Religious Liberty
An American Heritage

Tennessee Shelter Continues Prayer

Regardless of what the federal government thinks, Darnell Yancey has never minded having to pray over his hamburger and cupcake. Yancey said after lunch on September 14, 2000, at the Christian-run Memphis Union Mission, "If you’re down in spirit, you need to pray."

After inspectors realized there were mandatory religious services prior to meals, the mission (which feeds 200 to 300 homeless people daily) lost its federal aid in July. Federal regulations prohibit religious agencies from receiving food from the Agriculture Department.

But, until an inspector pointed out this stipulation, Reverend Mark Calhoun, overseer of the Memphis Union Mission for the past three years, did not know of the rule. The news caused him to worry. He did not know how he would feed the homeless without his allotment of government aid, worth about $30,000 annually. His problem was answered, however, when approximately $100,000 in private donations came in from people as far away as Seattle, New York and Portland, Oregon when news of the aid cutoff reached the airwaves of Christian radio stations. "[The support shows] God is bigger than government and we never did put our trust in the government," said Calhoun.

For ten years the shelter, founded in 1945, has received U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities such as meat. The mission’s budget mainly comes from private donations but the aid has represented about a third.

The intent of the federal law is to ensure there are no restrictions prohibiting the poor and the needy from getting food. If the religious services were made voluntary, the government would restore its aid to the shelter according to Terry Minton of the State Department of Agriculture, which oversees USDA programs in Tennessee.

Minton also said that many religious-based shelters choose to make services voluntary rather than risk the lost support, but the USDA does not have current statistics on how many shelters have lost aid since the rule was put in place more than ten years ago.

It is not a choice for this mission said Calhoun, "It’s the old 'Give a man a fish or teach him to fish.' We’ve chosen the latter and the government has chosen the former."

(Woody Baird, "Prayer Continues at Tenn. Shelter," The Associated Press, September 15, 2000)

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