I've never met a Christian of any stripe who didn't understand that Christians need to do what we can to feed hungry people. The story of Jesus feeding the hungry crowd is repeated five times in the four gospels. And Christians experience Jesus as the bread of life. Through Jesus Christ, God forgives our sins and fills our lives with purpose. The experience of God's grace in Jesus Christ - God's embrace in Christ - then moves us to reach out to others, to share our bread with them if that's what they need.
A lot of people do need bread; they lack the basic necessities of life. In our own country, one in four children now lives in a household that sometimes runs out of food. In poor countries around the world, one billion people are hungry in the most literal sense. These people can't afford enough rice or wheat to make their bodies work properly. Their children, weakened by hunger, die in large numbers.
I think the most important thing to know about hunger is that it is not hopeless. In fact, the world has been making dramatic progress against hunger, poverty, and disease. Back in the 1970s, about a third of the people in developing countries were hungry. Even after the economic problems of the last few years, about a fifth of the people in developing countries are now hungry. From one third in the 1970s to one fifth - that's a dramatic change for the better.
All the nations of the world have agreed on what are called the Millennium Development Goals - these are specific targets to reduce hunger, poverty, and disease. And we've made some headway; between 1990 and 2015 it is quite possible that the world will cut poverty in half!
I have come to see this as a great exodus in our time. It's like the biblical exodus, but on an even larger scale, a much larger scale.
This is God moving in our time. When a mother in Bangladesh can't feed her children, she prays to God for help, you can be sure of that. And if her family is able to work their way out of poverty, so that ten years later her children are well-fed, she'll say thank you to God. Those of us who can see that people all over the world are escaping from hunger should say a very big thank you to God.
If all the governments of the world have concluded that it's feasible to cut hunger and poverty in half, do we think that God hasn't noticed?
Ironically, in the United States we haven't managed to make sustained progress against poverty and hunger since the early 1970s. But we have reduced poverty when we tried. In the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, we cut poverty in half. It was a time of economic growth, and both the Johnson and Nixon administrations expanded programs to reduce hunger and poverty. It worked.
Our country can also be encouraged by the experience of other countries. The United Kingdom has reduced poverty in recent years. So have Brazil, Bangladesh, Ethiopia. If Brazil and Bangladesh can reduce poverty, clearly so can the U.S.A.
To be effective, part of our response needs to be active citizenship. God didn't send Moses to Pharoah's court to take up a collection of canned goods. Moses was given a political message: to let the slaves go free. The Bible is clear that God cares about how nations treat poor people. We are judged not just as individuals, but also as a nation.
We live in the most powerful nation in the world, and our government has an impact on people all over the world. When the U.S. government agreed to write off some of the unpayable debts of some of the world's poorest countries, Europe and Japan agreed to do their part. Many African governments used debt relief as an opportunity to expand primary education. So as a result, 29 million more African children are in school now than in the year 2000. Church people in this country played a crucial role in pushing for debt relief and giving lots of African children a chance to learn to read and write.
Let me tell you about the organization that I lead, Bread for the World. Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation's decision-makers to end hunger in our own country and around the world.
Tessa Pulaski is a Bread for the World member in Boston. She's a high school student, and she leads a Bread for the World group at her school. Over the last year, Bread for the World has been campaigning to get the President and Congress to reform foreign assistance in ways that will make it more effective in reducing poverty.
When we started this campaign, President Obama was swamped with other problems. Key leaders in the administration and Congress doubted whether foreign aid reform was politically feasible. Senator John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is from Massachusetts. So Tessa and her friends sent him a lot of letters about foreign assistance reform. Tessa joined a group of Bread for the World leaders in a visit to Kerry's Boston office, and six girls then travelled to Washington, DC, to meet with his committee staff. Senator Kerry decided to introduce foreign aid reform legislation and he moved it through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has been clear that advocacy by grassroots people is an important part of the process - people like Tessa Pulaski. The House, the Senate, the State Department, and the White House are now all working to make our foreign assistance program more effective.
Bread for the World members have repeatedly won important changes for hungry people. Over the last decade, Bread for the World has helped to triple development assistance to poor countries. That has had a clear impact in many African countries. Bread for the World has also played a key role in doubling nutrition assistance to poor people in this country, and the government's programs of food assistance have been a lifeline to millions of U.S. families in this time of high unemployment.
Bread for the World works in a bipartisan way. To find out more, you can go to www.bread.org. Sign up. You can also get great resources to engage your congregation. God is moving in our time to overcome hunger and poverty, and people of faith should get with the program.
In summary, here are three things you can do to help end hunger:
Go to www.bread.org and join Bread for the World.
If Bread for the World isn't for you, take some specific step to help hungry and poor people. God will use whatever step you take, maybe in surprising ways.
And most importantly: Feast on Christ in your hearts, because it's as we experience God's love that we are moved to share with people in need.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we pray for people who are hungry and poor. We ask you to come and show them the way out of their need. We ask you to continue the great exodus that is underway in our time, and use us. In Christ's name. Amen.
**Peter Wallace: Today we bring you part 3 of Faith & Global Hunger: A Special Day1 Series in support of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Two weeks ago we examined the scope of the problem with noted statesman, journalist and educator Hodding Carter III. Last week the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad guided us through the biblical foundation of God's call to serve the poor. And this week we're honored to have with us one of the foremost advocates for the poor, the Rev. David Beckmann, who has served as president of Bread for the World for the past 15 years. Earlier David served at the World Bank for 15 years. A clergyman and economist, he is the author of the book Grace at the Table: Ending Hunger in God's World, and numerous other books and resources. David, thank you for being with us.
David Beckmann: Thanks for having me.
Wallace: Bread for the World has been on the forefront of this issue for 36 years and is widely respected for its work. How would you describe the mission and how you're fulfilling that mission?
Beckmann: Well, Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice for hungry people. We help Christan people in churches across the country, people who pray for hungry people, to let their members of Congress know that they care and to get Congress to do what Congress needs to do to help reduce hunger and poverty in our country and around the world. Lots of times, a law can make a huge difference to hungry and poor people, so it can either undermine what we're trying to do through charity or it can powerfully reinforce what we do through charitable means to help people in need.
Wallace: How did Bread for the World get started?
Beckmann: It was started in the mid-1970s by Art Simon. He's a Lutheran pastor; his brother was a U.S. Senator. He was working in a really poor church in New York, helping a lot of poor people. They were also part of world hunger appeals, you know, dealing with hunger in the world. And Art and his brother Paul could see that some of that Christian concern about hunger and poverty needed to be channeled into Congress, that members of Congress needed to hear from Christian people who care about hungry people and that Christian people could be effective by banding together across all the denominations, organizing by congressional district, and letting their members of Congress know that real people back home care about hunger and are following specific issues that are important to hungry people. From the very outset, it's worked remarkably well. Over these decades, in fact, the world has made progress against hunger and poverty; and Bread for the World has played a role in some of that. In the 1980s Bread for the World members and churches across the country helped to get the U.S. government to fund child survival programs around the world. Basically, they taught poor parents how to keep their kids alive. Just simple things that they could do. And those lessons have been well learned. So every day now there are thousands of children who live rather than die because of those programs that Bread for the World people help put in place in the '80s. And over and over again, we've had similar victories for hungry and poor people in our own country as well as around the world.
Wallace: David, in your book that you wrote with Art Simon, Grace at the Table, you demonstrate how widespread hunger can be eliminated. Yes, we'll always have wars; we'll always have tyrants that will cause some to go without, but we already have the ideas, experience, financing, and technology to put global hunger behind us--IF we have the will to do it. But that's a big IF. What do you think keeps us from going for it?
Beckmann: Well, I hope, we may be at a turning point. That's what I'm praying for. So much has gone so wrong in our country. The number of hungry people in our country has gone up. Also, around the world hunger has increased. But it may just be clear enough that things are haywire, that people are open to change. People are ready to do something different. So we could, right now, put some changes in place, using Congress and the president, so that as the economy recovers, we could see a different trajectory, accelerated progress against poverty in the world and also progress against poverty in our own country. Worldwide, we're actually doing relatively well. There's been a remarkable reduction in hunger, poverty, and disease over the last generation. It's actually been harder to get consistent political will organized to reduce hunger and poverty in the U.S. We don't have to have millions of hungry kids in the USA. It really is a question of will, and I think it's up to us. It's up to people like us, especially Christian people to pray for hungry and poor people, to do what we can in our communities and then to organize politically to push.
Wallace: You have said that every time we give thanks or say grace at a meal, we are reminded that our daily bread is a gift from God--and it's a gift to share. We read in Proverbs 22, "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor." This effort truly is at God's heart, isn't it?
Beckmann: Absolutely. I don't know how you can read the Bible and not know that God cares about hungry and poor people. God cares about everybody, but some people are really suffering, and so I think God has a special concern for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, vulnerable, poor people. This is not something tangential to the life of the church. It is at the core of what [it means] to be converted. We are converted by our experience of God's love in Jesus Christ in order to express that love in the world, and that's got to start with hungry, poor people right around us and on the other side of the globe.
Wallace: In this series we've been talking about the Millennium Development Goals, the 8 transformative goals developed by leaders from 189 countries and the United Nations aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and creating global partnerships for development. That's a lot of goals. How do all these goals, which really go beyond hunger, work together to eradicate world hunger?
Beckman: It's poverty, hunger, disease. They're all so interconnected with the environment, democracy, peace, you know, all the things that God hopes for, for us. What's stunning about these Millennium Development Goals is that virtually all the nations of the world have agreed that they're feasible, we've agreed to work together on them; President Bush committed our country to them; President Obama has reaffirmed that commitment. In fact, the rich countries, the industrialized countries have increased development assistance since the adoption of the goals. Many developing countries have reorganized their own programs and policies to accelerate progress against these great goals, and the world has made a lot of progress, most clearly against poverty. We are more or less on track to cut poverty in the world in half over a 25-year period. For people who read the Bible, people who believe in God, how can you think this is not God? This is God doing a wonderful, loving thing in our own history. Like the Exodus, God is not only active in biblical times, God is active in our own history. I think for people of faith seeing this great, good thing that God is doing and seeing that we have a chance to be part of it adds a dimension to our faith. It makes our faith a little bit bigger, more exciting, more political too. So I think there's a deep religious dimension to these aspirations that the governments of the world have expressed as the Millennium Development Goals.
Wallace: You are not only an ordained minister, you're an economist who worked for the World Bank for a number of years. In fact, I understand that the Lutheran congregation in Omaha, NE, where you first served, ordained you as a missionary economist.
Beckmann: Right. I think I'm the only one in captivity.
Wallace: How do these two approaches to the issue of world hunger reinforce or inform each other?
Beckmann: The church did call me to be a missionary economist. It's basically to connect Christian faith and moral teaching to economics, especially the economics around poverty. To me, it makes all kind of sense that these things go together. God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a special place in his heart for people who are hungry and poor, commands us to set up laws and structures that are sensitive to the needs of hungry and poor people. One way you figure out what laws and structures are really going to help is to use the knowledge that we've gained through economics, certainly to focus on economic systems to try to figure out how they work and how they can be changed so that more people can work their way out of poverty. To me, it all hangs together remarkably well.
Wallace: So David, since you are on the front lines in this effort, what is your sense of where we are right now? Are you hopeful?
Beckmann: I am indeed very hopeful. I think this is a time to change history for hungry people. We're at a pivot point in the history of poverty. After decades of sustained progress against poverty globally, intermittent progress against poverty in our country, we have suffered through this economic crisis a big setback, but it's an obvious setback, and so U.S. voters of both parties are more inclined to do something about it, to ask our politicians to do something about it. So we have an opportunity right now to put some changes in place so that when the economy picks up again that we'll see more progress against hunger and poverty in our country than we have seen for several decades and that we will accelerate the pace of progress against hunger and poverty around the world. At least, that's what I hope. I know that's what God wants, so we're working to make it happen.
Wallace: David, your message today is entitled "Exodus from Hunger." Thank you for being with us.
Beckmann: Thank you.**
Follow Up Interview:
Wallace: David, you said you've never met any kind of Christian who didn't understand that Christians need to do what we can to feed hungry people. You said we can end hunger if we have the will to do so. What are some ways people of faith can build that will to make it happen? Is it just becoming more aware of the need and the various ways to meet it, or is it more of a spiritual problem?
Beckmann: One of the most obvious things you can do is go to www.bread.org and join Bread for the World. I mean, I think that is a just a clear step that will then connect you to educational resources to help you understand what we can do about hunger and poverty, connect you into advocacy campaigns so that you actually have the experience of helping to change history for the Lord. That's what it's about. Once you have made a big change in the world, been part of that, it's habit-forming and you'll keep doing it the rest of your life.
And also at bread.org there are resources to help us ground ourselves more deeply in the life of our loving God, and out of that experience then to take action for hungry and poor people. I think it's education, action, and faith. Most fundamentally, we need to get our prayers right. If we say, "Give us this day our daily bread" and mean it, the rest will fall.
Wallace: You mention that Bread for the World offers a number of resources for congregations, and I wonder if you would elaborate on that a bit. How can people of faith as they gather in their congregations together work on this process?
Beckmann: We need to make our churches places where people are connected to what God is doing in the world to overcome hunger and poverty. So you start first by looking at worship and preaching. If this is such an important concern to God, it ought to be all over our worship, our prayers, our preaching. In the educational hour, there is great opportunity to help people understand what can be done, not just to help an individual hungry person get through the day, but to make changes so there won't be so many hungry people.
And then, I think, really it is important to take action, so every year Bread for the World takes up a nationwide offering, but not offering of money, an offering of letters to Congress. So tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of letters come in to Congress from churches all over the country. We move Congress; we make some big change and then people in all those churches see, oh, that letter I wrote to Senator So-and-So nine months ago, that helped to win two billion dollars, or that helped to change trade policy in a way that is going to make a big difference in the world. I think it's that experience of successful action that then empowers us to go ahead and change the world for the Lord.
Wallace: David Beckmann, thank you for talking with us.
Beckman: Thank you.