Commerce Challenges Charity: Sacramento Sues Loaves & Fishes Ministry

By Casa, Kathryn | National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

Commerce Challenges Charity: Sacramento Sues Loaves & Fishes Ministry


Casa, Kathryn, National Catholic Reporter


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A charity that feeds up to 1,100 poor and homeless people each day is finding out there's no such thing as a free lunch, even when it's the charity that's giving the food away.

In January the city of Sacramento sued Loeves & Fishes, a privately funded organization that grew out of Sacramento's Catholic Worker movement, in a bid to stop it from, among other things, serving meals on Sundays.

On March 10, a cadre of attorneys responded pro bono with a massive countersuit on behalf of Loaves & Fishes, taking into court what they called the charity's biblical mandate to help the poor, and charging the city with attempting to violate the charity's First Amendment right to practice religion.

Quoting Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Matthew, James and Luke, the counter-quit declares: "This case is about the efforts of an organization and its members to minister to the hungry, and the thirsty and the homeless in keeping with the dictates of their faith, and about a government's determination to prevent that ministry."

Over at city hall, there's a different take on the situation. Not only did the organization violate a special permit by serving meals to the poor on Sundays, city officials charge, it has also flouted a series of zoning and permit requirements. Among the city's complaints are that Loaves & Fishes operates a triage center in a trailer, has expanded a small elementary school for homeless children, and runs a shelter for runaway teens--all outside the provisions of its special use permit. The charity, in California's capital city, operates a block-long campus that lies on the periphery of down-town's high-rises, sandwiched into a light industrial area near a neighborhood on the losing end of a battle with urban blight.

Clustered nearby, just off Richards Boulevard, are other facilities run by a handful of groups that serve the poor, including the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America, two religious missions and a center that caters to-the homeless mentally ill. Although there are several other food pantries in Sacramento, Richards Boulevard is the only area of the city where hot meals are served daily, with by far the bulk of those meals coming from Loaves & Fishes' kitchens.

City officials maintain that the cluster of services for the poor is "over-contration" and is spilling into surrounding neighborhoods. They contend that people travel long distances, from as far as Stockton, 60 miles to the south, for a free meal. They also criticize Loaves & Fishes -- whose stated mission is drawn from Matthew: "As often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me" -- for failing to attach any conditions to the free meals it dishes up.

City Councilman Steve Cohn said, "Part of our problem with Loaves & Fishes is that their philosophy is somewhat at odds with how the community at large wants to help the poor." Cohn was one of six who voted Jan. 7 in favor of the controversial lawsuit that seeks to declare Loaves & Fishes' alleged violations "public nuisances."

"I think the community and certainly government at the federal level feels that we need to deal with the poor by trying to have them take more responsibility for their own lives," said Cohn. "Every human being can do something," he continued. "There may be limits to what people can do, but I don't really accept the notion that people are vegetables and can't do something positive. Everybody, if given opportunity and the right circumstances, can contribute in some way."

It's 11 a.m. at Loaves & Fishes. The guests, as they are called, begin to gravitate toward the dining halls, mostly on foot, some pushing strollers with young children, some steering shopping carts laden with their possessions or the day's collection of aluminum cans. Others appear on bicycles or climb down from light-rail trains that pass several blocks away. …

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