1,000 days of meals to the needy later, and Raleigh wants to arrest us?

August 26, 2013 

“I was hungry and you fed me” – Jesus

“Feed the hungry and you will be arrested” – Raleigh police

That’s actually what happened last weekend to several groups of regulars who feed the hungry and homeless at Moore Square.

After telling Bill Burkey, a St. Mary Mother of the Church parishioner from Garner who supervises the fourth Saturday meal each month, to leave with his table full of food or face arrest, police officers followed him to a second location near Moore Square – again threatening arrest. Our regular Saturday afternoon group eventually was welcomed onto private property to distribute the food to Raleigh’s neediest.

The same thing had happened Saturday morning when police officers moved in on Love Wins Ministries and tried to shut down its weekend breakfast meal, which has been going on undisturbed by the powers-that-be for six years of Saturdays and Sundays.

The Rev. Hugh Hollowell, founder and director of Love Wins Ministries, asked the Raleigh officer why feeding the hungry was an arrestable offense. “He said that he was not going to debate me,” Hollowell wrote on his blog. “ ‘I am just telling you what is,’ the officer said. ‘Now you pass out that food, you will go to jail.’ ”

The Saturday afternoon group, founded by the Catholic Worker in 1992, has maintained a 4 p.m. soupline for more than 1,000 consecutive Saturdays. During those years, several hundred volunteers from numerous Wake County congregations have joined in this effort to keep a little decent food in the bellies of our community’s poorest, most neglected citizens.

In recent years, as we watched the magnificent and swift gentrification of downtown Raleigh, some of us worried that pressure would one day be applied to our work with the poor. As more well-to-do folks moved in, we figured many of them might not want to be confronted with the reality that in their midst are other folks made in the image and likeness of God, who are unable to make ends meet in our wealthy city. Many sleep outdoors year-round. Many are mentally ill. Many suffer from chronic health problems. Many die young.

A few times over the years, some local business owners have grumbled that the homeless around Moore Square were hurting their businesses by begging and leaving litter around. We did manage to get the city to give us some extra trash cans, but recently the cans were removed away from where the food is distributed. Once, we were asked to move our soupline a few blocks away from the commercial district. We respectfully refused. Moving the homeless and poor into obscurity (out of sight, out of mind) might assuage the guilt of “we the privileged,” but at a great spiritual cost.

Jesus said the poor would always be with us, but he also told us what our responsibility is to the poor: to recognize the presence of God in each person we meet, to welcome them as if we were welcoming God, to care for them and to give them food and drink. In other words, the poor provide us with access to God’s grace; as we do unto the least of these, we do unto God. So we cut ourselves off from the poor at our own spiritual peril. Those of us who feed the poor at Moore Square have come to realize that perhaps we need the poor even more than they need us. From us they get a good meal. From them, we receive the love of God.

For years, I have been reading the good news about downtown Raleigh’s being a great place to live and to socialize, about how the economic revival has been a boost to the economy. All that may be true, but in more than two decades at Moore Square, I have seen little or no major improvements to the lives of Raleigh’s neediest. Our soupline is still long, homelessness still abounds and the Wake County jail is full of destitute people who don’t get the help they need to overcome poverty, substance abuse and sickness.

If Raleigh really wants to be a city of distinction, that status is best measured by how we treat the poor among us. Sitting at outdoor cafes, eating good food and drinking fine wine make for a great quality of life if you can afford it. Loving and serving the poor make for a great quality of eternal life.

We’ve been told that the city’s law and public safety committee will decide what the future will be for the various Moore Square ministries. Please let Raleigh elected officials know how you feel about threats to arrest those who take food to the poor.

Patrick O’Neill of Garner is cofounder of the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional Christian community that helps to feed the hungry at Moore Square.

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