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Food that Helps not Harms

John Klein-Geltink is a long term coach for deacons and passionate foodie—as in food banks. In his work with Operation Sharing in Woodstock Ontario John has helped switch from food donations to food gift cards. This approach gives more agency to people involved and John talks about how he can see the fruit of this change from his long involvement.

The following is a transcript of Season 6 Episode 3 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

We are grateful to the Micah Center for sponsoring this season of the podcast.

Chris: Well, hello, friends, and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. We're excited today to dive into some conversations, to see sort of our thread for this series of episodes, to talk about unique approaches to doing development work, to doing justice work, to really look at holistic ways that we can help and to stay in it for the long haul. And we have a really special guest here. John Klein-Geltink, John, welcome to the show we're glad you're here with us.

John: Glad to be here

Chris: Awesome. So, John, you're a diaconal coach with Diaconal Ministries Canada, and in your bio on their website, you say that you “wholeheartedly support and encourage asset-based community development” so that churches can avoid harming the ones that they aim to serve. And you said to ask you about it, so here we are. We're here to ask you about it. Could tell us a little bit about that? And we want to get into specifically operation sharing, but tell us about how you got so passionate about this.

John: Well, I think it was being involved with Diaconal Ministries since 1987. I've been there for the long haul, but anyways. A number of years ago we started reading books and there's one book Walking with the Poor by Brian Myers. Read that one, and there's another one that was out, it might have been out before that, but that led me on to reading the book Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton, and then start reading some of the works by John McKnight. He was the one that really did a lot of work on the asset based community development. And then again the book, When Helping Hurts was another thread that all seem to have similar messages, or the theme that ran through all those books was quite similar. I started thinking about that a lot and then was just fortunate that we had this organization in Oxford County that I saw what they're doing with our Food for Friends program. I'll get into that a little bit later. But it had the same kind of values, it was how they used it in a practical way, so.

Chris: Before we—I wanna hear more about operation sharing and the idea of the cards, because to me that's so cutting edge and it makes a ton of sense, I'll let you explain that.

But you listed off a bunch of books, and you know, for you know those of us who are in the Diaconal Ministries Canada or World Renew sphere and in the wider sort of justice community within the CRCNA yeah, When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, those are all staples like they're on my shelf back there, too, like those are sort of guiding books. But what did you feel when you first sort of started hearing this? Was there a sense of “oh, man, there's a lot of change that needs to happen,” or like, how did you react to to hearing these concepts for the first time?

John: Oh, I started questioning a lot of things that started coming out, especially in North America with the whole food banks thing. It's paternalism. And that's one thing that all the books talked about, too, avoid paternalism at all costs. So that was something that really kind of stuck. It kind of changed the way I looked at ministries that were happening, and tried to evaluate it. That was one of the things I always look at, you know, if it's being holistic, but also some of the aspects or practical things that can be done by an organization to kind of avoid that paternalism and look at strengths. Although a lot of people that are in poverty don't recognize that they have strengths or something to contribute. So that's something I think that is kind of countercultural, and I thought it was just an opportunity to kind of change the story of it.

Chris: Yeah, thanks for that, John. And now let's switch gears a bit. Let's talk about Operation Sharing. Tell us about that, and how they're an unconventional food bank, and why it's important.

John: Well, I think it does a number of things. First of all, we look at the dignity of the individual.

Try to have them involved rather than sending them a parcel of food. That they had the choice of shopping where the rest of us shop. Also recognizing that most of them know how to cook, or something like that isn’t a deficit. They have the ability to do that. I think it's part of—the thing is having them involved, but also so it's inclusive. That’s one of the values we have, too, that we have people—that we don't have a special place or something where the poor go. We want to integrate them to stuff that's already in the community and be involved in the community just like everyone else, and give them to do the opportunity to have a choice of the foods that they like and are good at using. So that was part of it, and then I think it's, also now an opportunity to kind of put a message out there that they always talk about food insecurity, and everybody's busy trying to figure it out. It's probably kind of an extension of the mindset of food banks, is where we have to do stuff for the poor and this is somewhere—or set up programs for the poor. And yeah, we have to figure out, in all these ministries, how do we have those that we're serving actively involved with it? And maybe even be the driving force because they can tell us what they need. And yeah, with us, with a lot of it, if we have a program or something, we're assuming, “this is what they need.” And yeah, and it paints a more holistic picture, too, I think, cause you're not—they’re the votes. I think that it's similar—World Renew has a similar concepts as we do. We don't go into a community with programs. We go talk to the individuals to help them design programs. So that's kind of similar.

Chris: So really, the picture that you're painting—and I think what we're all trying to sort of get on board with—is the idea of doing with rather than doing for. What happens in a person's life, so for instance, someone who participates in Operation Sharing, have you seen sort of the effects of, “Wow, I'm a participant here. I'm not just someone who's here to receive.” What does that do in someone’s life when they’re able to participate rather than just show up and be able to receive?

John: It builds up their confidence a fair bit, and they come out. They talk more about like—we have one mother of a teenager who quite proudly came in to pick up her card, and she was talking about how her daughter had made homemade pasta, and I figured if somebody’s able to do that, do we really need to give them a parcel of food. And then there's others that have come in and said—like, one lady we did an interview on and she's come out and said that, you know, it gave her an opportunity to pick things out that she wanted for supper rather than somebody else. And talk about how it was kinda humiliating. So, that's a number of things. And we've also had people that had health issues. Young families said, “You know, my kids go to school and I want to be able to give them what I feel the kids need for breaks rather than somebody else.” I think it just supports people to, you know, have control. I mean, especially if they’re parents and they have kids and stuff like that. It's something that certainly puts that onus back on the parents, or gives them the opportunity to take some control over that.

Chris: Yeah, I'm envisioning, like, well-intentioned folks putting food packages together, and every food package has a jar of peanut butter and six out of the ten have peanut allergies.

John: Yeah. And especially with diabetes, too.

Chris: Right.

John: We've had quite a few people say, you know, “With the card I can get the food that I can eat.” And says, “With a food package sometimes I can only use half the stuff that's in the package.” So yeah, so it's all those types of things. And just being able to get people to shop where everybody else shops is very important for people, too.

Chris: For sure. Yeah. And I think there's a stewardship component, too, right? Like you touched on, because there's no waste. Folks are buying the food that they know they want, they know they can eat, they know how to prepare—all of that.

John: Yeah, right, yeah.

Chris: So you know you and I had a chance to chat together when we were in London at the World Renew sixtieth anniversary event, and you know I walked away from that conversation, going, “Man, here's a guy that gets it. And here's a guy that's been doing it for a long time.”

But quick fixes are appealing in today's society.  But we know that discipleship and working toward God’s Shalom requires long obedience moving in the same direction. Now you've been involved in this work for many years. What has the idea of long obedience in the same direction meant for you, as you even engaged with food security.

John: Well, It’s the just meeting other people that are thinking the same ideas. And sometimes they thought it, but didn't really—it takes a little bit of courage to step out of that, especially in our climate today. The whole idea of the food banks have been here for 40 years, and now recently they're saying—well, they’re starting to talk that charity will never solve the issue. There's other things that’d have to happen. So it's an opportunity just to broaden some of those thoughts a little bit more in a more holistic way. Because it isn't just food, it's a matter—a lot of the organizations really focus on getting food, but it's much bigger than that. Poverty is—it’s building up people's capacity to do things for themselves. And it takes a long time. I've heard others that have had several thoughts, and when they first start speaking out, they said, “It's almost politically incorrect to come up with this because of the general public, how they buy into this charity model, where it's giving, doing for people rather than with.”

Chris: So, John, when did you first start again with Diaconal Ministries? Like how long have you been on this journey?

John: Well, since the 1980s. 1987.

Chris: ‘87. I was in grade 5 [both laugh]. Along that way, where do you find the motivation, the energy—what inspires you as you walk on that journey? Because I'm sure there are times where it's like, “Oh, man, this is hard! We're not moving fast enough.” What gives you a sense of, you know, the ability to go on and keep going?

John: Well, I think I've been encouraged by the stuff, especially over the last I would say 20 years, that there's a lot more material that's coming out that kind of confirms that our program is going in the right direction. It's never perfect until Christ returns, but in the meantime, this is what we've come up with. And we realize, too, that this isn't a complete answer, but yeah, it's kind of changing the story a bit. So it's always encouraging, every time I see stuff like that come out and my understanding of scripture deepens a fair bit, you know. It kind of reaffirms some of our thoughts and discussion of these types of things. It's not just something that came out of the woodworks. It's something that our understanding of the Bible and stuff like that kind of dovetailed, I think.

Thanks to the The Micah Centre at the King’s University for sponsoring this season.  The Micah Centre helps students and the wider community grow a global vision of justice and renewal. Through classes, workshops, internships, lectures, global learning experience, and community initiatives, the Micah Centre brings the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” to bear on our contemporary world of global hunger, injustice, systemic poverty, war, and violence.

Chris: Yeah. John, as you've been in this work for a long time, what's a story of God at work that you've been able to see over many years. Something that may have surprised you, or that when you first started in this journey, you couldn't have predicted that this was gonna happen or you were gonna see it. But you know, can you share a story with us?

John: I guess it’s—yeah, it's a little—I'll have to try to see if I could change names or stuff and situation. But anyways there was a time when somebody came up and at church they had a real issue with a difficult situation and rather than trying to fix the problem, you walked alongside this particular family and tried to help them understand the issues that were involved. You just dig deeper and dig deeper, and then the solution was so simple that it baffled everybody that was involved in it, that the solution was right there. And it was, I think, the most important thing was that we just walked alongside this family and helped them walk through it. That everything didn't have to be a crisis, it was just a matter of being patient and waiting for God to reveal himself. And that didn't seem like a whole lot, but the family moved on, and when they moved on the wife corralled me in kind of a quiet spot of the church and told me, “Thank you very much for doing what you did, just walking alongside us through that issue.” So that's kind of, I think, when you talk about representing Jesus, that's some of the ways that things have happened quite often. There are things that you go in and you kind of think, “Okay, this is the solution.” And something totally different happens that you didn't imagine but it worked out that God had his hand in it.

Chris: Yeah, that's awesome. So John, I'm sure you're a mentor to so many people, and you know, you have this wisdom and just this kindness about you. For someone who's taking their first steps on this path of wanting to serve, to get involved with the kind of work that you do, what kind of encouragement would you offer?

John: Be patient. One of the things I learned when I was a teenager, or just quite a bit younger, I used to go to the ICS Conference, and we had some pretty interesting people within our denomination. And when we're young or going to young peoples, we had Gerald Vanderzand speak to our group, and he kind of advised, he says, “There's so much stuff going on in the world that you can't possibly keep up with anything. So the best thing is, find one thing that you have a passion for and stick with it. And dig into it deeply.” And yeah, just stick with it because it doesn't—you can't figure all this stuff out in a three year term, and you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time studying and digging into the issues around poverty much deeper.

Chris: Hmm, wow! Well, John, thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks for sharing your heart. I think what we'll do is we'll encourage folks to sort of check out the stories of the work, the new approaches. We have a couple of articles that we can put in the show description here, and we'll encourage people to check out your profile and Diaconal Ministries Canada website. John, appreciate you, appreciate all you do. Thanks for spending the time. I hope we have a chance to talk again down the road soon.

John: Okay, look forward to it.

Chris: God bless, thanks!


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