Restoring Confidence in Institutions and Kosher, Pagan and LGBT Food Banks

Restoring Confidence in Institutions and Kosher, Pagan and LGBT Food Banks

Chelsea Langston BombinoAugust 11, 2016

We live in an increasingly plural society, and today’s diverse societal make-up requires equally diverse civic, educational, cultural, and social-services institutions to meet the increasingly plural core beliefs, identities and needs of varied individuals.

For example, among younger Americans, Millennials (aged 18-34) are markedly more racially diverse than previous generations.  According to Brookings, today only 55.8% of millennials are white, as opposed to 73% of young adults in 1990. And today, “New Minorities” (Asian, Hispanic, or more than one race) make up almost 30% of American young adults. Furthermore, millennials also exhibit less homogeneity than older Americans when it comes to their religious beliefs and practices.  According to Pew, 34% of younger millennials (born 1990 to 1994) are religiously unaffiliated.

This is especially true for the millennial generation, many of whom have largely opted out of participation in many civil society institutions.  As David Brooks wrote recently of Americans as a whole: “We’re also less embedded in tight, soul forming institutions.” Being involved in faith communities, neighborhood associations, cause-related groups, and political organizations, among others, takes time and commitment. Perhaps the lack of engagement millennials display with many traditional American institutions stems from a general lack of confidence in many of the mediating structures of our society.  According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, a majority do not trust in key societal institutions such as Congress, the police, big banks, media outlets, or organized religion.

This is problematic on several levels.  First, there are quantitative benefits linking quality of life and longevity with institutional and community engagement.  The Blue Zones Project, which studied the places on earth where people lived the longest, found that one of the key components of a long, healthy life was being involved in groups: “We create connections in a community—between individuals and community organizations, faith based and community groups, and other social activities—so you can easily connect with your right tribe. As we say, belong to live long.”

Secondly, it is also problematic that young adults have become less confident in institutions because it indicates they may be less likely to seek out and participate in organizations that could provide them with vital social, financial, spiritual, or health supports.  Think of the pregnant immigrant woman in need of healthcare who doesn’t trust that a hospital will not report her undocumented status to the authorities.  Or think of a young Muslim woman who both wants to become involved in a local civic organization but also is afraid of how the institution will react to her religious practice of wearing a hijab.

There is no one size fits all solution to this disillusionment with institutions.  But perhaps that is a good thing. An increasingly varied society requires a diversity of solutions to serve many different interests and needs. Creating the space for many solutions to thrive will require that institutions have the freedom they need to serve and carry out their missions.  For this notion of institutional diversity to be fully realized, faith-based organizations, secular nonprofits, and all community groups must be willing to afford other groups, even those with which they stand opposed, the space to live out their missions in the public square. For faith groups, especially, institutional pluralism cannot be fully achieved without institutional religious freedom for groups of all faiths, or none.

This principle can be encapsulated through a case study of diverse food-banks.  Many Americans need additional nutrition assistance to feed their families.  Yet not all American families and individuals that could benefit from the services and goods provided by nonprofits providing nutrition assistance have the same needs.  For example, many orthodox Jewish families in need would not be able to avail themselves of just any food from traditional food banks as it may not meet the kosher food requirements of their religion.

People should not have to choose between abandoning their religious precepts and going hungry.  So, organizations like the Cleveland Kosher Food Pantry and Bikur Cholim (both faith-based Kosher organizations serving in Ohio) are working hard to end this and partnering with local hospitals: “On a regular basis, Bikur Cholim [houses those from outside the area who might be in town for a medical operation, for example, and provides them with kosher food. They also stock area hospitals with kosher food – should a patient require it.”

Perhaps even more surprising is a two-year-old faith-based food assistance program in East Lansing, MI, called Pagans in Need.  According to the Lansing State Journal, Pagans in Need is a program of the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry, a Michigan based, faith-based group that “fosters tolerance for the pagan community- those who follow polytheistic religions such as Wicca, Druidism, and Voodooism.” In fact, Pagans in Need started from a felt need in the community by Pagans that other social services providers weren’t entirely meeting their needs. Vice President of Pagans in Need, Rev. Amy J. Castner, noted to the Lansing State Journal that many other faith-based groups offer nutrition assistance programs, and continued, “A lot of people who are pagans or not religious don’t feel comfortable receiving help from people who don’t share their religious views. Knowing there’s a place for them to go where their lifestyle is accepted makes people feel more comfortable.”

While this program will serve anyone in need, regardless of their religious identity, Pagans in Need also serves as a tangible example of why such faith-inspired programs often provide spiritual nourishment and community, as well as tangible goods. For practitioners of polytheistic religions in Michigan, there is now a place for them to go for help where the organization’s mission also aligns with their spiritual identities.

Pluralism in food assistance programs is not limited to religious diversity, it also extends to populations of services recipients in often very contextually or culturally specific situations with unique needs.  For example, the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida recognized that extra assistance was needed for survivors who had undergone trauma after the tragic shooting targeting the LGBT community at Pulse Nightclub.  As Lindsay Kincaide, Hope and Help Center’s Community Development Coordinator, told Fox 35 Orlando, “The Pulse tragedy was extremely traumatic, and a lot of people were either taking care of a loved one who was injured and they’re not able to return to work full time, or they themselves are trying to deal with the trauma that they’ve been through.” The article noted that while many survivors will eventually receive assistance from the One Orlando Fund, the financial assistance hasn’t made its way to survivors yet.  So the Center is filling the gap with a room filled with foodstuffs, including fresh and shelf-stable items, already serving 20 of the survivors.

Diversity amongst food banks around the country is just one example of the kinds of multi-pronged efforts necessary for Americans, especially those in need and disenchanted young people, to regain trust in institutions with diverse missions, ideologies, service areas, and yes, religions.  A kosher nutrition-assistance organization will not be the right fit for everyone, but they are just the right fit for a specific population that wants and seeks those services.  In this sense, diversity necessitates understanding of difference and the need for the freedom for institutions to live out their differences in public life.  In the business marketplace, it may be the difference between those who choose to shop at Walmart and those who shop at the local farmers market: between those who patronize the Asian specialty foods store and those who frequent Chick Fil-A.

For faith-based service institutions, there is an added layer to this discussion.  Whether a religious food-assistance organization serves out of a calling originating in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, or another faith tradition, each of these faith-based food banks is serving because their faith calls them to do so.  There is something intangibly religious in providing people tangible nourishment. Thus, for these faith-based food providers, providing material sustenance is not just an act of service, it is a religious expression, an exercise of their institutional religious freedom.

For faith leaders and religious organizations interested in capturing the imagination and trust of young people cynical about institutions in general, two of the most powerful things you can do as an organization are:

1. Explicitly express the faith dimension of your mission and services so people clearly understand who you are and

2. Advocate for other organizations, even those with whom you disagree, to also have the freedom to serve based on their own orienting faith beliefs.