Friday, September 8, 2000
Shelter's religion mandate means no USDA food
By Jacinthia Jones
The Commercial Appeal
The federal government has kicked one of the city's largest
homeless shelters out of its subsidized food program because the
shelter requires people to attend worship services before they
But this is not a religious freedom case, a government spokesman
said. The Memphis Union Mission may not require people to do
anything in exchange for food.
Since its inception in 1945, the Christian-run mission at 383
Poplar has required anyone coming in for help to attend religious
And for at least 10 years, the mission, a shelter for men, has
done so while participating in the U.S. Department of
Agriculture food program.
But during a routine inspection of the mission in July, an agent
of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture determined that the
rule that people must attend a worship service before eating
violated federal laws.
"You can't do that with federal food," said Terry Minton,
commodities administrator for the Tennessee Department of
Agriculture, which manages the USDA programs.
"If people are needy and they come into your agency and you have
our food to give them, they've met all the requirements. You
can't make them do anything for the food," Minton said.
In order to be reinstated on the food program, Minton said, Union
Mission must agree to make the worship service optional.
But those who operate the mission say they can't agree.
"We won't change that. That's the reason we exist," said Rev.
Mark Calhoun, mission president and CEO. "We exist to promote
the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"All we're asking for is your time. We don't ask you to work; we
don't ask you to do anything else but sit in our worship
service," he said.
The mission receives about a third of its food - about 10 tons of
meat and other products - from the USDA. It buys the rest for 11
cents a pound from the Food Bank. Last year the mission served
more than 166,000 free meals.
Calhoun estimated losing the federal food would cost about
$30,000 a year. The agency will continue purchasing food from the
Food Bank and may have to buy from private vendors as well.
During his 3?-year tenure at the mission, Calhoun said, he can
remember only one person complaining about having to attend the
The food shutoff has been characterized as an issue of the
separation of church and state by local radio, television and
print media. Many in the religious community are angry.
WREC-AM 60 will broadcast live from 5:30 to 9 a.m. today from
the shelter to solicit contributions of money and food from
listeners, said promotions director Michelle Buckalew.
"I guess this has all been a blessing," Calhoun said of the
support the mission has been receiving.
But Minton said dropping the mission from the government program
had nothing to do with religion.
"This isn't targeting religious activity. It's simply that you
cannot put any additional restrictions on receiving the food,"
"You can't force people to work for the food. You can't force
them to attend any sort of classes or counseling or religious
services or budget classes.
"Our viewpoint is that we're trying to put the food out there
into everyone's hands who is qualified to receive it, and for an
agency to make a decision to restrict that individual because of
some other criteria is more than they are allowed to do."
Other religious organizations receive USDA funds, including
churches and the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army receives USDA funding for its Southside
Community Center and Day Care on Somerville.
"Prayer is not a requirement for any of the services provided by
the Salvation Army," said spokesman Alexa Robinson.
"So that any religious services that we have available, the
participation is strictly voluntary."
> With Carl Limbacher and NewsMax.com Staff
> Friday September 8, 2000; 12:03 PM EDT
> Clinton-Gore Administration Cuts Off Food to Homeless Shelter
> The Clinton-Gore administration has ended a federally
> subsidized food program for one of the largest homeless
> shelters in Vice President Al Gore's home state because
> visitors are required to attend a religious service.
> "The USDA has stopped supplying the Memphis (Tennessee) Union
> Mission with 12 tons of subsidized food because the Christian
> organization requires that needy people attend a prayer
> service before being fed," reported this week's Memphis
> Flyer, a local city newspaper.
> Reverend Mark Calhoun told the Flyer that the food cut-off
> will hurt the Mission's effort to feed the city's homeless
> "They were mainly meats, and the people we feed need
> protein," he said. "It's a hard time with the holidays coming
> The Clinton-Gore administration has told the mission that the
> food program can continue only if Calhoun agrees to make the
> prayer service optional. But says the reverend, "That's not a
> choice for us. Prayer has been in our charter since 1945.
> It's the reason we exist."
> So far this year the Memphis Union Mission has supplied over
> 3,000 meals to the city's homeless, many of whom are
> African-American and Hispanic.
> The story of the Clinton-Gore administration food cut-off was
> at first ignored by the statewide Tennessee print press, but
> Memphis talk radio station WREC has made the story a cause
> celebre all week.
> WREC program director Paul Davis told NewsMax.com Friday, "We
> took the story out of the Memphis Flyer and just started
> talking about it on the air. Our listeners really became
> upset about it."
> Friday morning Davis and WREC morning man Craig Robbins
> staged a live broadcast from the Memphis Union Mission. "We
> were asking people to help in any way they can," Davis said.
> After the Clinton-Gore food cut-off, Rev. Calhoun sent
> Memphis residents a letter he dubbed a "Hungergram," asking
> that they contribute food or money to the mission.
> On Friday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal finally picked up
> the story.
> To contribute to the Memphis Union Mission, call (901)
Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, YHVH, TZEVAOT
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