to the anti-vaccine movement

When God puts something on my heart to share the words flow with ease from my fingertips. These past two weeks I have not found ‘that right thing’ which flows with such ease. Perhaps I should say ‘that right thing’ has not found me. What I have realized is that I have placed parameters on this blog which limit that which is placed on my heart to write about.The truth is my heart does not just beat for issues related to hunger or people living in poverty. My heart beats for many areas of injustice. Hunger is just one of them. When I speak out about justice my soul comes alive. It is then and only then that I do not have to ask myself what to write about because I cannot stop myself from writing even if I tried.

My newly formed blog is morphing into the thing God is calling me to write. Stay with me…hungermatters has become if mercy could speak. 


Two weeks ago I found myself in the Oncology Department of  Cincinnati Children’s Hospital waiting to find out if my daughter’s cancer had returned. Izzy was born in 2008 and diagnosed in 2011. Now, 2015, we have officially passed the point where cancer has been a part of her life longer than it has not. So, I’m sitting in this Oncology Department surrounded by little bald kids wearing tiny little protective masks. I’m surrounded by traumatized parents pushing IV poles behind said kids. I’m surrounded by a reality that is far too close to home. As I wait for our doctor to come in with our results, wait for him to tell me if Izzy’s likely to live the next four years or not, I scroll through my Facebook feed. Someone had a great lunch, thanks for sharing. Someone got a haircut, ooh, that’s cute. Then I see it. My heart begins to race and I am angered. I scroll right on by and pretend I did not see the smart-ass post from someone about not vaccinating their kid. I try not to let it bother me.

But hours later, after a follow up appointment with another pediatric specialist it is still bothering me. The car is quiet and the sky is dark and mostly I’m at peace about the good news we received from the scans. They did reveal a lot of iron buildup still on her liver (from so many blood transfusions during treatment) so we will likely have to begin regular phlebotomies to remove it. But the scans showed no sign of cancer so I’m thrilled to be dealing with iron.

I drive in the stillness and I wander back to the comment I saw. Wander back to all the comments and all the articles I’ve seen on this anti-vaccine movement and my heart thinks back to those children at the hospital. Children who could die, not from the diseases they are fighting, but from the people leaving smart-ass comments about vaccines. I wonder what suffering those children will endure tonight as they lay in those hospital beds. I think about the hundreds of nights we stayed there and I am thankful to have Izzy alive, in my car, on our way home to her own bed. I think about other people who don’t have sick kids and who just can’t understand. I start trying to make myself see that they just want to protect their kids too. That those people who find themselves amidst this movement truly think they are making the best decision.

And then it happens. There is this moment when my own discontent sees the gap between the anti-vaccine movement and the sick kids. I see, ever so clearly, what I have never seen before. It stands so perfectly in front of me I could almost touch it. I see what has been missing from this argument all along. Mercy.
When we sit back and think our view on something is the only way to see it and become unwilling to hear others out, like really hear them out not just humor them, I’d call that arrogance. I’d call that pride. But when we are willing to sit down and listen (notice I didn’t say talk), when we are willing to sit down and listen to one another and make at least some attempt at understanding the other’s point of view, I’d call that grace. That grace can lead us to have mercy for one another. Mercy in this context is saying, “I don’t have to vaccinate my child. But because me not doing it risks SO MUCH for SO MANY, I will.” If mercy could speak to the anti-vaccine movement it would sound like that.
It is obvious where I stand on this issue but as a Christian who wants to carry the presence of Christ everywhere I go, I have to be willing to listen to people who aren’t just like me. I have to be willing to believe the best in them. To try to understand their heart and to come to them with true humility when I don’t and say, “I don’t understand.” And what would happen if they came back to me and said, “I don’t understand you either.?” Well first of all that would be the Kingdom of God advancing on earth. That would be a Christ like approach to conflict. That would be a step towards mercy. And if that happened, if I could sit down and talk to another mom or dad over coffee while our kids play in my backyard, this is what I would say. It wouldn’t be perfect, it wouldn’t be pretty, but it’s all I’ve got:

I respect you. I honor the choices you have made and the time you have put into making them. I honestly do see value in the choice you have made for your child. I just want you to know one thing: the choice you are making, the choice you think is best for protecting your child, is not a right. It is a privilege. Now slow down, don’t get fired up. I’m not saying it’s a privilege because it can or cannot be taken away by the government. I’m saying it’s a privilege because it can be taken away by life itself. When we start out as parents we all think that’s a right we have but some of us learn harder than others that it’s just not. Our kids are not actually entitled to life and we are not actually entitled to getting to protect it. If we’re lucky and if we’re blessed, we get both. But some get neither.

Clearly when Izzy was going through chemotherapy her immune system was dangerously at risk of being contaminated by anything and everything. Then, to make things worse she had to have a stem-cell transplant and it saved her life but it wiped out all of her cell’s memory. Her body had no record of vaccines. We had to wait nearly a year and a half before her immune system was ready for us to start over. Fortunately now we are gradually giving her vaccines again but it will be a slow process. For two years I just prayed that she would not be exposed to something. She was already fighting cancer but I was praying she wouldn’t be exposed to something that could make your kid sick but kill mine. So, please, can you just try to understand that so many people, so many children, don’t have the privilege of protecting themselves. We need your help.

That’s all I would say and then I would listen. I would listen to everything you had to say. But when you were done and our coffee mugs were empty, if you still couldn’t have mercy on my family I would ask you to do one thing. Before you leave let’s bring all our kids up here and sit them down in a big circle on my deck. After they stop giggling and once you finally get their attention, I want you to look my daughter in the eye and tell her that her life is not worth protecting. I want you to tell her that you could do your part but that you won’t. You can say you are sorry she was sick and whatever else you want but I want you to say the other stuff too and I want you to say it with your kid listening.

I know that seems harsh, I do. I went back and forth a million times on whether or not to write that part. But let’s be honest: If you are not vaccinating your child that is what you are saying. You just aren’t using words.

I do respect you and I do honor your choice but that does not mean I have to like it. I think it is a choice that is selfish and I think it is a choice that lacks mercy. Mercy acts compassionately towards someone even thought they don’t deserve it. You don’t owe anything to kids who are fighting or have fought cancer. But you have something amazing you can give if you want to.

Years ago I learned that the safest place for my daughter was at the foot of the cross. I had to stop holding on to her, stop trying so desperately to determine God’s will for her life. I am asking you, on behalf of every parent in the same situation I have been in, to do the same. Please just try to understand that whatever merit there is to this anti-vaccine movement, if it doesn’t stop people are going to die. Children are going to die and not from the diseases they are already fighting but from the ones they will get from your kid. I’m not asking you to throw all caution to the wind. I’m just asking for you to vaccinate your child. I’m just asking for mercy.


red hats, green bags

There are people in life who are easy to love. People in life we meet who can actually make us want to be better people ourselves. People whose brokenness is beautiful. More often than not, however, brokenness is anything but beautiful. This past week I experienced that vast difference within 24 hours. Here’s the story:

Wednesday evening I stood in the back room explaining to new volunteers how to sort through the boxes of baked goods. I was tired and it was almost time to go home when a volunteer from Check-In tracked me down to say she had a client who needed to see me. I could see by the look on the volunteer’s face that this was going to be a hard one. I could see the compassion bumping up against the frustration, “We can’t help her, can we?” I walked around to the lobby to find the thing I did not want to see. The person I did not want to see.

The older woman before me was dressed in brown polyester pants that came two inches above her dirty white tennis shoes. No coat, she wore only a faded red sweater, a red scarf that hardly covered the skin on her neck and a red hat that overwhelmed her small head. With a shaky hand she handed me a fistful of documentation. Drivers license, pantry card, the number she had pulled when she walked in and a piece of mail. “I just came here on Friday,” she said, her lips trembling. She looked me in the eye when she spoke, then looked immediately away. Her green eyes came back to mine, “But I have no food in my house for my kids.” Away they went again. Her hands shook, her lips shook. The reason her eyes could not keep mine was not because she was lying. It was because she was ashamed. She knew as well as I that families could only visit one time per month and she had just visited five days ago.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, my heart breaking as I continued, “you know I can’t.”

“I have three children,” she went on, her green eyes looking over my shoulder as if I was not standing there. “I’ve called the other pantries but no place is open today.”

“I can give you some numbers. I know a place that is open tomorrow,” I tried to assure her.

“But my kids are hungry tonight. Can’t you give me a sack of potatoes for tonight? I won’t come back next month, okay. Can’t this just count for next month’s visit?” Still she looked away once her sentence finished. Still she trembled.

With all of my heart I wanted to do it but I couldn’t. There are Civil Rights Regulations that I am required to follow. I can’t do for one what I don’t do for everyone. It’s called discrimination and there can be serious consequences for our organization. As much as my bleeding heart wants to help each and every person every time they come in, I can’t. I have to draw the line. If I don’t I may not be able to help anyone.

“I’m so sorry,” I took her hand in mine and gave her back the documents I had been holding. “I really am.” She nodded her head as if she understood, though I know she did not. Without looking at me the woman with the red hat left. From behind the Check-In desk my volunteers watched her go and then looked back at me. They understood and at the same time they did not. The truth was, I understood and at the same time I did not. I went back to work but I was not at peace.

When brokenness comes to us in the form of desperation it moves us to compassion. It compels us to want to take action. To love, really. But what I’m learning, more now than ever before, is that brokenness does not always come to us in the form of desperation. It is still brokenness though, and it still matters.

The next morning I showed up to the pantry to find my team unloading our second delivery of the week. About ten volunteers were sorting through meat and fresh produce, talking about the great selection of product we had received. An hour or so into things there was a loud knock at the volunteer entrance. I opened the door to find a young man with some green bags asking for help.

Every time there are cars at the pantry someone stops by thinking we are open. This is not unusual. I explained to him that we would open at 10 am the next morning as I always do. What was unusual was that he continued to go on about his situation and how I didn’t understand what he wanted. What was unusual was that he was beginning to raise his voice. He wanted to know if I would pay him to help us. I stayed calmed and simply said no. When he started to ask the guy behind me I cut him off, “None of us are able to give you money for helping us. But you can,” Then he cut me off.

“F### you. You have this whole warehouse full of food and yet you won’t f###ing help somebody who really needs it.” He was pissed now and he wanted us to know. Of course my volunteer who is serving community hours for already being in trouble was the first to run to my aid. “What did you just say to her,” he walked towards the door. They continued to get closer to each other, exchanging etiquette advice on talking to women until I finally told my volunteer to walk away and I closed the door. But the guy wasn’t done.

Out back by the trash stood three of my volunteers, two of whom are over the age of 70. The loading dock door was open and as soon as I walked over there the guy with the green bags had already found them. “Are any of you gonna help me or are you just gonna tell me to go f### myself like she did?” The two old men just stood there and soon the community service volunteer was back outside. Things got dicey, another volunteer came and held him back but soon everyone was back in the building and all the doors were closed. I felt safe but I did not feel at peace. The reason I did not feel at peace was not because I felt compassion. This time it was because I felt conviction for not feeling compassion.

There is a spectrum that is brokenness. At one end you have those of us that are wounded doves sitting peacefully in the woods. On the other you have those of us that are rabid dogs that have been hit by a car for the third time. Brokenness doesn’t look the same for any of us. Brokenness isn’t always palatable. More often than not it’s angry and mean and downright ugly.

The difference between the woman in the red hat and the man with the green bags is that while she was clothed in desperation, he was clothed in expectation. While she embodied kindness and grace, he was just a jerk. What was the same about the woman in the red hat and the man with the green bags is that they both have a broken story that led them to this point. They both came in hungry and in this case they actually both left hungry too.

As followers of Christ we are called to love people with red hats, green bags and everyone in between. When we catch ourselves ambivalent towards their suffering because they didn’t make us feel warming and fuzzy inside, it is reason to pause and remember what service really is. The truth is I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy when I walked away from either of these particular experiences because they didn’t work out the way I would have liked. But I can tell you that had I handed the woman with the red hat a sack of potatoes I would have done it because I long to make a difference in the world. Had I handed it to the guy with the green bags, I would have only done it out of obligation. That means at the core of who I am…I still have a long way to go.

Brokenness isn’t always palatable. Sometimes we wear red hats and sometimes we carry green bags. I am thankful that at the core of who God is our brokenness matters to Him, no matter what it looks like. I do long to make a difference in the world but most importantly, I long to be an imitator of that.

Hunger matters. In red hats and green bags.

without agenda

Not so long ago my faith fit ever so perfectly within the confines of a shiny, silver box. I could put it there, tuck it away in a pocket and take it everywhere I went, knowing it would never be damaged by the world. Every now and then I would peer into the thing that was in the box and I would grow. I would flourish. Seeing what was in the box helped me to exist in the world. It helped me to give to world. Sometimes I would show people the thing that was in the box. But I never left the lid off the box for very long. I don’t know why. I never thought about it, really. For as long as I can remember people said, this is this and that is that and this is how we live it out. Some of them were good people and some of them were very, very broken people.

Over time, life would happen. Heartache and uncertainty would come along, sure as they always do, and I would fall, dropping the box on the cold, hard ground. First the falls left only scratches. Then a dent or two. But finally the last fall did something fierce to my shiny, silver box. Did something fierce to me. As I lay on the ground a midst a million broken pieces that were my life, I found my faith scattered somewhere within the mess. But this time the silver box wasn’t salvageable. The sides were bent and the lid didn’t fit and suddenly I had to let it go. For the first time in forever my faith couldn’t fit into the confines of anything. As I scraped myself up from yet another fall I had a choice to make. I could abandon my faith there on the ground or I could embody it. I didn’t know what the latter would look like but I wanted to try.

When we embody our faith, instead of just carrying it around with us, it fundamentally changes the way we interact with the world. All of a sudden we become saturated in the love of God. We don’t need to walk around and tell the world about it because we are the very thing we used to talk about.

The truth is, I don’t run a church food pantry or a Christ-centered food pantry. I actually work for the government. Sometimes people wonder how I can be true to the person I am called to be while working in a place that doesn’t solicit Jesus. Sometimes people will comment on how I can’t do things that I could if I worked for a church But in reality this is exactly how I did things when I was on staff at a church because I’ve never been one for ‘soliciting’ Jesus. Sometimes people talk about ‘selling people Jesus’ like He’s a set of encyclopedias. They talk about getting people ‘saved’ like teenage boys talk about getting dates with girls: i.e., “I’ve gotten four.” That’s a pretty slimy comparison, huh? I get that, I do. But that’s what it feels like when I hear people talk about it like that.

That’s what it seems like when we invite people in for food but we have an additional agenda in mind. When we say, “I know you’re hungry and I’ll feed you, but you have to go along with my religious propaganda to get said food.” Are you kidding me? That feels like the old bait and switch. Except we’re not talking about used cars here. We’re talking about food and we’re talking about the mercy and love of the creator of the universe.

There are a million bible verses telling us that we need to tell people about Jesus. I know, I’ve read them. But there are also a million bible verses telling us to just feed the poor. I would argue that we can be true to who we are as followers of Christ and still feed the poor – without agenda.

A couple months ago a woman, I’ll call her Sarah, walked into the pantry with an almost visible darkness on her. We were on about a two hour wait and she stood alone, against the wall, staring off into nothingness. I approached her, commenting on the sadness that she carried and she began to tell me her story. She had walked through great adversity these past couple years. Most recently she was the victim of a car jacking and was still traumatized from the abuse of her attack. What struck me most about Sarah’s story was that after they ripped her from the car, after they beat her to a bloody pulp, she went back. She crawled back to the car and held on to the bumper for several blocks. That was what caused the most damage. Hanging on to something when she should have known to let go.

She showed me pictures on her phone of her after the abuse. There were more than I cared to see and more than she should have kept. But in that moment the Lord spoke to me. I asked her why she kept them. She looked at the photos again as she thought. Finally she said she didn’t know. So this is what I told her:

“Sarah, the Lord has more for you than this. He doesn’t want you to live a victim forever”.  I encouraged her to consider deleting all of the pictures except one. I pointed to one of her legs that showed the most injury from being drug behind the car. “This one I would hold on to because it doesn’t capture what anyone did to you. This picture captures what you did to yourself. Let it remind you that if you continue to hang on to these things that you need to let go of, THIS is the damage you will continue to do. Let it remind you that you can let go. Let it propel you forward. The Lord hates all that has been done to you and He wants to see you free, Sarah.” She cried and we talked some more. I never saw her again.

When we embody our faith we don’t have to have an agenda to show people the love of Christ. It becomes a natural part of everything we are and everything we do.

I didn’t tell you that story to show you what a great conversationalist I am. I picked that story to share because it’s close to my heart. That night on my drive home I realized those words weren’t just for Sarah. The truth is I needed to hear them just as much as she did. On my dark, quiet drive home I began to think about all the things in my life that I wouldn’t let go of. Things that were bringing continued destruction to me because I refused to loosen my grip. The truth was I longed for freedom just as much as she did. And on days when I catch myself hanging on to junk from the past I think of Sarah and her story and it propels ME forward.

Thousands of ‘Sarahs’ walk into our pantry every month. They come for food and feeding them is our only objective. I believe with all of my heart that their hunger matters and that when we simply acknowledge that hunger and feed them God is still glorified. The Kingdom is still advanced. I will never talk to someone about God just because they are poor because I’m not trying to sell encyclopedias.

Hungry people matter. Without agenda.

line in the sand

It is early morning and the sun is just beginning to wake. That first drink of coffee warms my lips, warms my inside. I kiss my children goodbye, the two hour delay leaving them home, snuggled on the couch this bitter January day. I zip my coat, tighten my scarf and head for work. On the radio they talk about subzero temperatures and snow delays, make jokes about how it’s too cold to leave the house even for the kids to go sledding. But when I arrive at the Food Pantry, an hour and a half before we open, I find plenty of people that have already left the house. I find some waiting in their cars, others peering through the windows to see what’s inside. One comes walking from around back, probably checking to see if we’ve set anything salvageable out for the trash.

We will serve two hundred families that day. Many will come in under dressed for the weather. Some will wait at the bus stop for a ride. Others will even walk. For many of our families, our waiting room will be the warmest place they sit all day. They will wait patiently with their children for their turn to shop. Wait patiently with their infants. There is an older man that catches my eye. He nearly falls coming up to the counter, tripping over his own feet. He talks to me about his arthritis as he holds up a shaky hand with a cane. Smiles warmly and says, ‘Thank You,’ as he moves slowly toward the shopping carts. I will lose count that day of the number of people that say, ‘Thank You.’

Each person that comes through the pantry line has a story that has brought them to this place of great need. Sometimes the need is so deep and so real that you can see it on them the moment they walk in. There is a heaviness they carry. A certain sadness that hovers over them as they speak. A quiet desperation in their eyes.

The truth is we all hunger for something. For love, for affirmation, for healing. And recognizing that is the first step towards making a difference in the world. When we draw a line in the sand and say that those living in poverty are on one side and those not living in poverty are on the other we lose the battle for justice before it even starts. True justice starts with recognizing that every person has honor. True justice starts with looking at every person without judgement.

One of the most shocking things I’ve seen in the past six months is the diverse way Christians react to this issue of hunger. At times I have found it heartbreaking and at other times simply appalling. For some insane reason there seems to be a disagreement over feeding people who are hungry. When I hear Christians start talking about ‘lazy people getting handouts’ my heart breaks and is set on holy fire at the same time. That statement is loaded with both judgement and condemnation.

Do you see the picture of that little boy at the top of this page? Let’s assume he’s hungry. Anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ should be the first one to hand him a loaf of bread. One half of the people visiting food pantries in America are children or senior citizens. One half. And the other half? The truth is we don’t know their stories. But if we did, would that give us the right to judge? So often as believers, we walk around in the world thinking we’re here to save the day. Thinking we know exactly what changes people need to make in their lives to turn things around. But people don’t need our advice. They don’t need our preaching. People need us to listen to them. To see them. To care.

The summer before my senior year in college I did inner city ministry in St. Louis. The program I was a part of offered an educational day camp all summer to keep kids off the street and to help them with concepts they hadn’t mastered through the school year. I lived in the basement of an old YMCA building with a couple room mates and a couple mice. I taught fifth graders stuff they should have already known and I wasn’t exactly changing the world the way I had planned. The kids in my class didn’t want to be learning but they didn’t want to be home either. You know why? We provided lunch at the end of the day.

There was a girl, I’ll call her Courtney, who was always talking back, always disrupting the class. I was trying to help her have a Christ-centered education and she was being so disrespectful. The nerve. What she was actually doing was desperately crying out for my attention but I couldn’t see it. No, I didn’t take the time to see it. So, instead of looking her in the eye and telling her how much her actions hurt me, instead of trying to find out what was happening in her life, I went to her mother who assured me she would take care of it.

Courtney wasn’t in class the next day and quite honestly I was relieved. The kids who wanted to learn were able to much easier without her there. After school her brother walked into my classroom and asked to talk to me. As he spoke my heart crumbled. I began to understand what true humility felt like. To understand how ignorant it was of me to just waltz into this culture of poverty and think I had something to offer without truly understanding what it was they needed.

The night that I had talked to Courtney’s mom she went home and whipped her. Then she sent her to her room. For three days. She wasn’t even allowed to leave to eat.  He cried as he told me. He begged me to come to his house and talk to his mom and her boyfriend. To come help Courtney so she would stop crying.

It was almost fifteen years ago that I spent the summer with those kids. I made only twenty bucks a week but the deposits they made in my life were invaluable. I think about them sometimes as I look out at our line in the mornings and I wonder where they are now. I didn’t tell you that story so you would feel compassion for poor kids. I told the story because I think it’s important that we remember that many of the adults waiting in these lines are Courtneys, all grown up.

It’s pretty easy to look at someone from a distance and point out all the things they ‘should have’ done. Should have stayed in school. Should have kept a job. Should have used birth control. But if you actually get close enough to hear the stories that make up a person’s life, well, it’s actually pretty easy to understand why things didn’t turn out the way they planned. If we just listen to one another it’s easier to have grace. And if we stop trying to draw a line in the sand it’s easier to hand someone a loaf of bread without judgement.

Hunger matters. It mattered to Jesus and if we claim to be His followers it should matter to us.