Saturday, October 15, 2011

You Always Have the Poor With You... But They Need Not Be Hungry!

So here's part two of my ongoing series "catching up on what I've been doing the last couple months" posts.  Thanks to Mikka McCracken for all the pictures.  Enjoy!

It's always a hard quote talk about... Jesus says something similar to "the poor will always be with you" in every gospel except for Luke, and it's a passage that some folks have used to argue against social justice initiatives.  On one level, I'd like to point those folks to how Jesus' quote parallels Deuteronomy 15:11: "There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land."  Yet on another level, while the poor may always be with us, they need not be hungry.

Tour of the Rodale Institute.
The poor may always be with us, but they need to be hungry... this became abundantly clear for me  couple weeks ago while participating in an ELCA World Hunger "Ethics of Eating" retreat.  From September 29th to October 2nd folks from synods all over the ELCA's Region 7 gathered at Camp Men-O-Lan in Quakertown, PA to find out more about world hunger and what people of faith can do about it.  And boy... it was a powerful event!  First of all, it was great to part of such a diverse group.  While there were a number of seminarians and pastors, there were farmers and business folks too.  There were younger folks in attendance, but there were others who had been working on hunger issues long before I was born.  Most encouragingly, there seemed to be a diversity of political opinion in the group... feeding the hungry need not be a liberal or conservative issue, and it was great to see Lutherans from diverse backgrounds and experiences working together towards that goal.

The only nice cow at Living Hope Farm.
Over the course of four days, we had a number of amazing education opportunities.  We heard more about ELCA World Hunger, learned how the ELCA does advocacy on both the federal and statewide levels and visited Living Hope Farm, a Mennonite community-supported agriculture project.  We also heard about both sides of the GMO/ organic farming debate from the perspective of two dairy farmers and even got to tour the Rodale Institute, a research farm that's been pioneering organic farming for well over fifty years.  While I came away from the event with many learnings and new ideas, there's five specific points that need sharing.

A greenhouse at Living Hope Farm.
First, (and most importantly) we can solve hunger as a systemic problem in this world.  We are blessed to live in a time where we have the means to feed the hungry, and it's just a matter of will and proper coordination to do so.  There will be difficulties posed by a continually rising population for at least a few more decades and many negatives effects from climate change, but still, feeding the hungry is possible.  In many areas, it's actually happened... hunger in America was nearly eliminated under the Nixon administration, although since then we've backtracked to now one in six of our citizens being hungry.  There are similar stories on the global front... David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World has written that if we continue on a similar trajectory, from 1990 to 2015 we would have cut the number of people in extreme poverty in half.  It's true friends, feeding the hungry can happen... and imagine if it did.  What would happen for instance if your church no longer had to operate a food-bank because it simply wasn't needed?  Imagine what other important ministries all those resources could go to!

Discussing future projects.
My second learning was that while hunger is solvable, people of faith can't do it alone.  We're called in the waters of baptism to not only directly feed the hungry, but to accompany them in advocacy as well.  That of course might look different for different folks.  It might mean signing up for the ELCA's e-Advocacy Network or writing a letter to your local newspaper.  Bread for the World also provides great advocacy resources, particularly in this critical time of budget cuts and the upcoming debate over the Farm Bill.  It's a empowering experience to visit either your state rep's office or even your congressman's office in Washington to advocate on full support of hunger programs... and thank them while you're there!  Once again, hunger is solvable problem, but it's going to take collective action that only government entities can bring to bear to do so.

The group at Living Hope Farm.
Third, I learned that advocacy and organizing go hand in hand.  Advocacy does not need to be done alone, and of course is particularly enjoyable while working with others.  From my experience, advocacy is pretty contagious, especially when you know your efforts have paid off in a big way.  People of faith bear a lot of political weight with their opinions... politicians listen to us, particularly when we're in large numbers.  Ethics of Eating was particularly effective because it gave all of us participants the tools to be leaders back home in our local congregations and communities.  Hopefully, with the Spirit's help, all that education and energy will spread and foster even more leaders and open ears.  That's sort of related to my fourth point in a way... feeding the hungry is going to take a lot of listening.  Oftentimes it's so easy to think we're doing good while in fact we're only making the matter worse.  For instance, oftentimes sending food to foreign countries depresses local food prices so farmers can't make a living.  In advocating and building community around solving world hunger, we need to listen to all interested parties.  The genetically-modified organism/ organic farming debate particularly can vilify one side or the other.  I came out of the retreat a little unsure about where to stand on this one.  Organic practices and CSA's were certainly great when possible, but it seemed unclear to me as to whether or not such farming continue indeed feed all our hungry planet.

Finally, as we discussed in the first night of the retreat, feeding the hungry is all about good discipleship.  Check out this well known passage from Matthew 25:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25: 34 - 40).
That's what discipleship is all about folks!  Seeing Christ in others and doing our best serve them as Christ.  From a Lutheran perspective, this is done not out of a need to justify ourselves, but rather in response to God's love and saving grace.  As second generation Lutheran theologian Andreas Musculus puts it, we serve others "out of a free and merry spirit."  Whether we are directly feeding the hungry, making sure folks have clean drinking water, clothing the naked, caring for the sick or visiting those in prison, all those things at least indirectly contribute to making sure all of God's children have access to good quality food.  Feeding the hungry is at center of Christian hospitality, central to good discipleship, and a central part of who we are as people of faith.  Thanks for reading!

God's peace,

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