When the four of us started Salt & Light we believed meeting material needs through a food pantry and clothing closet was a fulfillment of the mandate God places on every believer to love their neighbor, while creating opportunities to share our faith. Our desire to share our faith was God-breathed, but I believe we were blind to our complete lack of awareness and understanding of poverty-alleviation principles, ideologies, or best practices, not to mention the organizations and churches who were already working to alleviate poverty in our community. Don’t get me wrong, we honestly desired to help people both materially and to develop transformational relationships with God. Our perspectives were simply too limited to know what we didn’t know.
When we began handing out food and clothing in January 2004 my education really began. As I sought to serve those who came through our doors there were many things I learned, not the least of which was I didn’t have all the answers. I’ll never forget my first major lesson six months in…
At the time, we handed out prefilled bags of groceries to folks who stood in line for hours. When we would help people out to their cars with the food we would ask if it was ok if we prayed for them before they left. Most said yes, many I now think out of a sense of obligation. I would always follow up by asking if there was anything specific I could pray for. This time, the man I was with said yes. He began telling me about his son who had kidney failure and was given six months to live. As he poured out his heart to me, a 26-year-old stranger who had absolutely no understanding of the measure of grief he was facing, I was overwhelmed. I was suddenly struck by how inadequate I was. I didn’t know what to say or even how to pray for this man. All I could offer was a weak, “I’m so sorry”, and pray for his family and his son. Immediately after this encounter I snuck away to be myself for a few moments to pray alone. In that moment I asked God to give me what I needed to be used by Him to minister in the work He had called me to, acknowledging that without Him, I could not. I never saw that man again and have no idea how things unfolded for him or his son. What I do know is God used him in that moment to forever change me and the trajectory of my life.
This opportunity opened my eyes to the complexities of the work I had been called into, and began to erase the youthful arrogance that would have prevented my own journey of growth and deeper understanding. I began educating myself about poverty in our community, and the ideologies and best practices utilized to combat it.
Over the next ten years Salt & Light would grow into the largest “emergency” food program in Champaign County, serving almost 400 households every Wednesday. About eight years in, however, I began to grow disillusioned with what we were doing. Sure, we were sharing our faith with people, but most of the economic situations I encountered never seemed to change. I was now even seeing young adults standing in our food pantry line who, as children, stood in line with their parents—the generational cycle of poverty was playing out right before my eyes. The question I began asking myself was, “How were we affecting it?”
It was at this time I was introduced to the book When Helping Hurts. This book began equipping me with an ideological and theological framework, articulating what I had seen, thought, and felt. I brought this book to our small staff and board, and we began a journey of wrestling with these ideologies and theologies together.
Throughout this process, there were three critical questions we asked ourselves:
1. What do we mean when we say we “help” those struggling in poverty? Based on the outcomes we had witnessed, we would have had to describe the help we provided as something only mildly alleviating some of the symptoms of the poverty our clients experienced, rarely, if ever, impacting or addressing the root causes.
2. Is this how we want to help? The short answer to this was no.
3. What has to change for us to be able to impact these root causes? We recognized many in our community certainly needed help acquiring basic resources like food and clothing, but we knew the way we had been “helping” to meet this need was not and could not address the root causes. The question wasn’t whether or not people needed help, the question was how should we help.
As 2013 drew to a close, I presented the board with a vision for how we might apply the ideologies and theologies from When Helping Hurts in our context. After much conversation, planning, and prayer, the board eventually gave approval in June 2014 to move forward with the changes. Throughout the process we recognized how much we still didn’t know, and our need to be willing and able to listen and learn along the way. The primary guiding principle during this time was we had to stop doing for and start doing with. If we wanted to create a fertile environment for developing healthy relationships and individual growth and empowerment for everyone involved, we had to be co-laborers. We believed this could be accomplished through a retail environment where individuals could acquire the resources their family needed while learning practical job skills, and generate revenue to cover the programming costs at the same time.
October 6, 2014 marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. After being closed for one month, Salt & Light reopened with a new logo, new mission statement, and a new model—transitioning all of our former programming from a one-way giving model into the first iteration of the one we currently operate today. Participants began purchasing food, clothing, and household items with store credit earned through volunteering.
Following our transition, participation continued to grow, which meant the cost of store credit earned and spent by participants did too. For long-term sustainability and growth, we knew we would have to expand. Our small grocery was almost entirely utilized by credit-earning participants, not really generating any revenue to help cover operational costs, and the store credit our participants earned and spent. To bring the traffic and volume of sales necessary to help cover these costs it would have to expand so folks from the community would see the value in buying some measure of their groceries at Salt & Light.