90-year-old Florida man shows how it’s done

90-year-old Florida man shows how it’s done November 6, 2014

Meet Arnold Abbot, 90, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He feeds the hungry and not even the police can stop him.

AP photo by Lynne Sladky

“Man Who Broke Law by Feeding Homeless Undeterred”:

Despite being charged with violating a new law by feeding the homeless in South Florida, 90-year-old Arnold Abbott said he’s not deterred and even went back out to serve more food at a public park.

The faceoff in Fort Lauderdale over the ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless has pitted those with compassionate aims against residents and businesses trying to protect their neighborhoods.

Abbott, affectionately known as “Chef Arnold,” and two South Florida ministers were charged last weekend as they handed out food. They were accused of breaking the ordinance and each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott said.

But on Wednesday night, Abbott and others served a four-course meal by the beach as police filmed from a distance and a crowd of nearly 100 mostly homeless and volunteers cheered their arrival.

“God bless you, Arnold!” some shouted. Others carried signs in support of Abbott.

Abbott, a World War II veteran and civil rights activist, told the Associated Press that he has been serving the homeless for more than two decades in honor of his late wife. He has several programs, including a culinary school to train the homeless and help find them jobs in local kitchens.

Here are two options for Christians in America:

1. We can be known for being the People Who Fight for the Legal Right to Refuse to Bake Cakes for Those We Think Are Wicked; or

2. We can be known for being the People Who Feed the Hungry No Matter What.

These are, it turns out, mutually exclusive options. We can fight for laws to defend our right to refuse cake. Or we can fight for laws that ensure the hungry are fed. The former is all about preserving privilege. The latter is all about sharing.

Jesus, for what it’s worth, didn’t have anything to say about the religious liberty to refuse cake. But he did say that feeding the hungry was the most important thing of all most important things.

Arnold Abbott is showing us what real civil disobedience looks like. It means challenging an unjust law by breaking that unjust law.

Abbott didn’t get arrested for trespassing during a sit-in/press event at City Hall. That sort of thing is just a publicity stunt. Sure, it can sometimes be an effective publicity stunt — although these days it’s mostly played out. And it does require an admirable level of courage to get one’s self arrested as a publicity stunt. But that still isn’t civil disobedience. What Abbott did is. Which is why it’s both more important and more effective than any one of a handful of recent stories about “Activists Get Arrested for Something Or Other.”

You can see the effect Abbott’s civil disobedience is already having on the Fort Lauderdale police officers. The first time they stopped him from feeding people and took a 90-year-old man away in a police car. Those officers weren’t inclined to do that again, so now they’re just filming from a distance. Why? Because it’s a stupid, unjust law, and enforcing it made them feel stupid and unjust.

That’s the power in civil disobedience — it forces us to see injustice and to acknowledge it. And that, in turn, gives us a chance to choose to do something about it. Arnold Abbott is stubbornly forcing Fort Lauderdale to confront that injustice and to make that choice.  That’s powerful.

And, as a Local 10 news report on the story makes clear, Abbott knows it’s powerful. He recites the long list of supportive messages he’s received from all over the world and says, “The good news is that there is pressure being put on the city of Fort Lauderdale to do something about a law that is not only unfair, it’s repressive.”

Extra bonus added awesomeness: “I believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” Arnold Abbott told the local news reporter, going full-on Fosdick. That’s old school bomfoggery — echoes of a nobler era of Christian advocacy against injustice. At age 90, Abbott might be quoting that from a sermon he still remembers hearing. The gendered language may be antiquated and problematic, and Abbott may have swapped BOMFOG into FOGBOM, but hearing that phrase in the 21st century still makes me smile.


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