"Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’" ~ Matthew 25:37-40
Depending on which survey you read, Calvert County, Maryland is either the 13th or the ninth richest county in the United States. Given its proximity to Washington, DC, this isn't surprising; Forbes Magazine put it best when it said, "Wealth radiates from the Capital." That publication puts nine of the top 25 wealthiest counties in America either within or just on the outskirts of the DC Metro Area. Newsweek lists seven counties in the region among the top 10 richest in the nation.
It is fitting, in a surreal way, that the nation's capital, where decisions are made that affect the lives of millions of Americans, knows little of what the rest of the nation is experiencing. This is particularly apparent when you consider that even in wealthy and beautiful Calvert County, where I made my home for ten years, thousands of people are going to bed every night hungry.
That fact won't be listed in the county tourism or economic development brochures, and I understand that. Contrary to what far too many of us have been conditioned to believe, it's not the local government's job to feed hungry people, nor is it the responsibility of the state or federal government. As I recount in my book, Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate this week, made it quite clear where that responsibility lay:
Christians fall into the trap of thinking that by promoting the funding of government aid programs, they are doing the Lord’s work. The only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels is the feeding of the 5,000, and I’ve always been struck by what He told the disciples when they suggested that He send the crowd away to buy food in the nearby villages: “You give them something to eat!” His words were a personal and immediate call to action. Christ didn’t tell them to go petition the king for a food aid program, nor did He lead a march against poverty down the streets of Jerusalem. He commands us to personally serve our brothers and sisters, rather than using government bureaucracy as a surrogate.
You can't outsource your compassion. That's like the well-to-do during the Civil War who paid others to serve in combat in their stead. Giving is an act of personal sacrifice, and there is no expectation of reward or honor. What personal sacrifice did these people of means truly make by sending someone else off to fight and die? Likewise, unless you give personally of your time, talent and treasure, how do you ensure that people in need are truly cared for, and that the fruits of your labors aren't simply like chaff in the wind?
My pastor, Robert Hahn of Chesapeake Church, moved to Calvert County from northern Virginia many years ago, feeling God's tug on his life. As he grew from servant to elder to senior pastor of the church, what also grew in him was a vision God planted of a church that had a real and practical impact in the lives of the community in which it resided. "The local church is the hope of the world," he would exclaim often from the pulpit, and the church set out to make that statement a reality.
Ministries sprung up and met needs throughout the community, like Oil Change Day, when single parent and financially struggling families come twice a year for a free oil change and basic car maintenance, Firewood for Families, which supplied free firewood for homes which had only wood stoves for heat, Serving Seniors Cook Day to prepare meals for the shut-in elderly, and the Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry, the county's largest food pantry and a year-round source of food for hungry families.
But more needed to be done. Over ten thousand families use local food pantries, and there are probably thousands more who should but are held back by pride or shame. Most of these families have jobs, sometimes more than one, but their income forces them at the end of each month to choose between rent, electricity, medicine, car care or food. Pastor Hahn knew he could take at least one of those choices off the table for these struggling families.
He went to other local churches, civic organizations, local businesses, and more, impressing upon them the plight of the hungry in Calvert County, almost half of whom are children. He broke their hearts and, in doing so, spurred them into action. Together they formed an alliance and called it End Hunger in Calvert County. They collect food and share it among the participating food pantries, raise funds to buy more food, and give the people of Calvert County a Kingdom-honoring purpose that not only feeds hungry people, but feeds the souls of the giver and the recipient of food.
Of note, End Hunger in Calvert County does not charge other food pantries for the food they distribute - it is all free. In 2011, the alliance will distribute over 300,000 pounds of food at no cost to the food pantries themselves.
Perhaps the most amazing initiative of End Hunger in Calvert County is The Farms of End Hunger, which grow fresh produce to supply local food pantries. Not only does this meet a pressing need of most food pantries for healthy but perishable fare, it involves local farmers, who lease a portion of their land, local businesses, who pay the lease for the land, and also lease and build out warehouse space for refrigerated storage, and local schoolchildren, who help to harvest the produce and incorporate their experiences into their studies with the blessing of the local school board.
Their first harvest took place this past fall, and thousands of pounds of fresh produce were harvested for distribution to participating food pantries. To date, the Farms of End Hunger have provided about 200,000 pounds of produce directly to county food pantries - all of it free.
End Hunger in Calvert County does more than just provide food to feed hungry families. They also serve as a one-stop shop for referrals to other resources that provide assistance to needy families, and they offer additional assistance of their own as well.
The latest example is called Calvert Cash. End Hunger In Calvert County received a grant to provide free tax services to families and individuals making less than $57,000 a year. In addition, participants can claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which could allow them to receive thousands of dollars on their tax return. Each year, 25% of eligible working families fail to claim the EITC because they aren't aware of the credit or don't think they qualify. Eligible families can seek assistance in filing their taxes online, at one of the alliance's walk-in clinics, or by making an appointment with a tax team member.
Oh, yes - the service is completely free.
The church and Christians everywhere need to take heed of what is happening on this small peninsula in southern Maryland. There are hard times coming in this country, and I say that not as a threat to motivate you, but a reality to sober you. The math is obvious; our nation is drowning in public and personal debt, and the safety net we've come to expect from government is full of holes and shredding. The day will come in our lifetimes when government runs out of taxpayer dollars to buy votes, and when that day comes, the church needs to be at the ready to meet the burgeoning need.
The goal shouldn't be to grow congregations or bring glory to the church or its leadership. If that is your motivation, then you are outside of the will of Christ. Care for others out of compassion and obedience, not out of expectation. The Lord will bless your work if it comes from the right place.
End Hunger in Calvert County is a model that, if replicated in every county in America, could truly end hunger in our nation and meet other needs right where we live. As you prepare to shop for your Christmas and New Year's Day meals, please find your local food pantry, food bank or hunger alliance, and donate food or money so they can buy food for others.
I have one special request for my friends in the social media space. End Hunger in Calvert County has a Twitter account, @_TogetherWeCan, and if they get 1,000 followers before the end of the year, they win a $1,000 grant. Ten families of four can be fed for a month with $1,000, so this grant will help feed 40 people in the month of January. If you're on Twitter, please follow them TODAY. It doesn't cost you a dime, yet you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you helped End Hunger in Calvert County raise $1,000, and every penny of it will feed hungry people. What an amazing Christmas present that would be!