"I've talked to hundreds who came to tell their stories. They were real people, with the same appetites, the same needs, the same desires to make it in the world.
"Today, we talk about a hunger problem or a homeless problem. What we really have, though, is hungry people and homeless people. We've objectified these people somehow, and I think it's time we gave them back their humanity."- Rev. Bradley S. Wirth, Episcopal Diocese of Utah
**** Salt Lake area churches do more than provide spiritual nourishment. They are also providing physical nourishment through programs established to care for the needy. Those programs locally play a significant role in ameliorating hunger and poverty.
Utah's three largest church-sponsored networks are products of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church.
Other churches also offer a network of services, ranging from the food bank at the Trinity A.M.E. Church to the well-known efforts of the Salvation Army. Every area church is involved in some way, from working with the community to combat problems to providing rent money to a low-income member of the congregation. Despite differences in specific beliefs, the churches have much in common as they cope with social problems and meet human needs, based on a combination of direct services, counseling, advocacy and compassion.
When the spotlight focuses on hunger in Salt Lake County, people think of St. Vincent De Paul Center, which serves lunch during the week to several hundred homeless people. St. Vincent's is operated by the Catholic Community Services, according to Rev. Terry Moore, director of CCS and a parish priest at St. Thomas Moore in Sandy.
St. Vincent De Paul centers, he said, are located throughout the nation, and their main purpose is to provide food to the hungry. But in Salt Lake City, the center has for some time offered other services that were once sadly lacking - like some medical and dental help, job placement services, counseling and providing clothing.
Besides St. Vincent De Paul, several of the parishes in the Catholic diocese operate small food banks. CCS also operates a small shelter for homeless women, refugee foster-care programs, counseling, immigration assistance, child welfare and a family assistance program that benefits about 4,000 people annually.
Service programs for the needy are open to everyone, regardless of race or religion. The same is true of Episcopal Church-sponsored programs.
"Along with direct services, we are focusing on advocacy as well," said Rev. Canon Bradley S. Wirth of the Episcopal diocese. "One approach to dealing with hunger is obviously to feed the hungry. Another - and I think it needs to be simultaneous - is to get to the root of the problem."
The Episcopal Church has a national network that provides grants to organizations that work with social programs, but a lot of the services are provided by members of the congregations, who are encouraged to be active advocates for their communities and to help people directly. The "Lessons and Carols" service that takes place each Advent, for example, raises money to benefit a specific charity. Past beneficiaries have included the homeless shelter and the hospice for AIDS victims.
"If someone is hungry, we feed them without asking a lot of questions or forcing them to listen to our tenets," Rev. Wirth said. "That's rice-bowl Christianity, and we don't believe it's effective or fair."
The LDS Church Welfare Services Department takes a two-pronged approach to providing food for the hungry - offering assistance at the individual and organization levels, said Isaac A. Ferguson, staff executive secretary to the church's Human Services Committee. The committee is comprised of a number of LDS general authorities.
For more than 50 years, the church welfare program has provided food, clothing and other assistance to needy LDS members through their bishops - the local ecclesiastical authorities in LDS wards or geographical units.
But during the past few years, the church also has focused more of its welfare efforts on communitywide relief, Ferguson said.
"Community activity came to the forefront because of a church fast held for the 1985 famine in Ethiopia," Ferguson said. "The philosophy is that the church should make a modest contribution to the community, whether it be the world, national or local community."
For the past two years, those community contributions have been in the form of donations of surplus food commodities to local food banks in various parts of the country.
The church has also contributed to Boy Scouts of America food donation projects, and in the Salt Lake area has participated in ecumenical Hunger Sabbath events. During a Hunger Sabbath, members of local churches are asked to bring packaged food items to the service for collection by local food providers.
"We try to be sensitive to the needs of food kitchens and other organizations in Utah, and in other areas of the country too," Ferguson said. "If a local bishop's storehouse has surpluses of one kind or another, donations of surplus food are made to local organizations for use in their programs. Because those donations are made on a case-specific basis, they may only occur once a year in a particular area."
The church's community relief efforts respond to organizational, rather than individual, needs because LDS Welfare Services is not set up to act as a social program or agency, Ferguson said. Instead, Welfare Services acts as a broker of resources to other community organizations, who in turn directly assist individuals and families.
For LDS members in need, the church welfare program can provide, upon the signature of a bishop, food from a local storehouse, stocked by the donations of LDS members.
LDS Welfare Services does not make public the number of church members who receive assistance from storehouse stocks each year.
"We consider (church welfare assistance) a confidential matter between a bishop and an individual or family," Ferguson said. "It's a quiet program, one that goes on day after day, week after week, month after month."
As people whose business is caring and providing assistance, the men and women who run the numerous church-sponsored programs of the three religions have all found one thing to be true: People are just people.
Next: Those for whom food is a luxury.