For over 40 years, the Riverwest Food Pantry has served food to the hungry out of St. Casimir Church and Gaenslen School. Food pantries and meal sites are among the rare places in our divided city where thousands of families in need and thousands of affluent volunteers pour through the very same doors.
I fell into running our center 10 years ago, inheriting this work from an amazing group of mostly women in their 70s. Running a pantry was not in my life plan. I wasn’t interested in charity work. I wanted to do something that would fix poverty and change the entrenched systems that perpetuate the need for charity.
But what happened profoundly changed me and altered my conception of how to work for justice in our city. As the people I was there to serve received me and shared their life with me, I realized my needs and their needs, my brokenness and their brokenness, were the same.
More:Former Tandem restaurant owner Caitlin Cullen joins Riverwest Food Pantry, which hopes to open a cafe
Over the years, our center has become a popular volunteer destination for thousands of groups. Businesses, churches, and schools come to pitch in and distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to the community. Maybe you were one of them: bused in from the suburbs, you are successful, highly educated, hard-working and ready to roll up your sleeves to fight poverty.
I serve as a sherpa of sorts, offering training to gradually guide volunteers, newcomers to our neighborhood, to a place where they start to “get it.” While our volunteers do important work, the actual tasks they perform are beside the point.
If we want to solve a problem like inequity, we have to change the way people think about charity and service. The goal is not to fix anything. The goal is for our volunteers to see themselves in kinship with our shoppers. The goal is for the giver to become the receiver.
What I have learned is that poverty is more than an economic metric. There’s a poverty of the soul.
The first kind of soul poverty happens when you stop believing you have anything to give. The second kind is when you falsely believe you have nothing to receive or that you’ve achieved everything all on your own. This kind of poverty of soul is prevalent among the accomplished and affluent. Knowing and walking with people who have truly been excluded and marginalized is a grace-filled way to eradicate it.
Most of us know the rankings. Milwaukee is among the most segregated metro areas in America. There’s great disparity between race and wealth here. And you often hear how residential segregation has hurt the predominantly black and brown communities that live with all the systemic oppression of poverty and inequality.
But what you don’t often hear is how much residential segregation has wounded the rest of us. Studies show that people living in racial and economically segregated areas report less social connection and support. Think about that for a second. What is it about segregation that weakens the overall fabric of the community? What is it about racial and economic diversity that strengthens it?
In reality, the economically privileged parts of our city suffer more than we realize from segregation, especially if they can only think about diversity and equality through the lens of having something to lose.
If I’ve learned anything on this job, it’s that the first step to solving big, messy problems is losing the charity lens and moving to the solidarity lens. As Father Gregory Boyle has said, it’s about standing in awe of the burden instead of standing in judgment. That’s where the shift occurs, and that’s where lasting change can happen. In other words, I need to experience solidarity if I am ever to see the path to justice.
Today, countless people show up at our center each week, embracing a journey through this unexpected lens. They come not to rescue anybody but to look for opportunities to stand in kinship with somebody.
We still need system-level change. That’s why we train thousands of those volunteers about the systems that perpetuate inequality.
The immediate need in Milwaukee, a need that each of us can help to solve, is to admit to ourselves that we all hunger a deeper experience of community. Community that deepens our gratitude, that draws us into the culture and traditions of another, that helps us realize our privilege not by having it pounded over our head but through a relationship of mutuality.
Food is such a powerful way to build community. It ties us all back to our culture of origin and it is a tangible way for us to share our story and have it instantly validated. Food can bring us back to that which is real and universal. Sharing a meal shows that we need each other, that all of us have the same needs and desires, and that all of us belong.
It’s this hunger for kinship that might help us reimagine our city and reach a high that doesn’t fade a few days after we win a championship. I’d like to reintroduce you to your city. No longer the city most divided. Rather, the city most hungry for connection. The city where we have everything we need to heal our deepest longings and reform our unjust structures: one another.
I’m so glad I fell into serving the hungry in my city. I’m so grateful I didn’t miss the invitation.
I invite you to join me at the table.
Vin Noth is executive director of Kinship Community Food Center, formerly the Riverwest Food Pantry. Learn more at kinshipmke.org.
More:This Riverwest apartment development will feature a commercial kitchen to help launch food-oriented businesses and provide cooking classes.
More:Jewish organization acts as a bridge to make food accessible to all, from Passover staples to farmers market veggies