Our Voice: Meals on Wheels policy won't end seniors' prayers only staff participation

June 7, 2013 

It's easy to get sidetracked from the mission at hand.

And it can be unfortunate when it happens, as is the case with the recent controversy about prayers at local Meals on Wheels lunches.

The objective of Meals on Wheels is pretty easy to discern if you just consider the program's name. Note that it's not Prayers on Wheels or Church on Wheels. This is about feeding folks who need a hot meal.

Meals on Wheels is a vital program, serving the nutritional needs of seniors. That some have chosen to protest the recent policy that prohibits staff and volunteers from leading, sponsoring or participating "in prayer or religious practices as part of the Meals on Wheels program services" is inappropriate.

Most of us think of Meals on Wheels as a delivery service for seniors on a budget or homebound for health reasons. But it is so much more.

Seven sites in the Mid-Columbia offer lunch Monday through Friday for those who are mobile and want to share a communal meal with others.

Folks 60 and over can make a reservation the day prior and then enjoy a delicious lunch of chicken gumbo or sweet and sour meatballs for the suggested donation of $2.75.

It's hard to remember the last time we had a hot and nutritious lunch for $2.75. French fries and items off the dollar menu don't meet our definition of nutritious.

And, if you don't have $2.75, "No one is denied service due to inability to make a donation," according to the Mid-Columbia Meals on Wheels website. That is a true service to our community.

But the new policy has caused a stir. Folks at some of the lunch-time locations, including the Kennewick Senior Center, had grown accustomed to the group prayer before a meal.

The policy to prohibit staff and volunteers from leading a prayer or providing time for a prayer came about because of complaints, including one from the Kennewick Senior Center location, that Meals on Wheels was "engaged in actual support or promotion of a particular religion."

John Rupp, CEO of Senior Life Resources Northwest, which operates the local meal program, said the organization wants everyone to feel welcome and comfortable at the lunches.

Prayers promoting a particular faith or veering into political commentary can be detrimental to those goals. After careful consideration, the local advisory committee and the Senior Life Resources board decided their representatives needed to have no role in group prayers.

The site manager may still hold a moment of silence for those who wish to say grace privately, and we think that's a fine compromise.

The push back from some seniors was so strong that Rupp has vowed to revisit the issue and take feedback to the policymakers for their consideration.

The advisory panel, composed of Meals on Wheels clients, took a second look at the issue this week, reviewing feedback from the seniors and community, looking at guidelines from the federal Administration on Aging about prayer at meals sites that receive government funding and at the prayers allowed in the state Legislature and other government functions.

The committee will make a recommendation to the Senior Life Resources board of directors, and board members are scheduled to vote on a policy later this month.

We appreciate the organization's willingness to listen to those who are upset with the change, but we believe the new policy is sound. The program is there to serve meals, not sermons.

Nothing about the new policy prevents anyone from giving thanks. The staff just can't lead the prayers.

We don't know whether more changes are in store after the board meets this month. But whatever the final policy, we should all be thankful that such a service exists in our community.

And if we want to express our gratitude to God for the Meals on Wheels program, we will. You can too.

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