Please Do Not Feed the Animals

By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

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This “Lesson in Irony” showed up a few weeks ago on the Facebook page of one of my relatives. Being both progressive and evangelical, I am usually able to feel some generosity toward inhumane statements such as these. In this case, the analogy between people on food stamps and wild animals was too much, so I weighed in by reminding my family member of something he should have known.

I grew up on food stamps. My parents were divorced, my mom was a single working mother, and we didn’t have a lot of money. She earned about $7500 one year to cover the 4 of us plus a dog. I remember being self-conscious at the grocery store, my mom rifling through her purse to find the change to cover what the food stamps did not. I remember pretending to pull out money as I stood in line to receive my free lunch tickets at school. I also remember friends coming over and commenting that my house wasn’t as clean as theirs.

Despite these uncomfortable moments, our house was the place where everyone wanted to be. Church kids came over many Sunday nights. Neighborhood kids hung out at our place sometimes when we weren’t even home. My mom seemed oblivious to our lack of a neat, orderly home and resources to feed hungry teens every day after school. She was generous.

Somehow we managed. Lest I overstate our situation, I need to be clear that we had safety nets. My mom’s extended family was well off and charitable, and my uncle especially always showed up when we needed him – and we have needed him many times in our lives. Without spoiling us, he treated us all as his own children, and I am confident that the love and presence of my mother and siblings continues to enrich him in turn.

Class. I grew up aware of enormous disparities in people’s income and living standards. I grew up with access to things like travel, good food, and material comforts in the midst of knowing these things are tenuous and access is at the mercy of another’s generosity.

For better or for worse, I think I will always be aware of class. I wish it would go away, and yet I know that such distinctions between human beings are rooted in human beings. Getting rid of class requires human work, and we have become accustomed to not doing that work. For starters, perhaps we can remind ourselves that anyone can be generous and all are in need of generosity. This is how community works, regardless of economic means.

I grew up on food stamps, and I am not an animal. I am, however, dependent, vulnerable, gifted, and fed. The irony is, that THIS is exactly what it means to be human.

This concludes today’s lesson. Any questions?


3 thoughts on “Please Do Not Feed the Animals

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  1. Wow. Thanks. I hear your story as it resonates with me and mine -not growing up, but now. In a similar vein our family went on WIC with our first 2/3 children. Each run to the grocery store was more degrading and more of an ordeal than the last. We’d go late at night because it would take so long for cashiers to get through our order since they have to punch in all the right codes and weights and amounts of each item you get -it’s very specific and takes up to 3x longer than usual to get through your items. Sometimes we’d have to return things to the shelves because we couldn’t afford it -one week I tried to buy apples because our oldest likes them in his WIC approved oatmeal, couldn’t afford it that week, back they went. People in line behind you often glare, shift their weight with a sigh of distress, change lines, stare and all you want to do is get out of there and pretend it didn’t happen. It seriously opened my eyes.

    We had to do what we had to do -I’m glad we didn’t succumb to too much pride. My wife and I are educated, hard working and recognize that we have so much privilege already…resonating with what you shared above (we have a huge safety net and yes, class). Thanks for sharing this to remind others not to make assumptions and think there is an “easy solution” to “all these problems”.

    We also went through the process of the free health care system in Chicago (oof) while in seminary…but that’s another story.

  2. Oh, how I love this piece, Michelle. Thank you so much. And I love your use of ‘evangelical’ and ‘progressive’ in the same sentence. That’s where I think I am (if I must choose a ‘space’ somewhere.)

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