By Bill Dunn
Freedom From Religion Foundation
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.”
The 1860 poem adapted for a hymn seems more fitting for primary students than high schoolers but it’s what they’re singing to kick off Jesus Lunch outside Middleton High School in Wisconsin one day in early May. A “mom” had passed out song sheets to several hundred kids from the school on the way by.
Quotation marks surround “mom” because although the Tuesday noon event was started two years ago by five women who were in a “life group” together as “Mama’s Brunches and Lunches,” it has vastly expanded and has even incorporated and benefited from donations of thousands of dollars from Christian nonprofits with deep pockets. Along with considerable controversy, it’s attracted an international men’s group called the Gideons, who seem addicted to passing out bibles to children.
An unsigned blog at jesuslunch.org says that, in the beginning, moms created heavenly lunch because “we had difficulty finding time to meet with our high schoolers to do devotions, discuss their faith, and really just hear what’s going on in their lives.” The solution: “Have lunch with them once a week during their lunch break! We naturally chose Fireman’s Park because of the picnic tables, and that’s where it began.”
The creation myth includes some creative fiction in that the mothers of invention omit that the park abuts two schools operated by the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District separated by a lot that bans public parking during school hours, which apparently isn’t enforced, at least during lunches. (At one lunch, parked vehicles all were graced with small Christian calendars stuck in their side windows.) There’s also a contention that adults started bringing food and religious materials into the school in the fall of 2014 without the administration’s knowledge.
“My son was one of the people who ate with them twice when they were coming into the school. He was asked to drink a blue liquid at one of them that supposedly would give the kids an idea of what is was like to wake up one day with no sense of taste because they failed to thank God for it the night before,” says Vickie Gomez. (The liquid was mouthwash.) “At the time, both I and my husband had several phone calls with Dr. Plank [the school principal] and wrote letters to Dr. Johnson [district superintendent] and every school board member in protest.”
She adds, “I still have the propaganda they distributed, including an invite to their Tuesday events with a ‘free breakfast in the Main Concourse starting at 8:30.’ They snuck in the side door into the Commons and specifically avoided the greeters station so they didn’t have to sign in,” Gomez alleges. Students also were given their own copy of the Gideons’ version of the New Testament Psalms and Proverbs.
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Feedback from school officials was disappointing. “We did not get a single response from any of them aside from Plank,” she says. “Frankly, I don’t think Jesus Lunch would have happened if any of them had addressed it properly, publicly, and firmly back then.”
Students eventually started calling it Jesus Lunch, perhaps its only student-initiated aspect. Last fall, the blog says, “we asked the kids if that’s what they preferred to call it, so that’s what it became. Jesus Lunch. God is kind of funny like that, isn’t He? This was not what we envisioned, but yet He had other ideas.”
The school district also had other ideas and asked organizers several times to stop the divisive evangelizing, even though they were leasing shelter space from the city of Middleton. In a story with many other details, WKOW News reported Superintendent Don Johnson’s statement that the district is responsible for providing a supervised environment during the school day. He said the district would consider sanctioning Jesus Lunch as a student-led club that followed school rules (rules which have been upheld by federal courts regarding student- versus adult-initiated activities).
The lunches became news after the district sent a letter in April to parents about the situation, noting violations to policies on student safety, including food-handling standards and rules on unregistered visitors to campus. But before long, the district caved, telling the city it wanted to terminate the joint lease agreement due to fears of being sued. Unmentioned was the organizers’ unwillingness to compromise. The city voted unanimously in May to end it.
At several city board meetings since then, students and parents, many of them religious, have detailed incidents they said the lunches have spurred. In the WKOW story, Principal Steve Plank was quoted: “We have students of different faiths, Muslim students or Hindu students or Jewish students who feel like this is happening and it’s not for them. We’ve had some students that leave school early on those days. Maybe [they] feel intimidated by people coming back in afterward.”
Credible death threats
Reports included credible death threats made against Plank and Johnson after misleading stories and a video were spread through conservative media. World Net Daily sensationalized it this way: “School officials in Wisconsin were caught on video trying to intimidate parents into closing down a weekly ‘Jesus Lunch’ for hungry kids in a local park, and now the police are involved.” That the superintendent was not trying to intimidate anyone is clear to any objective viewer of the video, which somehow also found its way to EAG News based in Muskegon, Mich. (The Lord moves pixels in mysterious ways!) EAG’s founder co-wrote a book with Glenn Beck “exposing the truth about public education.” EAG is short for Education Action Group.
In a July 12 story, EAG attacked the “radical” Freedom From Religion Foundation, making it sound like the advocacy group was behind the protests of a “harmless event.” EAG teamed with the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty to obtain email records from the school district and reported that most emailers supported the lunches and thought outside groups like FFRF “should mind their own business.” It’s ironic that outside groups like the Madison Christian Giving Fund ($5,000 Jesus Lunch donation), the Gideons and other benefactors who are involved get a pass from EAG and its ideological soulmates. The lunch website includes a SignUpGenius page for people to donate food and other items.
While FFRF wrote letters of complaint to the school district and the city and provided food three times during protests, some of the most ardent opponents include people of faith who don’t think Jesus Lunch should get free rein (or is that reign?). Some opponents also objected to FFRF providing food.
Plank was escorted to and from his car for some time after the threats. There have also been threats against students supporting and opposing the lunches. A mother described an incident in a 10th-grade cooking class when a student “joked” loudly that another student “should be put in the oven” like his Jewish ancestors. Anti-Muslim slurs have also been heard.
Pro-lunchers have also lobbied the city, mainly citing the First Amendment and their claim no one is forced to attend (which doesn’t take into account peer pressure). Opponents also suspect that a fair number of outspoken supporters either don’t live in the district or do but don’t have students in Middleton schools. One such “suspect” is developer Terrence Wall, who lives in Maple Bluff and reportedly has children attending private school.
Various options have been proposed to the city of Middleton to help resolve the issue. For more on these proposals, go to the end of the article.
City and school officials plan to have a joint meeting in the near future to talk turkey before any ordinance changes go for review by city committees, which will make recommendations to the city council. (The lunch’s public relations “machine” announced earlier that about 200 students have written thank-you notes, which were delivered to City Hall.)
Jesus Lunch Inc. has already applied to rent the shelter on Tuesdays starting in September. Jesus Lunch Inc., you ask? Last Jan. 6, founding mother Melissa Helbach registered it with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions as a nonstock corporation housed at 6993 Applewood Drive in Madison. She and her husband Casey opened Helbachs Coffee House on D’Onofrio Drive in Madison in May. He also operates a cleaning service. Since the business that previously assembled the lunches, Scott’s Pastry Shoppe, was recently sold, some surmise the Helbachs could take over that part of the operation.
At the May 31 lunch, graduating seniors all got a card of congratulations from “The Jesus Lunch Moms” with a verse from Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans I have for you.” Each also got a “student edition” of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” and a Helbachs Coffee House gift card.
Casey Helbach also has issues with minorities, according to now-deleted social media posts. In one last year he criticized Islam and wrote, “If the professional protesters want to make themselves useful, they should start protesting at the mosques these murderers are emerging from.” Another said: “INSIDE EVERY LIBERAL IS A TOTALITARIAN SCREAMING TO GET OUT.” In 2013 he wrote, “Calling homosexuality a sin is not vile, it’s the truth. Apparently some people don’t like being confronted with what the bible says.” He linked a video in another post about how the bombardier beetle “defies evolution” and commented, “Hard to believe in evolution after seeing this stuff.”
Jesus Lunch Inc. says three to five minutes of “biblical truths” precede each meal. Organizers try to protect students from opposing views. At least twice, they lined up Gideons at the edge of the shelter to block protesters’ signs. A boy who had eaten thanked us for being there and said quite a few students only come for the free food.
After the singing of “Jesus Loves Me” mentioned at the start of this piece, three students came up to me separately to ask me about my sign, which said “Beware of Dog, and Dogma.” They wanted to know what dogma meant. It’s unquestioning belief, the very same thing as “this I know, because the bible tells me so.”
FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.