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Poverty and politics: Who should feed the hungry – churches or government?

Donna Pinaire became director of the Bread of Life food pantry in order to obey Jesus by feeding the hungry.

She and most of her fellow church members help the poor like few others. They meet them face to face by the hundreds every week.

This does not make her special, Pinaire said. But it does make her informed.

And so Pinaire, a conservative herself, says it can be jarring for her to hear the things said about the poor, by both liberals and conservatives. She wonders whether the loudest voices of both sides have ever spent time with the poor.

In any community discussion about the poor in Wichita, Pinaire’s Bread of Life pantry – and the small, conservative church that founded it 23 years ago – is worth consulting.

How to deal with the poor has become a divisive political issue. But most media stories and debates about the poor describe them only in the abstract – numbers, trends and so on.

The 150-member Living Word Outreach Church knows the poor as people. They know their faces, their stories. They gave 900,000 pounds of food to Wichita’s poor last year.

They do this even though members work mostly at entry-level jobs. They all give thousands of dollars of their own money to keep the pantry going, Pinaire said.

When you believe every word in the Bible is true, Pinaire said, you believe every word in the New Testament, in which Jesus commands his followers relentlessly, by word and example, to feed the hungry, heal the sick and help the afflicted, the sinners, the outcasts.

As a conservative, Pinaire believes that “government should never have gotten into the welfare business.” But she has heard some conservatives say cruel and unjust things. That the poor are takers, and lazy, and should go get jobs, for example.

But the liberals’ insistence that we should spend more on social programs is cruel when it creates dependency, generational poverty and a sense of entitlement, she said.

Both sides get it wrong, she said.

We have thousands of poor in Wichita, Pinaire said. For their sake, she said, we should stop arguing and come to understand something profound: That this is not just about helping the poor; it is about all of us doing the right thing.

“We really need to get this right.”

Poverty numbers

According to state numbers released earlier this year, 11.4 percent of families in Sedgwick County live below the federal income guidelines for poverty. There were 134,000 children in Kansas in poverty, 19 percent of the state’s children, a 4 percent increase since 2005.

Nationally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation said about 16.4 million children live in poverty, 23 percent of all American children, 4 percentage points higher than in 2005.

Congress has had ugly debates this year about whether to cut food stamp programs. State officials in Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration have said poverty benefits must change because the spending is not sustainable.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas introduced a bill to cut $36 billion from food stamps over 10 years. It did not pass.

“I think Kansans agree that in a federal program that was exempted from sequestration, and that spends over $78 billion in one year, it is reasonable to look for waste and savings,” Roberts wrote in a statement. “I have proven before that we can reform nutrition programs (food stamps in the 1996 Farm Bill) and we can find savings by addressing redundant programs and abuse without dismantling the program or touching assistance that helps put food on the table for the needy.”

Brownback’s administration has emphasized education and jobs while cutting some welfare programs, saying it wants to discourage dependency. The state enacted drug testing of welfare recipients, and added requirements that those on welfare show they are searching for work.

Brian Walker directs the Kansas Food Bank, where the Bread of Life gets most of its food. He disagrees with Pinaire’s belief that government should never get into the welfare business.

“The problem is far too big for churches to handle,” he said.

‘I’m devastated’

No food.

No winter coats for her children.

No other options.

So Traci Murphy took her daughter to the Bread of Life – at 1301 E. Galena, in south Wichita – and took her place in line. Inside, Pinaire was prepping her volunteers. Outside it was sunny and 48 degrees.

On this recent Tuesday, Murphy had gas in the car to last until Thursday, she said. After Thursday it might not be possible to pick up her son from school.

As most homeless do, she was losing ownership, one by one, of things taken for granted: Gasoline. Food. Confidence. Job. Peace of mind. Toothpaste. Toilet paper. Self-respect. Medicine. Relationships. Hope. Soap. Beds. Shampoo. Clothes.

“Devastated,” she said. “Embarrassed.”

When her daughter Paytann, 4, started shivering in the pantry line, Murphy wrapped her own coat around her, the coat hanging down to cold pavement. Paytann has blond hair and vividly pale blue eyes – and Kohler’s disease, a bone disorder, but can walk, Murphy said.

She knows what some people say, Murphy said. That people in need should get a job.

She had a job, she said. And still has certifications as a home health aide, as a certified nurse’s aide and as a certified medical assistant. Her home care patient died. Nobody is hiring, she said.

A few months ago, Murphy said, she had a husband, Jason, and a home health aide job, and they had a home. But her patient died, she said, and her husband “went scrapping” – stole copper for resale. And now he’s in jail, Murphy said, and she and the kids live in a homeless shelter.

“I am looking now for anything I can possibly get,” she said. “I’m devastated that I’m standing here. But I need food for my children.”

‘Crushed by failure’

Liberals get it wrong when they say the poor need more tax dollars, Pinaire said.

”That’s just cruel,” she said, “Money without love and money without real help – it just creates dependency.”

But some conservatives get it wrong, too, she said. Like Murphy – standing outside in the cold – Pinaire knows what people say.

That the poor are minorities, when most in Wichita are white, she said.

That they are lazy, when so many in fact are employed. Pinaire said they’ve seen a lot of employed people seeking food since the 2008 recession. Many of the poor are children, or elderly, or sick, or disabled.

Many are willing to gather for hours with their small children in chilling temperatures outside the pantry doors, waiting for a bag or two of food. Nothing lazy about that, Pinaire said.

“Lately it seems like what conservatives want to do is take everything away from them,” she said. “Food stamps, other support.”

Pinaire believes churches, not the government, should take care of the poor. And she said some of them are not doing that, in spite of Jesus’ relentless preaching about helping the vulnerable.

What the poor need most is encouragement, she said.

“Their souls have been crushed by failure, day after day,” she said. “They need someone to tell them that they are human beings, that they are worth something. They need someone to tell them that God loves them, to tell them that they can better themselves. We do that for them.

“Money without hope is not the answer. Cutting them off without love is not the answer.”

‘Jesus didn’t tell us to judge’

At the pantry the day Murphy was there, 65 adults – joined by 14 children not old enough to be in school – waited for the doors to open. By 1:30 p.m. that day, Pinaire’s volunteers had helped 260 families, totaling 658 people.

“One of our slower days,” Pinaire remarked later. They gave 10 to 20 pounds of food to each family.

Several of the children were dancing up and down to keep warm. Most in line appeared to be middle aged or elderly women. Several were disabled; there were a dozen or so using canes or walkers with seats.

The first two guys in line said they had been waiting four hours for the 10 a.m. opening.

Are there welfare cheats and food cheats among those who come to the pantry? Yes, Pinaire said. A few.

Her volunteers try to identify and counsel them. But they give food even to them.

“Jesus didn’t tell us to judge people,” she said.

When the doors opened, Murphy walked in with Paytann.

First there was registration, where volunteers checked photo IDs and names, learning whether any people had already taken food. Once a month is the limit.

Then the poor go one by one to cubicles, where counselors ask questions, offer advice about where to look for jobs, tell them what free medical care there might be in town.

Murphy’s volunteer counselor, a grandmotherly woman with white hair, then asked whether Murphy would care to pray. Bread of Life never makes any hungry people pray to get food, Pinaire said. But it also never accepts government money because then it would have to stop asking people if they want to pray.

So the grandmotherly volunteer asked Murphy whether she wanted to pray, and when Murphy said yes, the woman reached a hand across the table, and asked what Murphy would like to pray about.

So Murphy said that what keeps her going is Paytann, sitting there beside her, and Logan, her 8-year-old son who attends McCollum Elementary School. And when Murphy said that, the tears started streaming.

Paytann didn’t notice her mother crying until the counselor handed a tissue across the table.

Paytann saw the tears.

She leaned in to hug her mom.

Contributing: Travis Heying of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or Follow him on Twitter:@roywenzl.