Robert B. Simpson: Feed the poor, but not here

May 17, 2014 

You'd think helping the needy would be a fairly simple process. Mustering the will to give may be hard, or persuading others to donate, but the process of giving aid in itself ought not to be all that complicated. But even the simplest of matters tend to become complicated in the modern world, and it isn't always easy to determine if the complications are really necessary. You'd like to choose sides between the complicaters and the simplifiers, but even that itself is complicated.

A couple in Daytona Beach, Florida, recently found that helping the poor is more involved than they might have expected. Chico and Debbie Jimenez had for the past year been feeding more than a hundred hungry people every week at Manatee Island Park. They fed good, healthy meals, funded by themselves and by donations, and prepared and served by volunteers.

Then the Daytona Beach police showed up, ordered the operation closed down, and passed out citations to the couple and their help. Seems Daytona Beach has an ordinance, as do many cities, forbidding the feeding of the poor in city parks.

The chief of police pointed out that the ordinance is in place, has been for a long time, and that it will be enforced. If you want to perform a good Christian act like this, he said, you must coordinate with existing social service agencies which are properly licensed and prepared to provide the service. Perhaps the chief can be forgiven for his apparent assumption that only Christians would think to help the needy, and that good Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, or others would probably not be inclined to aid their poorer brethren, and sisters the way (some) Christians are.

There were, of course, cries of outrage, not least from the Jimenez couple, who say they will fight the case in court rather than pay their $746 fine. Many people immediately saw a parallel between feeding the poor in Manatee Island Park and Jesus providing for the hungry with the loaves and fishes. "Guess Jesus would get a citation if he tried that today in Manatee Island Park," some said. And it is tempting to go straight to the clear instructions Jesus gave about caring for the least of these. He did not, to my knowledge, say you should care for them somewhere other than in city parks.

But, as is so often the case, there is more to this story than initially meets the eye. First, you have to cross a bridge to get to Manatee Island Park. It is a nature preserve. The prohibition against what the couple was doing is clearly stated on an obvious sign that they had to pass going onto the island. It specifies the social service agencies to contact with questions or concerns. Second, the park is designed for, in addition to wildlife, families and others to enjoy in cleanliness and relative peace, not in the midst of a growing clientele who drifted in from a widening area each week for a free meal and who left behind huge amounts of litter. Not to mention defecating and urinating pretty freely around the area, according to reports.

Chico and Debbie Jimenez no doubt had great instincts. Their desire to help those in need must have been sincere, for they abandoned regular employment to spend full time on this project. But they seem not to have realized that the world is far more crowded and socially complex today than it was 2000 years ago. The needs of the poor and the compassion of others is still the same, but the setting is no longer so simple. The Jimenezes apparently chose deliberately to disregard clear warning that they were violating a city ordinance. The path to other ways to accomplish their goal was clearly stated but ignored. What they set out to do should be applauded. Hard-headedness in doing it their way, no matter what the rest of their neighbors desired, should be deplored.

An outstanding leader under whom I served in the Army offered a group of us some advice that civilians like Mr. and Mrs. Jimenez might also find valuable. He put it this way: "Never let it be written on your military epitaph: 'He was right, but he wasn't bright.'"

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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