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The Invisible Poor in Your Own Back Yard

Recently, I watched as 800 people stood in line with grocery sacks, trash bags and wheeled carts waiting to get food.
Most, if not all, were minorities. Many were elderly, walking with canes or walkers. Many were young mothers with babies in strollers or in car seats.

Many looked cold after standing in line for three or more hours simply to make it to the front of the line. Many spoke of their long journey home, taking two or more buses to get back to their doorstep.

Most looked weary with the burdens of a hard life – a life that had a lot to do with self-reliance, determination and perseverance to succeed even under less than desirable circumstances.

These were some of my hungry neighbors in the northeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. They gathered en masse near the Central Union Mission because they heard Feed The Children came to town with “the big truck.”

Feed The Children came with boxes of essential can goods, personal care products such as soap and toothpaste, loaves of bread, oatmeal and even some chocolate for the way home from its partners, including Pepsi, Frito Lay and Wal-Mart.

As I gathered with my neighbors and stood in the line of folks giving out boxes to families in need, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by how deeply embedded hunger needs are, only a few miles from our nation’s capital.

Can you imagine what a line of 800 people looks like? As soon as we thought we’d made headway in passing boxes out, the line seemed to get longer and longer.

Can you imagine what it is like to be hungry enough to wait in the cold for a box of food, which might only last you a week? Can you imagine the humility that comes from asking for help simply to feed your own children?

As I helped elderly women and young mothers put their canned goods and corn flakes into their suitcases or duffel bags, wishing them well on their journey to get all their heavy weight home, I couldn’t help but think about what Jesus would say about all of this.

How, in a nation of plenty, do we allow some of our neighbors to live with such little when many of us take so much?

How do the poor, in a town where media coverage runs on just about anything, become invisible to us?

How do we call ourselves good neighbors, as residents and frequent visitors to the district, when some of our neighbors simply do not have enough food to feed our families?

Of course, these are big questions to ask and big questions without simple answers.

And the folks at Feed The Children know that food is only the beginning – you feed hungry people so that doors of greater relationship can be opened for lasting change.

Feed The Children is a small drop in the larger assistance movement in communities. Feed The Children’s food drops mean little if they aren’t connected to greater, long-term investment by partner organizations.

And Feed The Children’s network of building lasting change within communities like D.C. is certainly growing by the day. This day was more than about just food – Feed The Children made sure of this.

As I reflect on my recent experience at this event, I am sobered most of all.

I know I need to think of my neighbors – all of them – in new ways. I need to remember that as much as I have, there are those who struggle in my own neighborhood to buy vegetables and shampoo.

We can all do our part by remembering the poor among us. We can thank God for the blessings in our life, both great and small.

Yet, we can remember that no matter how wide we think our vision is in our community, there are always hungry folks among us wanting to be seen and fed too.

Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City, Okla. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared.