Every Thursday for the last 25 years, in the heart of historic Dubuque, First Congregational Church has served a free community meal that begins with a short prayer of thanksgiving.
But at a May 21 training, the River Bend Food Bank told religious leaders we are not allowed to pray over any meals made with USDA commodities food, which represents 40% the food our church received from the food bank in 2019.
So churches are now being asked to choose between praying at meals and purchasing USDA food from the food bank.
As a pastor, I am choosing prayer.
Let me be clear, I am a firm supporter of the separation of church and state. I do not expect to pray in a public school. I do not expect the federal government to fund my church.
But I also do not expect the food bank to tell me, as a pastor, that I cannot say a blessing over a free community meal prepared by congregants in a building owned by a church.
Our guests on Thursday nights have many reasons for attending our free meal, ranging from economic hardship, to a disability, to a simple desire to enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal in a caring community.
As a pastor, I receive tender prayer requests for tornadoes in Oklahoma and wars overseas; for veterans and their families and for those who sleep on the streets here at home. We lift up joys like birthdays and anniversaries, as well as addictions and tragically violent deaths in our neighborhood in Dubuque.
Whether you agree or disagree with our church’s stances, from the abolition of slavery, to ordaining women clergy, to performing same-sex weddings, to feeding our neighbors with prayer as well as food, our 180-year-old ministry in the city has come out of deep engagement with scripture and the Holy Spirit.
We believe that when you feed the hungry, you feed your soul. Asking us to serve a meal without a prayer is as ridiculous as asking us to serve soup without a spoon.
First Congregational is a church with a heart for the city, in the heart of the city, and we plan to keep praying.