When faith-based service is faith-prohibitive.

I talk a lot about antisemitism on this blog. But I don’t talk a lot about my own beliefs. So let me begin by saying I am deeply and profoundly moved by the Jewish call to service unto others. I deeply believe in Deuteronomy 16:20, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’  and I am moved by the many aspects of my faith that tell me to repair the world, tikkun olam. My faith drives me to be an activist.

So when I take issue with other organizations also being driven by their faith, it is certainly not simply because they are faith-based. My issue is that there are organizations that would require people to participate in their faith before allowing them to be served.

Making people pray and participate in a Christian service before being allowed to eat at a homeless shelter or food pantry is 100% exclusionary to non-Christians.

Some background. I just finished a class where we were required to do community-based service in an organization that works to alleviate poverty. At the end of the semester, we presented on our placements. One student shared that he worked in a local church.

I asked if the Church served people of all faiths. He said yes, but they were required to recite a Christian prayer before eating.

Not one person blinked an eye when he explained this was explaining that this was the norm for where he was volunteering.

My professor, a self-identified Christian who had volunteered there previously, chimed in to say that while they don’t ‘proselytize’, they still make you jump through this ‘religious hoop’ before accessing any of their multiple services for people experiencing poverty. This could include attending a 45-minute service before being able to be given clothes or furniture.

What surprised me most, I think, was that this came from a professor who spent 14 weeks instilling in us the need to work against ‘othering’ and alienating people. Some examples: we used the terms ‘people experiencing poverty’ instead of ‘poor people,’ and spent multiple classes criticizing some of the mainstream data and looking at who that data was and was not including.

The hypocrisy stung. It felt a little heartbreaking to me, to hear from this incredibly socially cognizant professor that Jews and other non-Christians are supposed to simply jump through a religious hoop in order to receive help.

So let me explain, right here, what I was not able to in the 15 seconds I had to respond in class: it is not a hoop. It is a real, actual barrier for people experiencing poverty to make them do things like pray, say grace, attend a worship service or prayer session if those people aren’t Christian. As a Jew, I would not be able to participate. This is true of pretty much any non-Christian, including Muslims, atheists, Hindus, and Buddhists.

I should not have to hang my religious identity on the coat rack before entering a space that claims to want to help me. I should not have to choose food over faith. I should not have to be exploited on the condition of safety and protection.

I should not have to choose to use my left hand, instead of my right hand, because I am being offered life-saving aid from a left-handed person.

Again, this is NOT to say that faith-based aid and service is inherently bad or ill-intentioned. I have done loads of service because of my faith and religious values. But requiring people to partake in your religious before offering them aid is truly deplorable and NOT charity.

If my differing faith prevents you from feeding me, housing me, advocating for me, loving me as your neighbor, simply because it is different than yours, then your faith has failed you.

What you do is not charity, service to others, or a good deed. It is thinly veiled religious oppression. There is a HUGE difference in having your religious values guide your service and advocacy and using your religion to hold needy people hostage.

Service isn’t about scoring followers, it’s about seeing and serving the humanity in others. Perhaps this professor and these students will one day participate in Jewish-lead service and see if it would change their minds.


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