Cover Story

Let them eat beans

Soup, soap, and salvation: That's basically what most homeless people understand faith-based shelters have to offer. But when the federal government found out the Memphis Union Mission requires its guests to attend chapel after dinner, a USDA bureaucrat gave the mission an ultimatum: Dump the church requirement or the federal food surplus program will dump you. Memphis Union Mission refused to compromise its mission. And the feds made good on the threat. Now M.U.M. has to find a third of its food budget somewhere else.

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

-in Memphis-The sign on the door says "Chapel," but the room looks-and smells-more like a gym. By 5:30 on a Sunday night, nearly 200 men have filled the big, boxy hall, most of them sitting in metal chairs around 25 battered white tables. Those who can't find chairs prop themselves against the cinderblock walls. A few are passed out on dirty blankets, arms wrapped protectively around the plastic grocery bags that hold all their earthly possessions.

The food is late, and the men start getting restless. Most are coming down from weekend-long benders. After going for days on nothing but drugs or alcohol, they show up Sunday nights at the Memphis Union Mission for a real meal and a place to sleep. That makes Sunday the busiest night of the week at the 55-year-old mission, which suits the staff just fine. The men ought to be in church anyway, and church is just what they'll get: the meal at 5:30 p.m.; church at 6:30 p.m.

But that doesn't suit the federal government just fine. Earlier this summer, a bureaucrat from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture breezed into the mission for an hour or so of routine inspection. Then he was gone-and with him went almost one-third of the mission's annual food budget. Required chapel violated USDA rules, he said. Make the service optional or lose the food.

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Other local ministries, like the United Methodist soup kitchen or the Salvation Army just a few blocks away, had already gone to optional chapel services in order to qualify for government help. But Mark Calhoun, president of the Memphis Union Mission, says he never even considered making the switch: "The Great Commission is to go out and preach the gospel, not feed the hungry. Feeding the hungry is a byproduct of the love of Jesus working through people." The mission doesn't neglect the physical feeding-it serves over 16,000 free meals every month-but it refuses to put the stomach before the soul, he says.

Among the Sunday night regulars, the USDA ruling elicits mixed reviews. "This is the best meal of the week," says Willie Williams as he stands in a corner with his plastic slotted tray, wolfing down chicken casserole and apple cobbler. "They don't have to have chapel every day," he contends between bites. "People still gonna do what they're gonna do. You can't make nobody serve the Lord." Then he seems to change his mind: "But it's their rules, you know? You can't abide by their rules, you don't need to be staying in their house."

Nearby, Lee Williams waits for his turn to head to the buffet line under the 12-foot wooden cross. "It's messed up," he says of the USDA ruling. "[The mission] is trying to help people that can't help themselves.... Church is okay. You get the Word before you get fed. It might benefit someone in the long run, or it might not benefit anyone at all. But it sure ain't gonna hurt nobody."

Like many of the 260 evangelical organizations within the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, the Memphis Union Mission has long refused federal funds. "We don't depend on the government," Mr. Calhoun says. "We're after the blessing of God on this ministry." By refusing federal money, M.U.M. thought it was entitled to make its religious services mandatory for the 6,000 or so homeless people who sleep in its shelters each month.

But what about that government food? Mr. Calhoun says it never occurred to him to worry about the meat, fruit, and other staples he received free from the local food bank. The food-about 10 tons a year, by his estimate-came with only two conditions: Maintain federal health standards, and don't re-sell anything. "There were no religious stipulations whatsoever," he insists.

Terry Minton, commodities director at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, says that's exactly the point. "It's not about religion at all," she says flatly. Her office oversees statewide distribution of USDA surplus food under a program known as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Like everything else coming from Washington, the TEFAP process is complicated: In order to boost prices for U.S. farmers, the USDA buys huge quantities of "commodity" foods-from beef to peanuts-which it then distributes to state agriculture departments. The states, in turn, pass the freebies on to local food banks, and the food banks divide it among soup kitchens, rescue missions, and home delivery services.

Thus, by the time the free food reaches the end user, it's three or four steps removed from its Washington origin. But that doesn't mean it's removed from Washington's rules. Though Mr. Calhoun says he was never told just which law he was breaking by requiring chapel attendance, Ms. Minton had a ready answer for reporters: 7CFR251.10, paragraph (f). "You can't require people to do anything to get our food," she says, explaining her interpretation of the USDA rule. Then she defends her department again: "This is not about civil rights or religion or anything like that."

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