What a Pagan Food Bank Can Teach Us About Diversity

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institutional Religious Freedom website

We live in an increasingly plural society, and today’s diverse societal make-up requires equally diverse civic, educational, cultural, and social-services institutions to meet the core beliefs, identities and needs of varied individuals.

But increasingly many twenty and thirty somethings aren’t affiliated with community organizations, clubs or political parties. Many Millennials have largely opted out of participation in civil society institutions.  As David Brooks wrote recently of Americans as a whole: “We’re also less embedded in tight, soul forming institutions.” Being involved in faith communities, neighborhood associations, cause-related groups, and political organizations, among others, takes time and commitment. Perhaps the lack of engagement millennials display with many traditional American institutions stems from a general lack of confidence in many of the mediating structures of our society.  According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, a majority do not trust in key societal institutions such as Congress, the police, big banks, media outlets, or organized religion.

This is problematic on several levels.  A lack of confidence in institutions limits participation in organizations that could provide vital social, financial, spiritual, or health supports.  Think of the pregnant immigrant woman in need of healthcare who doesn’t trust that a hospital will not report her undocumented status to the authorities.  Or think of a young Muslim woman who both wants to become involved in a local civic organization but also is afraid of how the institution will react to her religious practice of wearing a hijab.

There is no one size fits all solution to this sense of disillusionment with institutions.  But perhaps that is a good thing. An increasingly varied society requires a diversity of solutions to serve many different interests and needs. Creating the space for many solutions to thrive will require that institutions have the freedom they need to serve and carry out their missions.  For this notion of institutional diversity to be fully realized, faith-based organizations, secular nonprofits, and all community groups must be willing to afford other groups, even those with which they stand opposed, the space to live out their missions in the public square. For faith groups, especially, institutional pluralism cannot be fully achieved without institutional religious freedom for groups of all faiths or no faith.

People should not have to choose between abandoning their religious precepts and going hungry.

A look at the diversity of food banks with very different ideologies and core audiences is a helpful example. Many Americans need additional nutrition assistance to feed their families.  Yet not all American families and individuals that could benefit from the services and goods provided by nonprofits providing nutrition assistance have the same needs. People should not have to choose between abandoning their religious precepts and going hungry.  For example, many orthodox Jewish families in need would not be able to avail themselves of just any food from traditional food banks as it may not meet the kosher food requirements of their religion.

Perhaps even more surprising is a two-year-old faith-based food assistance program in East Lansing, MI, called Pagans in Need.  According to the Lansing State Journal, Pagans in Need is a program of the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry, a Michigan based, faith-based group that “fosters tolerance for the pagan community- those who follow polytheistic religions such as Wicca, Druidism, and Voodooism.” In fact, Pagans in Need started from a felt need in the community by Pagans that other social services providers weren’t entirely meeting their needs. Vice President of Pagans in Need, Rev. Amy J. Castner, noted to the Lansing State Journal that many other faith-based groups offer nutrition assistance programs, and continued, “A lot of people who are pagans or not religious don’t feel comfortable receiving help from people who don’t share their religious views. Knowing there’s a place for them to go where their lifestyle is accepted makes people feel more comfortable.”

While this program will serve anyone in need, regardless of their religious identity, Pagans in Need also serves as a tangible example of why such faith-inspired programs often provide spiritual nourishment and community, as well as tangible goods. For practitioners of polytheistic religions in Michigan, there is now a place for them to go for help where the organization’s mission also aligns with their spiritual identities.

Diversity amongst food banks around the country is just one example of the kinds of multi-pronged efforts necessary for Americans, especially those in need and disenchanted young people, to regain trust in institutions with diverse missions, ideologies, service areas, and yes, religions Whether a religious food-assistance organization serves out of a calling originating in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, or another faith tradition, each of these faith-based food banks is serving because their faith calls them to do so.  There is something intangibly religious in providing people tangible nourishment. Thus, for these faith-based food providers, providing material sustenance is not just an act of service, it is a religious expression.

Millennials are increasingly disillusioned with institutions, whether traditional houses of worship, the political party establishment, or services providers like hospitals and food banks.  The potential of millennials checking out of these institutions wholesale could have serious impacts on society for years to come.  We have already seen a shift in younger generations to being “spiritual” or “unaffiliated,” rather than committed to a specific religious community; and we have seen increasing numbers of young people identifying as “Independent” rather than committing to an established political party.  Yet the creation of diverse institutions, like the food banks described above, demonstrates that complete disaffiliation is not the only option for institution-weary millennials.  Those of us in our twenties and thirties can seek out, invest in, and commit to creative, diverse, innovative institutions that meet our differentiated and specific needs.  And if we can’t find a club, faith community, or social services provider that meets our unique needs, we can always take the initiative and create the next out-of-the box one.

- ‎Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance at the Center for Public Justice