Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Tale of Hunger at Home and Abroad For American Thanksgiving

In July I reviewed Roger Thurow's book The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farming Community on the Brink of Change, and I've been recommending the book since. Here is an article by Roger for the American Thanksgiving holiday. I'm pleased to reprint it with permission, with credit to Roger Thurow, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2012.

By Roger Thurow

I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, “Hungry Farmers.” How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?

That these farmers should battle chronic hunger and malnutrition is absurd, obscene and shameful.

But there’s another awful oxymoron that deserves our attention, particularly as we near Thanksgiving and our season of feasts. Hungry Americans.

How can anyone in this richest country on the planet, home of the mightiest farmers, breadbasket of the world, be hungry?

That millions of households here are deemed “food insecure” – unable, at some point in the year, to afford the next meal – is equally absurd, obscene and shameful.

Hunger at home and abroad are of the same cloth. Yes, the depth of the hunger and malnutrition that I have seen in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world is profoundly deeper than I have seen here. Thanks to a sturdy social safety net, no one starves to death here, as far too many people do every day in the poorer precincts of the world.

But whether in Africa or America, I see the same pain, desperation, guilt and humiliation in the eyes of mothers and fathers. How will I feed my family? Where will the next meal come from? And the same longing and despair in the eyes of the children.

I think back to one of my first conversations with Leonida Wanyama, who is among the smallholder farmers in western Kenya profiled in my new book, The Last Hunger Season. With head bowed and voice low, Leonida told me of the bleak Christmas holiday that had just passed; all she was able to offer her family was a pot of boiled bananas.

Now, in the U.S., I’m reminded of the many food pantries preparing to distribute turkeys and all the fixings to families who otherwise wouldn’t share in our great Thanksgiving tradition, and I think of the many soup kitchens readying meals for those who have no place to eat such a feast.

In both Africa and America, I have seen hunger narrow the choices of daily living.

For the smallholder farmers with their meager crop yields: feed my family or sell some of my harvest to pay school fees for my children; feed my family or buy malaria medication; feed my family or repair the hole in my thatched roof.

For those who rely on American food banks and soup kitchens: buy food or pay the rent; buy food or keep my health insurance; buy food or pay the electricity and gas bills.

Hunger, no matter where it is, is an abomination. It tears at families, communities, societies. It cheats economic development. It haunts the conscience. Or at least it should.

Scenes from my reporting on hunger, be it at home or abroad, are seared in my mind: In Africa, severely malnourished children clinging to life in emergency feeding tents. Families struggling to make it through the day on a mere cup of tea.

In America, astonished teachers watching students stuffing their pockets with food at Friday lunch, even when that food was spaghetti, because they didn’t know if there would be much to eat at home over the weekend. Children so eager to get to school they hopped off the buses on Monday morning and raced through the hallways; they were heading to the cafeteria, for school breakfast, because they hadn’t eaten much since school lunch on Friday.

A common source of hunger, of course, is poverty. For Africa’s smallholder farmers, it is an absence of essential resources: better quality seeds, micro-doses of fertilizer, financing and agriculture extension advice – the vital ingredients to grow enough food to feed a family for a year. For families in America, it is an absence of a living wage, a lack of decent paying jobs to afford food security throughout the year.

The solutions are also similar. They must be long-term, beyond the immediate aid, and include more community input, individual empowerment and innovative education. The goal is for the farmers of Africa to grow as much nutritionally rich food as they possibly can and for the food insecure in America to be as productive as possible and earn enough to buy their own food.

One more common thread: Efforts to end hunger are under siege by the global financial mess. In the U.S., both short-term safety nets and long-term solutions are threatened by budget cuts, be they food stamps or women and infant care programs or the White House’s Feed the Future initiative which focuses on improving harvests of smallholder farmers in the developing world. The mandatory spending cuts that loom at the fiscal cliff will have a disproportionate heavy impact on poverty and hunger programs, which have already been hit in previous budget slashing moves. Hungry farmers? Hungry Americans? The awful oxymoron would be extended, not ended, by such cuts.

At Thanksgiving, we know we can do better. It is the time to commit to the last hunger season.


Roger Thurow was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal for 30 years, 20 of those as a foreign correspondent based in Europe and Africa. In 2003 while covering the famine in Ethiopia he experienced an epiphany that would completely change his life.

While in Ethiopian headquarters before going into the hunger fields, Thurow received a warning from one of the aides who said, “Looking into the eyes of the hungry becomes a disease of the soul.” The next day, while looking into the eyes of those who were starving, Thurow immediately understood what the aide had meant. No one should ever have to die from hunger.

Before the year was out, Thurow and colleague Scott Kilman, the Journal’s chief agricultural correspondent, collaborated on a series of articles on the African famine. The series was later chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize on International Reporting. The two journalists teamed up again to write Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. It released in 2009. In 2010, he resigned from the Wall Street Journal and accepted a post as Senior Fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs where he remains today, writing and speaking about global hunger and food security issues for a number of outlets and platforms.

Thurow graduated from the University of Iowa in 1979. He and his wife Anne live in the Chicago area and are the parents of two children, Brian and Aishling, both now in college. When not working, Thurow is a baseball fan and particularly enjoys watching the Chicago Cubs to, as he jokes, “put things in perspective.”

To learn more about The Last Hunger Season and the documentary film it inspired, please visit:, Thurow's blog, or The last Hunger Season.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Up From the Garbage Dump: Sermon, November 18, 2012

Then Hannah prayed:
My heart rejoices in the LORD.
My strength rises up in the LORD!
My mouth mocks my enemies
because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the LORD —
no, no one except you!
There is no rock like our God!

Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,
spouting arrogance from your mouth,
because the LORD is the God who knows,
and he weighs every act.

The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
but those who were stumbling
now dress themselves in power!
Those who were filled full
now sell themselves for bread,
but the ones who were starving
are now fat from food!
The woman who was barren
has birthed seven children,
but the mother with many sons
has lost them all!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave,
and raises up!
He makes poor, gives wealth,
brings low, but also lifts up high!
God raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy
from the garbage pile.
God sits them with officials,
gives them the seat of honour!
The pillars of the earth
belong to the LORD;
he set the world on top of them!
God guards the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked die in darkness
because no one succeeds
by strength alone.

His enemies are terrified!
God thunders against them from heaven!
He judges the far corners of the earth!
May God give strength to his king
and raise high the strength of his anointed one.
- 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Common English Bible

This morning we have the story of Hannah, who was one of the two women married to Elkanah. This was back in the day when men could have more than one wife. I can barely handle one. And Elkanah has a hard time handling the problems between his two wives, for Hannah can’t have children but Peninnah can, so she mocks and provokes Hannah constantly. This kind of thing would seem to me to be a major drawback to having more than one spouse. Hannah finally just pours out her soul to God in prayer, and God grants her prayer, and she gives birth to Samuel, who will grow up to be a great prophet and leader.

So Hannah prays, in what is called the Song of Hannah, about what God can and will do, shattering weapons, filling those who were starving with food, bringing life, raising up from the grave, lifting up the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump, sitting them in places of honour and power.

Lift up the needy from the garbage dump. When I was in Nicaragua in Central America, we drove through the capital city, Managua, to the garbage dump. A thousand people live in the dump itself – people whose land was stolen by the dictatorship that ruled the country until 33 years ago. They had nowhere else to go, and have remained since because land reform never came. Thousands more live in the barrios at the edge of the dump.

It was an apocalyptic landscape – mound after mound of stinking garbage, smoke and flame from fires burning everywhere in the trash, vultures eating the rotting corpse of some dead thing, cattle grazing in the rubbish and so thin their ribs were showing, stray dogs roaming around, shacks built out of waste and surrounded by pools of reeking, toxic water, and the people who lived there – men, women, and children – picking through the garbage to find bits of paper and metal to sell.

My emotions were confused. People forced to live in a dump is completely outside my experience, our experience. We don’t have people living in the South Stormont Township landfill. And my thoughts went back to a novel I had read before going to Nicaragua, A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.

In the novel, the North American characters are driving through the poor neighbourhoods of a Central American city, a city just like Managua. And one of the characters says:

What I wonder, is whether the people down here have to live this way so that we can live the way we do. We have to believe it’s no, don’t we? We couldn’t face up to it otherwise. Because if most of the world lives in this kind of poverty so that we can have our goodies and our extra protein ration – what does that make us?

That’s hard for us to think about. We’re shocked that we have to think about it. We even resent it. But, you know, the teachings of Jesus are hard. One time his friends said to Jesus, “Your teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”

But it’s also hard to see people living in a garbage dump – and it’s even harder to be the dump dweller.

These words are wrenching for us because they’re true. Things may not be great economically for many Canadians, but most of us still benefit from the widest gap between rich and poor since the Middle Ages. Most of us in Canada are the minority surrounded by the majority in the world: the kids overseas who can’t afford to go to school, yet make the school clothes for our kids; the farmers who get paid less than it costs them to grow the beans that get made into our coffee; the poor longing for the scraps that fall from our overloaded tables.

And the question for us is the same one we ask whenever we come up against the hard challenges of the Bible: how, then, shall we live? Hearing the truth that people have to live in crushing poverty so we can live the way we do, well, we feel guilty. I struggle with that guilt. Yet our guilt can lead us to conclude that we made a choice to be so wealthy, that we created the problem so we can create the solution. As North Americans, we think that we can do something about everything. If something is wrong, it’s our fault. We can fix it.

And it’s certainly true that as followers of Jesus, we must fix what must be corrected. If we have wealth, we are to use it for good. We are to seek justice and resist evil. We are to support our Mission and Service Fund and give with vision. We are to look closely at our lifestyles – because for the entire world to have our Canadian standard of living would require the resources of five planets.

But in doing so, we need to recognize that we may have more power to act than people in that dump, but we too are trapped. The same systems of injustice, the institutions and ways of doing things that benefit us also curtail our freedom. The people who live in that trash dump can’t escape the economic and political empires that keep them poor – but neither can we. We can’t get away from supporting empire.

When we open our eyes to this, then we can really start to identify with the people suffering in poverty, we can know just a little of their struggle, we can ask hard questions about the systems and empires that trap us all, we can really join with the marginalized people of the world in working for real liberation, not just of Latin America of Africa and Asia, not just of ourselves, but of all of God’s creation.

When we are working for change, when we are wrestling with the magnitude of poverty and hunger and disease, it's easy to lose hope. But hope is there for us. We have good news to inspire us and keep us going – because of Jesus. He was seen as a dangerous revolutionary by the authorities. He was arrested and put to death, executed on the city dump of Jerusalem, just as the dictator’s death squads once brought political prisoners to that dump in Managua and killed them.

But injustice and evil and death did not have the last word. Jesus was raised from death by the power of God, and triumphed over empire, over injustice, over oppression. The message of the resurrection of Jesus is that the systems that keep people in poverty will never win: the God of the poor, the God of surprises, the God who turns human expectations upside down, will have the victory.

Talking to Christians in Nicaragua, I heard the message of hope in the resurrection of Jesus. Vibrant, exciting hope in the midst of poverty. And we can share that joy, that hope for real peace, real justice. Our message is not one of guilt, for God sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Our good news is a message of hope, and we are called by God to live out that message, standing with our suffering brothers and sisters in love.

And that hope will be fulfilled, for God promises us that the day Hannah sings about will come. The day will come when the old ways will pass away and everything will be made new. The day will come when God’s realm of love and justice will be complete over all the earth. The day will come when the poor will be raised up from the garbage dump to sit in the places of power. Thanks be to God. And let all God’s people say, Amen.

Photos illustrating this blog post were taken in the city dump of Managua, Nicaragua, in February 2007.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Heresy and Orthodoxy

I was reading the November issue of our denomination's magazine, The United Church Observer, and turned to the Question Box column in which reader questions about the church are answered. The answer to question about Celtic spirituality included a discussion of Pelagius:
One of the great proponents of Celtic spirituality was Pelagius, a fourth-century monk and teacher. Pelagius taught that there are two scriptures - creation and the written word - and we need to pay attention to both to live a balanced life. Pelagius believed that God is good, creation is good, and therefore we are good and responsible for our actions. His contemporary, Augustine of Hippo, hated his ideas, teaching that people are filled with sin that can only be taken away by the church. Payment for the removal of such sins was a lucrative business for the institutional church, so Pelagius was excommunicated. Augustinian theology carried on into the Reformation and is still popular today, denying the essential goodness at the heart of every person and of all creation.

My mind reeled, as this answer oversimplifies both Pelagian and Augustinian thought and is mistaken in stating that the fourth century church had payments for penance. It also fails to note that the Augustinian understanding of Original Sin is doctrine in The United Church of Canada. See Article V of the Articles of Faith in the 1925 Basis of Union:

We believe that our first parents, being tempted, chose evil, and so fell away from God and came under the power of sin, the penalty of which is eternal death; and that, by reason of this disobedience, all men are born with a sinful nature, that we have brokem God's law, and that no man can be saved but by His grace.

I had a few discussions with other ministers and church folk online that night. We talked about Celtic Christianity, which was more diverse than is often depicted but did have pockets of Pelagian thought; about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and whether his Arminian position on free will and grace is semi-Pelagian (I say no, as Wesley believed in original sin and the total depravity of humanity); and about how the Question Box column represents Pelagius and Augustine. One colleague, while agreeing that both theologians are misrepresented in the Observer column, said on Twitter that "heterodoxy is preferable to orthodoxy imo (in my opinion)."

I thought about that. I had said online that Pelagianism is a heresy, meaning that historically it has been treated as heretical by the Western church since Pelagius was excommunicated in AD 417. But I didn't mean that any discussion of his position is off limits. There was considerable disagreement when Pelagius was alive over whether his theology was orthodox. It took much lobbying by Augustine to get the Pope to declare it heretical - and it was never condemned by the Eastern church. More broadly, today's church should see any theological debate as healthy. Everything needs to be on the table. Theology is meant to be living, not static. Faith statements can only ever be summaries, and cannot express the entire truth about God. They are never the last word.

The United Church is a merger of Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions that were the products of debate within the church. I am descended from Dissenters from the church (although, admittedly, they shut down belief in any doctrines but their own when they left England and founded their New World settlement in Massachusetts).

Friends talking online had also reminded me that the boundaries of what is heretical and what is orthodox are set by those with power in the church. Pelagius had allies among the bishops and their synods, and was in fact declared orthodox by one Pope, but Augustine finally managed to win over enough of the church hierarchy to get Pelagius executed. Such power struggles, and the church's relationship with the secular power, lie behind declarations of which positions are orthodox.

However, in an age when many people who are affiliated with the church are not that familiar with the church's traditions - and, of course, people who are not affiliated have no familiarity at all - any debate must begin with what the denomination's doctrine states. In the United Church we have just gone through a nationwide vote on doctrine, so we should know that explaining what the church believes is important, even if in our denomination our doctrine is not binding on individual members (although candidates for ministry must be in "essential agreement" to be ordained or commissioned, although each of us defines that for ourselves). Our tradition, like other mainstream Protestant denominations, is Augustinian. We can then talk about whether Pelagius had insights on issues of sin and grace that can speak to us today and help us as we seek to follow Jesus Christ.

As an aside, much of what we know about Pelagius comes from the words of his opponents, and many of his writings have been lost in the intervening 16 centuries, so reconstructing his thought can be problematic.

I ended up writing this letter to the editor of the Observer:

I was surprised to read in the November Question Box response on Celtic Christianity that Pelagius was excommunicated for teaching against original sin "because payment for the removal of such sins was a lucrative business for the institutional church." Pelagius was excommunicated in 417; the practice of paying money to commute penance for sin was only beginning 100 years later, and the profitable system of selling indulgences would not reach fruition until the Middle Ages, at least six centuries in the future.

Question Box disparages the theology of Pelagius' contemporary and opponent Augustine of Hippo, while noting that it "is still popular today." It is in fact the doctrine of The United Church of Canada, as Article V of the 1925 Articles of Faith takes the position of Augustine, not Pelagius, on sin.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"That Lays Upon the Altar the Dearest and the Best:" Sermon, Remembrance Day, November 11, 2012

Christ didn’t enter the holy place (which is a copy of the true holy place) made by human hands, but into heaven itself, so that he now appears in God’s presence for us. He didn’t enter to offer himself over and over again, like the high priest enters the earthly holy place every year with blood that isn’t his. If that were so, then Jesus would have to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. Instead, he has now appeared once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by sacrificing himself. People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
- Hebrews 9:24-28, Common English Bible

As Jesus was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honour in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
- Mark 12:38-44, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

Much of today’s service was written by United Church of Canada chaplains serving in the Canadian Forces. At the church’s General Council this summer we had worship led by Canadian Forces chaplains. There are chaplains wherever Canadians are serving, including Afghanistan and the Middle East. I want to take a few minutes on Remembrance Day to talk about chaplains and tell the story of one chaplain in particular, my Great Uncle, Claude Hayward.

Claude was born on a farm in Carleton County, New Brunswick, in 1904, and in the 1920s he felt the call to ministry in the Presbyterian church. When the United Church was formed, he stayed Presbyterian, but we won’t hold that against him. He served congregations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick until the Second World War started.

I should mention that on the day war was declared Claude’s brother Bill, my grandfather, also went to join up. Grampy had been a private in the militia, but the year before the war started he was working in the lumber camps, as most farmers did in the winter, and he was run over by a logging truck and was so seriously injured he couldn’t farm anymore. So it was no surprise that the Army turned Grampy down and gave him a certificate of general discharge. Grampy said that was pretty good, he went into the Army a private and came out a general.

Great Uncle Claude, however, passed the physical and joined the Navy in Halifax. He became the chaplain on HMCS Prince Robert, which was a coastal ferry converted into a cruiser. For much of the war it was the largest and most heavily armed ship in the Royal Canadian Navy. The Prince Robert escorted convoys in the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean, took Canadian troops to Hong Kong, and participated in the American and Canadian campaign in Alaska. At the end of the war the ship returned to Hong Kong to represent Canada at the Japanese surrender.

On board the Prince Robert my great uncle was the spiritual advisor to 500 officers and men. He held worship services on board every Sunday, in all weather. His duties also included acting as the ship’s censor, because in wartime all letters had to be examined in case they contained sensitive information, so he had to read an average of 700 letters a day when the ship was in port.

After the war Claude left the ministry, moved to BC and worked for the provincial forestry department. Now, he died 38 years ago, so I never got to ask him about his wartime experiences in chaplaincy and how they affected him.

The Hayward family had more children than Claude and my grandfather Bill. There were four girls and three other boys. During the First World War the oldest boys, Sandy and Walter, joined the Army and went to France. And, two months before the war ended, Claude was 14 when a letter came to the farm.

The letter was from an Army chaplain, and it read:

Dear Mrs. Hayward,
It is with deep regret that I have to convey to you the sad news that your son, W.C. Hayward 709857, has died of wounds in 57 Casualty Clearing Station. Also his wound had rendered him unconscious and we did not speak to him. He only lived a short time after he came in.

We laid him reverently to rest in the cemetery close to 57 CC Station. The number of his grave is 58 Plot 4 Row E. If you write to the War Office, Winchester House, St. James Square, London SW1, they will have you a photo of it. The cemetery is well kept and each grave is marked with a cross bearing name and date of death.

May I express my sincere sympathy with you in your great loss. It’s so little a stranger can say, but I pray God may comfort and sustain you in your heavy trial. You join with him in laying on the altar of sacrifice the greatest offering a man can make, and Jesus has said there is no greater love than that.

Yours in sorrow,
Rev. W.M. Kinletsale

Letters make me think of another story about chaplaincy in the Second World War. This was written by Rev. R.M. Hickey, a Canadian Army chaplain, in his book The Scarlet Dawn:

“Padre,” the soldier said, “you told us if we couldn’t write you’d write for us.”

“Sure,” I said, “anytime.”

“Any kind of letter? A love letter?”

I assured him I was a master of love letters and I’d write just what he said.

“Dear Mary.” I wrote that. “I love you.” Again: “I love you.” He kept repeating, “I love you.”

“Yes,” I said. “I have that. Now, how much?”

“I love you… Well, I love you as much as I love the Lord.”

Heresy? Not at all. That was his way of telling Mary he loved he a whole lot. Six months later they were married.

Four years later, one evening during the Battle of Carpiquet, in Normandy, I knelt and looked at the lifeless face of the boy who’d had me write that letter. I lowered him into his rough and narrow grave and, as I whispered the prayer, a voice from the past said over and over: “Dear Mary… Dear Mary…” And when I wrote to tell his wife I had prepared him for death and buried him, that same voice awoke again: “I love you, I love you as much as…”

I wonder how many letters like that Great Uncle Claude had to write in the Navy, and if any with his signature as chaplain, informing a family about a death, are still preserved in boxes and drawers in homes across Canada. I wonder if writing these letters and seeing starving Canadian prisoners of war in Hong Kong and watching the crews of torpedoed ships die in the water had anything to do with his quitting ministry.

In our Scripture reading today Jesus sees a poor widow put two copper coins, all that she has to live on, in the offering box. This story is often the subject of sermons on stewardship, but it’s not really about money. It’s about sacrifice. The widow gives everything she has. And in two world wars, Korea, peacekeeping missions and Afghanistan, Canadian men and women in uniform have given everything they have. A lot of widows and grieving families have given their loved ones.

That chaplain's letter in the First World War talked about an offering laid on the altar of sacrifice. At the end of the service we will sing a verse of the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country. The first verse of that hymn talks about “the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.” My great uncle Claude laid his career in ministry on that altar. His brother Sandy, wounded in World War I, laid his health on that altar. His brother Walter laid his life on that altar. They gave everything they had.

We remember them and so many others, chaplains, soldiers, sailors, aircrew. And as we remember them and their sacrifices - so many lifeless faces, so many bodies lowered into rough and narrow graves - we need to reflect on this Gospel story of the poor widow giving all that she had. We must do more than praise her sacrifice. We must ask why she was forced into that position of giving everything in the first place. And then we must turn back to the wars of the last century and this one, and question the attitudes and fears and behaviours and systems that led to the sacrifices of so many lives.

That hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country, goes on: "There’s another country, and her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace." That is the kingdom of God, and we truly remember sacrifice when we work for the coming of that kingdom where there is no more sorrow or pain or death, that realm where there is true peace with justice and the sacrifice of lives in war is unnecessary, for Christ himself has been offered for us. Blessed are the peacemakers, of the past and today, for they will be called children of God.