funds for social services if they are using those programs to force people to attend their churches. But if you believe as I do (and from my own experience) that religion can help the individual to overcome many of life’s challenges, then encouraging participation in religious activities is part of providing efficacious services. It is about being effective. I believe a church should have the right to invite (not force) people to services. A simple sign in the soup kitchen would be enough – “We welcome you here through the week, and we welcome you on Sunday too.”
Ultimately it gets so complicated, and legally fraught that it is probably better to keep worship and social services separate. But this strict separation can foster a very patronizing dynamic which signals to those who come to our churches in times of desperate need – “you are good enough for me to feed you across the counter, but not good enough for me to kneel with you before the Lord.”