Greg Garrett: Famine and Feast: An interview with ONE's Adam Phillips

"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.

In November, "Faithful Citizenship" is exploring the problem of hunger around the world and at home, with the ONE movement's campaign against famine as an organizing focus-and our festive celebration of Thanksgiving as contrast.

Bono recently wrote that the famine in the Horn of Africa is the worst in twenty years (the United Nations concurs), and that we must all pull together now and take action. Today, we'll talk with someone on the front lines of the effort to inform and energize people of faith to step up and make a difference: Adam Phillips of the ONE movement.

ONE has launched a full-blown campaign called "Famine Is the Real Obscenity," (playing with the notion, What is the vilest F-word?). Its implication is that what people should be truly outraged about is not violations of public decency, but the loss of life and human dignity as people in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia face starvation, exile, violence, and other threats. (Adam noted in our interview that 13 million people are at risk of going hungry, and 30,000 children have already died in this crisis). ONE has long been a leader in working for aid, trade, and debt relief to Africa, and the famine campaign is at the heart of their current efforts.

Adam is the senior liaison to faith organizations for ONE. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and his mandate with ONE is to try to involve faith groups and people of faith in awareness building, grassroots activities, and lobbying to help the poor, sick, at risk, and disadvantaged, particularly in Africa. Over the years, ONE has achieved signal success; as the ONE site notes, partly because of its work, "nearly 4 million Africans have access to life-saving AIDS medication, up from only 50,000 people in 2002. Malaria deaths have been cut in half in countries across Africa in less than 2 years and 42 million more children are now going to school." Adam's job is to get people of faith behind this work ONE is doing-and to help them understand why it is called for in their faith traditions to do so.

The people who know about this crisis in the Horn of Africa make clear that this is a mammoth issue. The United Nations highlights it as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, and ONE's policy brief describes it as the worst famine in sixty years. Yet many Americans either don't know about the famine or haven't been engaged with the news about it. Why isn't this a bigger deal?

No one seems to know about the famine, not because people aren't trying, but it seems the national media haven't been telling the story as robustly as they could. It seems to blend in with some of the old narratives of tragic events in Africa, when there are also some positive things we can do about it.

Is the failure to report this story affected by donor fatigue, what we might think of as people's numbness to yet another crisis?

Much of the news just now seems to be taken up with the global financial crisis, and there's a false sense out there that there is only one choice-that we can help people here in the United States or help people abroad. I say that, knowing that there are families who are struggling intensely with this economic crisis here in the US. I do think it's a false choice. We have the potential to help everyone, simply by not cutting current levels of funding and fulfilling our pledges. The U.S. is leading the way, but the threat of cutting poverty-based foreign assistance would have a detrimental effect. It's not simply that we need more individuals and families to give; we need more individuals and families and churches to raise their voices and say, we need to keep our commitments, because they will go a long way toward helping the most vulnerable people.

As the senior faith liaison for ONE you spend a lot of time talking with people of faith about what they should be doing about poverty and why. What are some of the theological conversations you have about the work you and ONE do?

When it comes to getting involved with ONE Sabbath and the ONE campaign more generally, it's all about using your voice, not only to raise awareness, but to ask our elected officials in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to do the right thing in helping the least of these. It's a mandate of our faith. The Church has been at the forefront of addressing needs, both locally and globally. Even in my lifetime we've seen the Church move on issues of childhood and maternal health and hunger and so forth.

But it's an added piece of advocacy, using your voice, as the Proverbs say in Chapter 31, for the least of these, for the most vulnerable people. Charity is very important, helping where we can out of our own wallets, giving to our mission boards or development agencies is very important, but also speaking to Congress on the federal budget. Each of us has a role to play.

ONE makes the point in its position papers on Africa that investing in agriculture in these poorer nations is not just about humanitarian or moral commitment. It's also a great economic and political investment. The position papers cite studies that $1 invested in agriculture now will save $10 in humanitarian aid later.

We should be about fighting famine and investing in long term solutions like "Feed the Future," which is an initiative from USAID because it reflects the values of the American people. Even in the most challenging economic times, we have always helped our neighbors. After World War Two, we helped rebuild our most vulnerable neighbors. [And our former enemies, as well. GG] It's also a matter of national security. It's much more economical to send folks the things they need in crisis, and also to help them learn to help themselves, than to get into other security measures.

There are millions of other people in this part of the world who are not at risk. Because they've had help along the way, they're actually harvesting crops from their own farms. This is an inspiration. It isn't throwing money down a rat-hole. We have living proof that this is working. As Bishop Tutu says, when we have members of our human family at need, we've got to do all we can, and that definitely includes using our voice.

Adam, you've mentioned Proverbs twice, you've referenced Matthew 25 and Jesus' reference to the least of these, and of course we have in Islam the pillar of faith that is setting aside funds for those who are in need. All of these are vital faith connections to the work of hunger relief. Can you talk a bit about what you do as faith liaison for ONE, especially the things you're involved in with this anti-famine initiative?

What I do is lead our grass-roots mobilization, working with local churches, local synagogues and mosques, campus ministry groups, to rally together with all those in all walks of life to give voice to those whose voices aren't necessarily being heard in D.C. We've been able to pull people together from many denominations and many faith traditions. What's great about the ONE campaign is that we've got ONE members who helped me put together the action kit for ONE Sabbath, and we've got evangelical Presbyterians, we've got progressive Episcopalians. It's pretty cool how we could put aside our theological differences, our differences in interpreting missions or evangelism, and really come together around this very important matter.

One of the things that ONE has always had going for it is the awareness of Bono and Bono's philanthropy to help draw attention to ONE's initiatives. What are some of the ways that Bono is helping to get people's attention about famine in Africa?

Well, there's the video, "Famine Is the Real Obscenity." You kind of expect a rock star like Bono to use the F word-in fact, he's gotten in trouble for that here in this country, right? We've got rock stars, we've got actors, all joining in to draw attention. But Bono has always been able to pull together the unusual suspects, on this drive and on others.

If you could leave people with a couple of things to think about, what would you want them to remember about the famine in Africa?

Well, we would want to remind people that the faith community has been such an important voice on these issues in the past, and not only our country, but the whole world is watching and waiting for people with a strong moral voice to get involved. These are tough economic times, so the Church's voice is crucial to preserve funding for our most vulnerable sisters and brothers, especially in the Horn of Africa.

Another thing they could do is get involved with us at, sign up for the One Sabbath at We've got all these resources for your church or small group to use, everything from sermon starters and prayers to an action kit to write letters to your congressmen and senators.

Finally, we'd just ask people to spread the word. Spread the word in your normal table conversations, wherever you gather, but also on Facebook and Twitter and get your larger community involved. Each of us has a role to play in this fight for the world's poorest people. It's not whether we can make a difference in this famine, but how can we make a difference if we work together.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.