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Shawn Vestal: Joy, service and food for the hungry on hand at Shalom Ministries for 25 years

Vegetable stew, biscuits and pie were served for lunch at Shalom Ministries in the basement of Central United Methodist Church Tuesday morning, Sept. 13, 2005. The Shalom Ministries Holiday Concert and Auction will be Saturday at the Southside Community Center. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Vegetable stew, biscuits and pie were served for lunch at Shalom Ministries in the basement of Central United Methodist Church Tuesday morning, Sept. 13, 2005. The Shalom Ministries Holiday Concert and Auction will be Saturday at the Southside Community Center. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s the simplest act, but the most profound.

The most basic gift, yet the most crucial.

Someone whose life is filled with plenty hands a tray of food to one whose life is not, a simple tray with simple food, and by doing so, they affirm their shared humanity.

It’s a sacrament, truly. A ritual of spiritual or secular grace. And one of the best things about this city – as we exit the dumbed-down, mean-spirited election campaign and enter the season when our charitable instincts are sharpest – is how often people here take it upon themselves to perform this humane, vital act: feeding the hungry, one tray at a time.

Hundreds of Spokane citizens are engaged in this enterprise, in one form or another. Our city’s churches and charitable organizations offer meals every day – breakfasts, lunches and dinners. More than 30 organizations offer free meals or food bank services. Driving it all is volunteers, ladling the food, handing out the trays, filling the boxes at food banks, keeping the wolf from the door for so many.

The House of Charity has served thousands upon thousands of meals at its shelter. Crosswalk feeds young people twice a day, the Union Gospel Mission serves lunches and dinners daily, the Salvation Army serves daily dinners … the list goes on.

So, as much as certain political campaigns all but sneered at this tendency of our city – or, worse, suggested it has produced or subsidized the problems it strives to address – I hope that most of us make no mistake: Spokane’s engagement in feeding the hungry, no questions asked, is one of our best characteristics.

In this landscape, one unique meal program has reached its 25th year. Shalom Ministries is an ecumenical ministry that feeds people in the heart of downtown Spokane, funded and supplied with volunteers from a number of local churches. It has been a stalwart on the front lines in the war against daily hunger since 1994.

On Saturday night, the organization will host its annual holiday concert and auction to help raise money. If you’re without plans, you could do worse than buy a ticket to help this organization while having an enjoyable evening. (Full disclosure: I’m a small part of the program, but please don’t let that keep you away.)

“This year, we expect to serve over 53,000 meals,” said Tim Swartout, the program director, in an online post. “That’s an increase of 15.2% over the last two years alone. As the demand for nutritious meals continues to mount, we are fully committed to staying the course. But, without the support of our volunteers and the needed financial assistance, our ability to meet this demand will be extremely challenging.”

Shalom Ministries serves breakfast four days a week in the basement of the New Community Building at Third Avenue and Howard Street, and dinners twice a week. The program receives support and volunteers from several United Methodist congregations in town, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, St. Mark’s Lutheran and others.

“It’s a means of fulfilling a commandment – the commandment to serve the Lord by serving your fellow man,” said Ted Ketcham, a board member who represents Covenant United Methodist Church, citing the scriptural injunction to care for the least among us. “To me, those are kind of the operating orders. You’re there to serve, and I find that service releases a lot of joy.”

Most of us live at a remove from the homeless. They are not present in our daily lives, except perhaps out the windows of our cars as we drive by or the corner of our eye as we walk past. Across that distance, we often can’t recognize their humanity.

It makes it very easy for people to say and believe cruel or selfish or ignorant things about them. It makes it very easy to accept this distance, to keep your empathy locked up, to indulge your all-important judgment, to gaze upon these neighbors and diagnose them as less deserving than they should be.

The sacrament of feeding the hungry erases that. It reduces the equation, for a brief moment, to two people – one offering and one accepting. One giving and one receiving, though the gifts and receipts flow both ways, as Ketcham notes.

The simplest act. And the most profound.