-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.
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."
It's not quite that straightforward, however. Surplus food from the USDA routinely comes with behavioral requirements for the recipients. The most obvious example is the school-lunch program, which requires millions of children to attend school in order to get fed.
Indeed, that particular bit of quid pro quo has proved so successful at home that the government is now exporting it to developing countries. On Sept. 14, just as Ms. Minton was insisting that free food must come with no conditions, President Clinton was bragging about the USDA's newest foreign initiative: $300 million for school lunches in the world's poorest countries. "And with $300 million-listen to this," the president said during his final White House prayer breakfast, "we can feed 9 million school children for a year in school. But you don't get fed unless you come to school."
The position of the Memphis Union Mission was similar to President Clinton's: You don't get fed unless you come to chapel. Even with that requirement, the mission seemed to be well within "Charitable Choice" understandings, based on the 1996 law that spells out the proper relationship between government and faith-based providers of welfare: All men are welcome at M.U.M., regardless of their religion, and secular alternatives are available for those who don't want any religion with their dinner. No one, after dinner, has to convert or profess any sort of belief. They just have to sit while someone preaches or prays.
It's not as though they have anything else to do. With substance-abuse rates approaching 90 percent, the crowd on Sunday night is listless and bored. When dinner is over, staffers break out mops to clean the red linoleum floor before the service starts. Many men sprawl across the tables and promptly fall asleep. A few read paperback books. Others wander outside to smoke in sullen silence. Still others sit glassy-eyed and alone, staring into space. Time, for the most part, is not a valued commodity here.
Kodi Palmer, a young, good-looking guy with a ready smile, thinks he has better things to do. "You can't force religion on people," he says philosophically. "Some people just ain't into religion." He's been here for two weeks now, though he says he won't be around much longer, thanks to jobs he's picked up in construction and fast food. When dinner is over he pushes his tray back and eyes the door.
"Time to get outta here," he says, flashing his trademark smile. "You gotta leave quick. Sometimes they call you and try to get you to come back. You can't look back, or they got you." He takes off at a fast clip, cruising past the smokers at the front door. No one stops him as he heads east, past the liquor stores and boarded-up storefronts. Ironically, it seems that the Mission does allow a determined person to eat and run.
Still, 45 minutes later, Mr. Palmer slips into the back of the chapel with an embarrassed grin. There was nothing to do out there, and he needed a place to sleep. His resigned shrug says it all: For a homeless man, there are far worse things than being forced to sit through a Sunday evening service.
But the USDA bureaucrats seem to disagree. In their view, any organization taking surplus food becomes primarily a food-distribution agency, and anything else the organization does is "unrelated activity." According to 7CFR251.10, these unrelated activities are allowed, but only if "The person(s) conducting the activity makes clear that cooperation is not a condition of the receipt of TEFAP commodities ... (cooperation includes contributing money, signing petitions, or conversing with the person(s))."
Does that mean, for instance, that a soup kitchen could not require people to wash their hands before eating-or, as the rule itself implies, require a simple "Thank you" to the server? "Well, yes, I suppose you could take it that far if you wanted to," admits Susan Sanford, executive director of the Memphis Food Bank. "You can't require hungry people to do anything for their food."
But, of course, the USDA does not take it that far. Of all the things the Memphis Union Mission requires of its clients-cleaning up after themselves, going outside to smoke, and so forth-the USDA singled out only the religious requirement. That sort of selective enforcement has religious-freedom watchers crying foul.
"This ruling says that a place helping the needy is disqualified for help if they say grace over the meal or if they have a chapel service beforehand-it's really the same principle," says Wendell Bird, a Christian attorney in Atlanta who has argued many religious-liberty cases. "That's discrimination. Kendrick vs. Bowers struck down precisely that sort of discrimination against religious social service agencies."
And if the mission took the USDA to court? "It would be a very strong case based on [the agency's] refusal to give them equal access to government programs."
Mr. Calhoun, however, says he has no plans for a lawsuit. Word of the mission's predicament spread quickly throughout Memphis. Within days, radio stations were broadcasting live from the dark brick building on Poplar Street, and commuters were dropping by with donations on their way home from work. Well over $100,000 has poured in already-more than three times the amount Mr. Calhoun figures he lost when the USDA withdrew its food.
Lawsuit or no lawsuit, Mr. Calhoun hopes his battle with the government will focus attention on the plight of faith-based charities. Despite the outpouring of popular support, he says politicians at all levels have steered clear of the controversy: "Good old Mr. Gore, who has said that if elected president he would help faith-based missions receive federal funds without having to change their religious stance, I've yet to hear from him or any of his cronies. And in all fairness, I know Gov. Bush in the Republican platform made the statement that one of his objectives would be to help missions and homeless shelters receive federal funding without having to change their religious stance. So you've got both parties talking about it, but neither one has contacted us."
Beyond the immediate goal of repealing an unjust ruling, Mr. Calhoun would like to see a realistic approach to the homeless problem. "Most Americans are rather ignorant as to what homelessness is about in this country," he says. Contrary to the view of the USDA, the most pressing need of the homeless is not to receive a meal at any cost: "Homelessness in America is not about starvation. It's about drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, and, in a very small percentage, mental illness. The majority that come to us-over 90 percent-come with an addiction of some kind.
"You're not looking at people with bloated tummies sticking out. You're looking at people that have made a lifestyle choice to involve themselves in behaviors that have ripped their lives apart.... People coming to us aren't hungry for food. What they're starving for is a change of life. They're hoping that we'll not only give them help, but we'll give them hope."