Ryan P. Cumming

Exploring: Relief

In this series of posts, we will take a closer look at some of the areas of work ELCA World Hunger supports domestically and internationally.  This week, our focus is on “relief.”

What Is Relief?

Relief is any response to immediate needs.  When someone comes to the door hungry, they are fed.  When someone is hurt, they are treated.  Relief might not look toward long-term solutions, but it is the most immediate response we can offer when we encounter someone in need.  Occasionally, relief can also be the best response to the needs of people who might never be able to reliably meet their own needs.  For example, someone who is unable to work due to a very serious injury might never be able to earn enough income to feed themselves.  Relief ministries can step in and fill this gap.

It is very important, though, to remember that RELIEF IS NOT THE SAME AS RESCUE.  Whether someone volunteers at a food pantry, receives a hot meal at a church, or packs backpacks of food for children on the weekend, relief should always be thought of first and foremost as work we do together – whether we are receiving food or providing it.  Relief done well creates a table at which ALL can be fed.

As Lutherans, we recognize that hunger takes many forms – physical hunger for food, emotional hunger for support or intimacy, spiritual hunger for fulfillment and so on.  Relief ministries aren’t simply a way for struggling families to be fed with food; they are opportunities for those serving to be fed spiritually, socially and emotionally, by being invited to share in the meaningful relationships that can be created when God draws together people who might otherwise not encounter one another at work, school, or home.  Seeing our mutual need as both recipients and providers can be an important first step in helping our ministry be guided by the dignity of the people involved on every side.

Roots of Relief

One of the clearest places we see relief in our scripture and tradition is in the miracle stories of the Bible.  In the Old Testament, we hear of God providing manna to the wandering Hebrews.  After they left Egypt, the people roamed through the wilderness, seeking the land God had promised them.  This story gives us some helpful tips for what relief ought to look like.

First, God isn’t just an outside “hero” who rescues Israel.  Rather, God is walking with them, accompanying them as they make their way to Canaan.  Because God is traveling with them, God knows their need, and God provides.

Second, God’s relief is given during a time when the Hebrews simply could not support themselves.  Without land, these agriculturalists would have been hard-pressed to provide for their families.  God’s relief is given in response to the expressed needs of the people and with an eye toward their future well-being and livelihood.  The goal isn’t to provide just enough of one kind of relief (manna) so that the Hebrews remain dependent.  Nor is it given to assert God’s worth over and above the worth of each human being.  It is given in love and hope, to support the Hebrews on the journey to a new life that they will build in cooperation with God.

Third, the Hebrews aren’t just passive recipients; they are part of a relationship with God and important actors in the progress of God’s plan for Israel.  There is no covenant without God, and there is no covenant without people.

Finally, and this seems almost to go without saying, Moses isn’t God.  No human leader, no human participant in the community is so elevated that they become replacements or substitutes for God.  God’s way of relating gives all of us an ideal picture of what relationships can look like, but there is a big difference between helping our community meet its needs and being the Creator and Sustainer of all existence.  In the wilderness, God uses the people’s gifts – Moses’ gift of leadership, Miriam’s gift of music, Jethro’s gift of counsel.  Each gift counts, each person matters.  There is a measure of equality among the members of the community; once they are confronted by the majestic powers of God, any minor distinctions between individual humans pale in comparison.

In the New Testament, Jesus provides excellent examples of relief in the stories of healing.  On the surface, this relief seems pretty straightforward.  Someone has a disease or disability; he or she asks Jesus for help; Jesus provides immediate help.  End of story, right?  Not quite.

As biblical scholars have pointed out, to have a disease like leprosy or a disability like blindness in Jesus’ time meant something very different than it does today.  To have leprosy was to be an outcast, someone who could never be “clean” enough to dine with others or to go to synagogue.  To have a permanent disability like blindness was thought to be a sign that a person was cursed by God for some failing.  Jesus, by healing people around him – indeed, even by touching them – was turning both of these notions on their heads.  People with disabilities weren’t cursed by God; they were loved by God – so much so, in fact, that Jesus is willing to break the law by healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:16; Luke 13:10-17.)

Jesus wasn’t just healing people; he was subverting social mores that tossed justice and compassion out the window.  Relief ministries of today, when done faithfully, are important witnesses against a society that believes people’s suffering is ordained by God or that people who have real needs will somehow “taint” the community.  (If you don’t believe this happens today, I would invite you to read this fine article on recent laws passed to keep homeless people out of public spaces.)

Everyone Jesus meets is in need of healing, not just those who different physical abilities or illnesses.  Providing immediate relief to people who hunger for food, for companionship, for fulfillment – when done in love, in solidarity, and with an eye toward future well-being – can be a powerful testimony to the worth and dignity of every human being, including those who have been invited to serve.  And often, such a ministry can create a cycle, with clients of a ministry often using their talents and skills as volunteers or employees.

Examples of Relief

Relief ministries are some of the most vital ministries ELCA World Hunger supports.  Here are some examples:

Peace Lutheran Fellowship in Port Ludlow, Washington, provides an average of 20 backpacks of food to children who are food insecure in their community.  By working closely with the local school, they can identify children who might not have enough to eat during the weekends, when they are not receiving food at school.

Churches United of the Quad Cities Area is an ecumenical group of Iowa churches that maintains a network of 24 food pantries and 3 hot-meal sites.  Together, they are committed to serving all who are hungry, without discrimination.  Almost half of the people who receive free suppers at their hot meal sites are under 18, and all are food-insecure.  By working together and with support in part from ELCA World Hunger, they are able to serve meals to over 29,000 people each year.

Lutheran World Federation’s Kakuma Refugee Camp Assistance Program helps provide humanitarian assistance and protection for people fleeing violence and persecution in other parts of Africa, especially Sudan most recently.  When refugees arrive at the camp in Kenya, they are given food rations and referred to other agencies for psychosocial needs.  This year, LWF expects to assist 13,000 new refugees, including many asylum seekers, at the camp.  LWF supports these new asylum seekers and helps them get connected with other agencies like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Each of the refugees will be given immediate assistance until long-term solutions can be found for their protection and well-being.  In addition, the project helps improve educational opportunities for children, including providing accommodations for children with disabilities and has a program specifically for unaccompanied minors.