Thanksgiving on food stamps

In many ways, Soong-Chan Rah’s story is all-too-common. As a child, his father abandoned his family and his mother worked 18 hours a day to try to make ends meet. Those jobs were low-paying service jobs, so money was tight and their family had to rely on government programs like food stamps and welfare. Soong-Chan himself had avoided his school’s free-lunch program because of the stigma attached, only to have to register in a rather humiliating episode so that his school would pay for his AP exams.

If I walked around my neighborhood I could probably find similar stories of broken homes, a lack of choices and an embarrassment at not being able to make it on your own. The difference here is that Soong-Chan did make it: he is Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, of North Park Theological Seminary. But at least as a child, his experience was pretty similar to the lives my neighbors live.

I grew up not so far from Soong-Chan’s Baltimore, in the Carolinas, but our backgrounds are radically different. I come from a white, middle-class, two-parent family. We weren’t rich, by any stretch, but I think I only realized the things I didn’t have as an adult. As a child, I felt utterly secure. That middle-class suburban childhood is nice. It’s certainly more comfortable than the alternative and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But as an adult it left me with a problem.

I had never really known poverty. Jesus commanded me to love my neighbor as myself, but how could I love people in situations like Soong-Chan’s if I didn’t really know their experience? After I earned my undergraduate degree I attended graduate school in urban environments, first in downtown Cleveland and now in a working-class part of the Bronx. I run into my share of homeless people, panhandlers and other signs of urban poverty. These are my neighbors - and at some point I had to admit that I didn’t really know what they lived through.

That’s where the Food Stamp Challenge comes in. For the last few years, I’ve spent the full week before Thanksgiving living on the same budget someone on food stamps would have, which is about $1.25 a meal. You can get a lot of peanut butter, bologna and pasta, but fresh fruits and veggies? Don’t count on it. That’s tough, to be sure, but the hardest part is psychological. There’s no takeout, no convenience food and meal planning takes a lot of effort. It’s draining. And I get to look forward to the end of the week - that’s an advantage people like Soong-Chan didn’t have growing up.

Whatever else the Food Stamp Challenge accomplishes, it’s definitely a consciousness-raiser. You can come out of the challenge as convinced as ever that government programs aren’t the answer, and that’s fine. But I hope you’d also realize that being poor is harder than you’d thought. That’s key. Without that realization, I don’t see how we can even know how we’d want to be treated in that situation, much less how we should treat other folks who live on such meager budgets all year long.

This need for understanding applies to more than just poverty, of course. We are called to love our neighbor, even (especially!) when he doesn’t look like us. Do you struggle to know what it’s like to be poor, or a racial minority, or a woman, or homosexual or whatever other kind of person might be your neighbor? If so, how do you get around that? How do we really love our neighbor as ourselves, particularly in situations different from our own?

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