As I write on Thursday, the House has just voted against a farm bill proposal that would have cut $2 billion annually from SNAP (food stamps) and something new from tea party Republicans lets states impose new work requirements on those who receive them.

As someone who is involved with an area non-profit food program, I can tell you that the reason many people need the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is that they cant get work. The reason why enrollment in the program has risen so much in the last 4 to 5 years is precisely because millions had lost their jobs during the Great Recession.

(Many program recipients cannot work, however, as they are elderly, disabled, or children, and I would be the first to tell able-bodied adults to apply for available open jobs that would get them off food stamps, if such they could reasonably fill existed).

Moreover, many who work in minimum-wage jobs need the services of a food pantry and/or the modest benefit the SNAP program supplies to make ends meet. I have often seen women in fast food franchise or supermarket uniforms at a large area food pantry I volunteer at. The cut of a total of $10 billion from SNAP could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls, thus increasing the load on non-profit programs supported by private donations and staffed largely by volunteers. Is this fair to these committed citizens who are trying to fill the gaps in the social safety net?

The hypocrisy of members of Congress, many who wear their Christianity on their sleeves, is amazing.


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According to the Huffington Post, some 15 members of Congress or their spouses received $237,921 in federal farm subsidy payments last year. These payments, too, are part of the Farm Bill.

One of these Congressmen is Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Frog Jump, Tenn.). According to the Post article, Fincher and his wife, received $70,574 in direct payments last year under the current Farm Bill. Finchers payments made headlines after he said during committee debate that lawmakers should cut food stamp spending because they shouldnt use other peoples money to feed the hungry, according to the Post.

Part of the current farm bill proposal is an amendment by Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisana, that would bar food stamps to people previously convicted of murder, pedophilia and violent sexual assault. Vitter is best known for having his phone number discovered in 2007 in the records of a company owned and run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, aka the D.C. Madam, convicted by the U.S. government for running a prostitution service.

When cornered on it, Vitter issued a statement taking responsibility for his sins and asking for forgiveness. He was never criminally charged with being a john.

Still, the hypocrisy of his wanting to apparently starve those who have paid their debt to society has been noted by several commentators. As noted in an Associated Press story on Thursday, critics said it is wrong to deny food stamps to low-income Americans who served their time for past criminal behavior.

Said Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, The amendment essentially says that rehabilitation doesnt matter and violates basic norms of criminal justice. He noted that a man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor and raising grandchildren would be thrown off (food stamps) and his grandchildrens benefits would be cut.

In May, columnist Jarvis DeBerry of NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune, of New Orleans, wrote, Given his professed Christianity, its a shock that U.S. Sen. David Vitter seems so unfamiliar with the concept of mercy. Given his admission to a very serious sin doing something he shouldnt have with somebody other than Mrs. David Vitter youd think maybe hed be a champion of forgiveness. But no. Vitter is one of those to hell with you Christians who someway, somehow seems to have missed the whole of the New Testament.

Amen.

As a purely practical matter, since its even harder for convicted criminals to find jobs that your average citizen without a record, how is someone going to turn their life around, turn away from crime, if they cant even get a subsistence level of food? By the way, this amendment is another case of placing a greater burden on already heavily burdened non-profits.

My hope is that Congress will not come to agreement on a new Farm Bill and the 2008 farm bill that expires in September will be renewed for at least another year. Whats the harm of a little more gridlock? ***

On a more upbeat note, I was pleased to see this week that Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester will be hosting prominent religion scholar, author and Episcopal priest Randall Balmer to a special event open to the community on Saturday, July 6, at 6 p.m. at Zion Church. He will also be the guest preacher on Sunday, July 7, at the 10 a.m. service at Zion Episcopal Church and the 11 a.m. service at St. Johns Chapel in Manchester Village.

Balmer taught as professor of American Religious History at Columbia University for twenty-seven years before becoming the Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College in 2012.

He has published more than a dozen books, including God in the White House, How Faith Shapes the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush and The Making of Evangelicalism from Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. His second book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fourth edition, was made into an award-winning, three-part documentary for PBS. Balmer wrote and hosted that series as well as a two-part series on creationism and a documentary on Billy Graham.

For more information, contact Zion Church at 802-362-1987 or office@zionchurchmanchester.org. Balmers website is http://www.randallbalmer.com.

Interestingly, his website notes that Balmer has served as the rector of two Episcopal parishes in Connecticut. Though cannonically resident in the Diocese of Connecticut, he is also licensed in both the Diocese of New Hampsire and the Diocese of Vermont.

Zion Episcopal Church is located at 5167 Main St./Route 7A, Manchester Center, between Gringo Jacks and Ye Olde Tavern. St. Johns Chapel is located at 3512 Main St. /Route 7A in Manchester Village, just south of the Equinox shops.

***

I also was interested to see a press release issuing a call for artists for a juried art show called Islam Contemporary in Pittsfield, Mass., an hour down Route 7. This general region, excepting the immediate Capital District, does not have a heavy concentration of Muslims, so this is an unusual exhibition topic. Im looking forward to it.

The exhibition is sponsored by Pittsfields Office of Cultural Development, in collaboration with the Whitney Center for the Arts. The show, which opens Friday, Aug. 2, and continues through Aug. 29, will explore Islamic cultures, history, art, and day-to-day life through contemporary art. A curated series of performances, film screenings, readings and artist talks is also being planned as a companion to the exhibit.

Megan Whilden, director of cultural development for the City of Pittsfield, explained the reason for the show. There is a real need in the United States to have a broader understanding and experience of the many diverse communities and cultures where Islam can be found. I look forward to providing an opportunity for creative exploration and learning through the arts with the Islam Contemporary show.

Aziz Sohail, curator and arts management intern at the Office of Cultural Development, added, As a Pakistani, interested in art and believing in its ability to bring people together, I am honored and excited to be a part of this initiative by the City of Pittsfield. We are looking forward to some amazing submissions.

The deadline for submissions is June 28, and artists will be informed by July 12. Details on submitting artwork or performance proposals can be found at http://discoverpittsfield.com/islamcontemporary. For more information about the exhibit and submitting artwork, contact Sohail at aaziz@brandeis.edu or at 413-499-9348.

The exhibition and events will be held in Pittsfields Upstreet Cultural District at two locations: the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts and Whitney Center for the Arts.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banners religion editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @banner_religion