May 20, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Over the last several months, two groups from our church have been meeting to spend time in prayer and discussion about how we might select an issue of Social Justice to learn more about so that we might imagine ways we could make some difference in our local and global community. I shared months ago that wonderful quote from Dom Helder Camera who captures the essence of what we are trying to embark upon. He once wrote, “I gave food to the poor and they called me a saint; I asked why they had no food and they called me a communist.” So we are asking why this day. Why in a nation as wealthy as ours with so many resources, an abundance of educated minds and talented people that we are able to tolerate the idea that there are still far too many who do not have enough to eat this day. Why? And, What then must we do? Let us pray, Oh Holy One of abundance and mercy, open our hearts and minds this day to the power of your love, the invitation you share, and the responsibility we feel to help feed our brothers and sisters. We are grateful that we have been richly blessed and we ask that you continue to inspire us to imagine ways that we may share your blessings with all in need. Amen.
Year ago, I served for a year in a faith-based service program in California called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. There were perhaps a 100 or so volunteers that year, most a year or two out of college, and we lived in communities both in cities and some rural parts of California. The goals were that we were to try to live simply in community, commit to work in some kind of setting that would serve those most in need, and that we would nurture our spirituality through prayer, reflection and retreats throughout the year. I had the great good luck of getting a placement in San Francisco and I did outreach to refugees from Central America and I worked on prison reform and anti-death penalty work. I lived with 5 other young people and despite the serious work we were all immersed in; we also found time to do a lot of fun things on the cheap.
I recall this one weekend where a large group of us from various communities nearby traveled to do rafting on the America River near Sacramento. This wasn’t white water rafting, although there were some less than challenging rapids, but we started out at one point in the river and rafted together in various rafts and made our way, propelled by the current some miles down the river to the final destination. We parked a few cars at the start and two at the final spot and we were going to carpool back to pick up all the cars to go to one of the houses nearby for a barbeque after.
It was a beautiful day in the springtime and we were all in shorts in t shirts; some fell into the water and others chose to swim at certain points. We had eaten a little bit before we set out, but we traveled along for maybe a couple of hours by boat and by the time we reached the end, we were cold and we were pretty hungry. Well, wouldn’t you know it but the two people who were supposed to have the keys in their pockets for the cars at the end point somehow lost them along the way. Maybe they fell out into the water; I don’t remember exactly, but what I know is that we all landed at the final destination and we couldn’t drive the cars back to retrieve the other cars from the start.
A couple of people who had parked their cars at the start begged rides from other rafters back to the early parking lot and we all hung out in a parking lot, chilled from our wet clothes and getting increasingly hungry. There could have 25 or 30 or us; it was a pretty big group of us who came that day and no one had any food. As the time went on, we became really hungry. It wasn’t fun, and I hate being cold… Anyway, a group who landed after us took pity on us and I remember one of them had an extra bagel in their car and they handed it to us. One bagel, 30 people, but much like Jesus’ story of the Loaves and Fishes, we each took a piece off of that bagel and passed it around…it was like Communion. It really was. I know you know that it didn’t fill us up, but it was something and it was an act of generosity and kindness and everyone understood that the food was to be shared. Eventually, you’ll be happy to know that the cars arrived back to pick us up and we made our way back to the nearby home for a picnic at last, and we had enough to eat that night.
I’d like to pause now and invite you to remember a time in your own life when you have been truly hungry. I mean this in the very literal, physical sense…hungry. In our world of over 7 billion people, almost 800 million or one in 9 do not have enough to eat. According to the Hunger Project, 60% of the world’s hungry are women and girls…and every 10 seconds, a child dies from hunger related diseases. This continues to be a huge problem for our world, and as we watch the growing disparity of wealth in our own nation and in the world, we are faced with the very real question of why this is acceptable. Why is this not a higher priority for our community, our state, our nation?
When I was in Ecuador and in Nicaragua years ago, we would see children who were malnourished. Their hair was discolored and they looked far younger than they were. We would ask how old they were, imagining that they were a little over a year old, but we would be told that they were three or four years old…it’s called failure to thrive. It happens in our country too. When I worked in Boston, I met a nurse who had helped open a clinic at the then Boston City Hospital which was for infants who were not receiving proper nutrition…failure to thrive. But here, so often we only briefly cross paths with people who are struggling to both pay for a roof over their heads and the food they need. A writer named Caroline Hamilton wrote about her work in trying to address hunger in Maine. She spent a great deal of time working at meal sites in Portland that open during the summer to feed any children in need. She said that she met children as young as 10 who would be home caring for their younger siblings while a parent worked during the day. Mothers would come, embarrassed to ask for help for themselves, but knowing that they had to feed their children and just ran out of money near the end of the month…or earlier. Nelson Mandela once said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which It treats its children.”
Three years ago, Justin Alfond, then serving in the Maine Senate, composed a piece for the Bangor Daily News entitled, “Feeding a child is easy, but ending childhood hunger takes work from all of us.” Justin will serve as one of the panelists at our Ending Hunger Panel here on June 10th. In the piece, he shared the following: “The long-term consequences of food insecurity are devastating. Without enough food, children have trouble concentrating, they struggle to retain information they learn, and they are more likely to have disciplinary problems. Research shows that hungry children miss more school, perform more poorly on math tests, and are less likely to graduate high school.”
He continued, “In Maine today, childhood hunger is a quiet crisis. I say “quiet” because most children do not speak up about being hungry, at least not to their teachers and classmates. Some are embarrassed. Most bear their hunger with heartbreaking dignity. Their silence allows the rest of us to convince ourselves that this isn’t happening in our community. We look away because who among us — if we knew a child did not have enough to eat — would fail to act?”
Again, I ask us all to think for a moment, when was the last time we were really hungry? Without trying to overwhelm you, I will share a few more facts. The number of hungry people in the world exceeds the populations of the US, Canada and the EU combined. Closer to home, we know that in our own state of Maine, thousands of people each day are worried about where their next meal will come from and whether they will be able to feed their children. While they may not describe themselves as starving, hunger often describes their days and worrying about access to enough food is a focal point of their worries. We know that insufficient nutrition for kids affects their ability to develop in healthy ways, to focus when they are at school, and to succeed in their school work. And we know that the first 1000 days of a child’s development, from birth to age two is a critical time for good nutrition and care.
Our reading from that beautiful passage from Micah today reminds us of what God requires of us…”To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly” with our God. To do justice, says Micah, is to live in right relationship with one another, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to watch out for those on the margins. We know this. Again and again, Jesus reminded his followers about his vision for a Kingdom here on earth that was radically different than the lives they were leading where too many on the margins are hungry and dispossessed. In that beautiful story of the Loaves and Fishes as you may recall, Jesus is told by his friends that the people who have come to listen to him are getting hungry. And so Jesus too the bread and broke it and distributed it to the crowd. He uses similar words to the Last Supper, the ritual we share each Communion Sunday. He takes the break, breaks it, blesses it, gives it to the crowd. Communion is literally connected to feeding others, to sharing what we have with others. We cannot do otherwise. When Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel today, “Blessed are you who are hungry,” he is saying I know how you suffer, God has you at the center of God’s attention. This is not right that you are hungry. And in the reading from William Sloane Coffin this morning, he references that challenging passage from Matthew 25 of the last judgement where Jesus asks, “Did you feed me when I was hungry?… Whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
When we speak about the reality of hunger in our world, or the reality of hunger in our very own communities here locally, we may often feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems. But, as a community of faith, we are asked to consider what might happen if we trusted in the power of God, of the Sacred, to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we truly saw this as a communal question and not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all? Would we be moved not by guilt but by excitement to be part of the amazing work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion? Perhaps our sense of community has been lost in an over-emphasis on the individual or the nuclear family, and balancing the two would and could provide enough for all. Can we dream that dream? Can we answer that call? We have resources among us and in our community…of time, of talents, of imagination, of treasure, of creative thinking and problem solving; we have abundant resources when we put them together. We cannot do it all, but we can do something.
I believe that fear is a great obstacle in so much of life. Fear is often the driving force underneath scarcity thinking, of the idea that there just aren’t enough resources so we cannot share. Fear measures the scarcity carefully and says there is never enough, and certainly not enough for everyone. Fear demands our attention and can get in the way of our openness to the presence and abundance of God in our daily lives. When we think about the loaves and fishes story, we may concentrate on explaining the miracle of multiplying the loaves. Perhaps the real miracle is the hope that Jesus inspired in the crowds of people who followed him, both by his compassionate presence and his remarkable actions.
In Maine, there are a number of programs that are trying to address the immediate needs of hunger with food banks, soup kitchens, summer meals and the backpack programs. There are also people who are seeking to address some of the underlying issues that have led to such widespread hunger in our state. We hope you may be able to join us in June for the Panel Discussion. I am sure that each of our speakers will share something from the initiatives that they are working on, both locally, county wide and state wide. Justin Alfond, along with leaders in Maine from Good Shepherd Food Bank to Preble Street to businesses and communities, helped create the Full Plates, Full Potential Program. I am sure that he will speak more about the efforts that are already underway to help end childhood hunger in Maine.
It’s been over twenty years since I sat with my fellow volunteers, cold and hungry, in a parking lot after rafting on the river in California and shared a few bites of a bagels that was shared by a stranger sitting nearby, and yet, I still remember that story. They shared with us and we shared with one another and while our stomachs were not filled with enough to eat, our hearts were filled with gratitude and the reminder that God’s presence is often found in the simplest moments of sharing in our lives. We cannot do it all, but we can surely do something.