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United Methodists join in fight against hunger

7/1/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

"Close Up" is a monthly feature on current issues. Photographs and a sidebar are available with this report.

A UMNS and UMC.org Feature By Ray Waddle*







United Methodists are getting on their knees to scour harvest fields for salvageable edible fruits and vegetables - 17 million pounds last year - and turning them over to families who need food.

They are sending hunger activists into far-flung scenarios of war and catastrophe - 100 countries in all - to alleviate suffering in a world where 30,000 people die each day because of hunger. Half are children under 5.

They are sponsoring farm animals for poor families and volunteering in community gardens to honor the New Testament mandate to help "the least of these."

Like never before, the United Methodist Church is building an army against hunger, inspired by biblical values and new, sophisticated methods of food distribution.

Living by faith
Now, though, in a jittery economy distracted by war and terrorism, it's testing time.

Leaders are nervous about a possibly flagging commitment in donations to disaster relief. At the United Methodist Committee on Relief, gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing campaign look to be down from last year so far. UMCOR, the denomination's worldwide disaster relief arm, relies heavily on donations from One Great Hour of Sharing - about $3 million last year - to meet budget needs.

Others are impatient to intensify the church's ambitions to end hunger permanently. That goal seems within reach.

"If the churches lived their faith better, there wouldn't be hungry people," says Mike Waldmann of the Society of St. Andrew. The group, based in Big Island, Va., is a non-denominational hunger relief organization that United Methodists support in great numbers.

"We waste 96 billion pounds of food before it even reaches grocery stores. We waste more than enough food to feed every hungry American."

In the 1980s, TV images of the swollen bellies of African children symbolized the deep trauma and high visibility of world famine and starvation. Media attention soon wandered away, but the global urgency of hunger never left.

Hunger relief efforts today continue to race to familiar scenes of devastation. UMCOR has been on the scene in Iraq (post-war relief kits and food aid), Liberia (emergency food and shelter for refugees because of war) and the U.S. South and Midwest (tornado cleanup).

Volunteer revolution
But advocacy is stretching in new directions too, testing strategies to get at the economic roots of hunger. In a fast-mutating climate of war and consumerism, activists are teaching farming techniques, health care and job training, empowering people to pull themselves out of poverty and malnutrition through sustainable agriculture and livelihoods.

In recent years, programs have emerged to cultivate unused land and salvage wasted crops and put the food in the hands of folks in need.

One result: A dramatic increase in opportunities for church voluntarism.

"There's a great revolution going on: We are engaging in hands-on missions as never before," says David McAllister-Wilson, president of United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

"Today if you're in a church and want to serve, you'll be presented with all sorts of opportunities for mission. Before, you were given a chance to join a committee.

"The question is: Is it causing a changed heart? Will we still be on the case even if the economy turns bad? That's the question for us as United Methodists."

He and others credit the impact of the Disciple Bible Study program for stirring interest in activism across the denomination. During the past decade, some 1 million people have taken the series of 30-plus-week courses, which aim to draw out the deep connections between biblical faith and Christian behavior.

"You come out of Disciple Bible and you ask, 'What can I do?'" McAllister-Wilson said.

One way United Methodists are volunteering is through the Society of St. Andrew. Some 43,000 people, including Methodists, are pitching in to do the work of the Society, which focuses on domestic hunger. The group organizes volunteers to glean farmers' fields for fresh produce that is left behind during harvest. Volunteers collected 17 million pounds of edible food that way last year, donating it to food banks and soup kitchens.

A second program, the Potato Project, swoops in dramatically on short notice to pick up vast amounts of rejected but edible food from trucks - typically 45,000-pound loads - and distribute it to soup kitchens, Native American reservations, hunger agencies and churches. St. Andrew distributes about 20 million pounds of food that way each year.

The reason produce is rejected: usually slight imperfections of size, shape or surface quality. In Arkansas recently, a truck broker was stuck with two truckloads of Florida citrus - 100,000 pounds. A retail distribution point wouldn't accept his huge load of fruit because the crates had no bar codes and couldn't be inventoried. He called St. Andrew, which arranged to pick up the load and deliver it to nearby food relief agencies.

"We were able to find feeding agencies within a 30-minute radius that could take the food," Waldmann says. "Instead of going to waste, 100,000 pounds of top-grade citrus went to feed the hungry."

The Society's goals are to place a hunger relief advocate in every United Methodist annual (regional) conference in the United States through the Commission on United Methodist Men, and to mobilize similar potato drives and gleanings. Hunger relief advocates are at work in about 20, or nearly a third, of the conferences now.

Biblical practice
Speaking on National Hunger Awareness Day, June 5, Elizabeth Dole, senator from North Carolina and a United Methodist, told members of the Senate about the biblical practice of gleaning.

"Gleaning immediately brings to my mind the Book of Ruth," she said. "Ruth's story starts with a famine; she gleaned in the fields so that her family could eat. In Leviticus Chapter 19, we read the words, 'And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and the stranger.'"

Dole is advocating for a White House conference on hunger.

"It isn't enough to feed those who are hungry - we must also starve the systems that create hunger," says James Winkler, top staff executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social action and advocacy agency in Washington.

"We happily stand in solidarity with Sen. Dole," Winkler says. "I sincerely hope that such a conference does take place. It is desperately needed in our country. We, who like Sen. Dole, are United Methodists, are deeply concerned about bringing an end to hunger and poverty in our nation."

United Methodists are also volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and contributing financially to organizations like Stop Hunger Now and Heifer International. Heifer, based in Little Rock, Ark., provides farm animals to poor families around the globe, giving the families a means of generating income and sustaining themselves. Stop Hunger Now, co-founded by United Methodist minister Ray Buchanan in 1998, focuses on hunger abroad and partnering with organizations to ensure efficient distribution of food.

United Methodists are also working with Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy organization focused on eliminating hunger. A revised edition of a hunger resource, "Hunger No More," has just been released by the organization. Stories from Scripture and contemporary life illuminate each theme, and a six-session leader's guide for use with adult and youth discussions is included.

At the government level, President George W. Bush announced last year an anti-poverty, anti-hunger program called the Millennium Challenge Account, through which the United States is expected to contribute at least $1.3 billion in 2003 and will incrementally increase funding to $5 billion annually by 2006.

Such a commitment is sorely needed.

"As a nation, we spend less than one-half of 1 percent of our budget on programs to fight world poverty and hunger," says the Rev. John McCullough, head of the Church World Service staff and a United Methodist.

Last year, an unusual Hunger Summit met in Washington, organized to build momentum for eradicating hunger itself. The Society of St. Andrew, Wesley Theological Seminary and the Board of Church and Society sponsored the event. Topics ranged from promoting sustainable farming to enlisting church youth to work in poor neighborhoods.

Spiritual dimension
"Sustainability is in the Book of Discipline," says Del Ketcham, a Nashville-based hunger relief advocate with the Society of St. Andrew, referring to the denomination's book of laws and policies. "It's time the church itself should act that way."

Sustainability covers various economic strategies to make farming feasible and help impoverished communities become self-sufficient.

"It's still very sporadic," Ketcham says. "It's up to us to mobilize and execute it and kick the spiritual dimension into it."

Sustainability is a mainstay at UMCOR, too, one of a vast array of approaches that the agency uses as the denomination's leader in relief work. It is based in New York with contacts all over the globe.

On a recent weekday in his New York office, UMCOR's executive director, the Rev. Paul Dirdak, had just returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where years of war have resulted in a major refugee crisis and hunger emergency.

A couple of days later, he was off to preach in churches in Nebraska.

"I like doing that, and we have an obligation to do that," he says. "A lot of churches need to hear the UMCOR story."

Ask Dirdak where UMCOR's work is focused today, and his list will bounce from Africa to Europe to Latin America to Asia to North America. A visit to the Web site http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor suggests the vast scale of needs and UMCOR's responses. To name three, the agency is:
· Working to provide credit, small loans and health education to African women to help them build self-sufficiency for their families.
· Playing a key role in rebuilding Bosnia by fixing war-damaged houses, initiating agriculture projects, and promoting recovery and reconciliation.
· Teaching techniques of sustainable agriculture, improving houses and revitalizing worship committees through its Khanya Program in South Africa.

"Our work can be seen as an hourglass," Dirdak says. "There are two large groups - those who give generously and those who are motivated to organize the self-help of a local community, with our assistance. UMCOR exists at the pinch point of that hourglass to coordinate the work between the two groups."

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*Waddle, former religion editor at The Tennessean newspaper, is a writer and lecturer in Nashville, Tenn.

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