By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published June 23, 2005
Preaching June 7 in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory challenged listeners on National Hunger Awareness Day to respond to God’s call for justice and to work to feed the poor and address root causes of poverty as an essential part of fidelity to God.
“When we as religious ministers invite people to see our response to the hungers of people as an acceptance of the divine command for justice, then will our hearts be changed and God’s Providence made clearer in all of our hearts,” Archbishop Gregory said, speaking in the church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He added, “We gather in a place of worship that is deeply identified with the pursuit of justice. Here in this place an extraordinary, prophetic preacher called people of his day and time to see that injustice was incompatible with God’s Kingdom. We can do nothing less in response to the injustices of our own day. Surely the alleviation of the causes of hunger in our society and the feeding of the poor are works of justice and in strict conformity with God’s design as the very word of Scripture repeatedly makes patently clear.”
Archbishop Gregory spoke at an interfaith service sponsored by the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta. Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, also spoke.
America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization with a network of over 200 food banks and food relief organizations, began sponsoring the awareness day in 2002 in response to an increase in demand for food aid.
FAMA is in partnership with the Faith and the City nonprofit, which was founded in 1999 and promotes respect, understanding, prayer, interaction and unity among diverse faiths in the Atlanta region and fosters a united moral voice in civic dialogue. The founding co-chairs are former U.S. ambassadors Andrew Young and James T. Laney, both members of the clergy. Programs include seminary partnerships, public issues forums, an interfaith dialogue TV program and congregational partnerships. The FAMA steering committee president is Imam Plemon T. El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, and vice presidents are Emory University physics professor Dr. P.V. Rao and Msgr. Henry Gracz, pastor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
In welcoming remarks, Ebenezer pastor the Rev. Joseph Roberts said, “We lament the fact that 850 million people go hungry every night. We only use 25 percent of tillable land that could be employed to raise crops so that people would not be hungry. The problem of hunger in our world is not a problem of resources, but a problem of will. Surely people of different faith persuasions are willing to get together to see if we can appeal, as did Martin Luther King, to the conscience of America … to change the behavior of America, the richest nation in the world.”
Clergy from a rainbow of faiths participated in the service. Rabbi Josh Lesser of Congregation Bet Havarim read in Hebrew and English from Isaiah 58 on fasting to loose the bonds of injustice and feed the hungry. The Rev. Rex Kaney of Druid Hills United Methodist Church read from the Book of Revelation about God’s vision for creation, and Tayyibah Taylor of Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, wearing a fuschia head scarf, chanted in Arabic and then read in English from the Quran about religious hypocrites who only want to be seen by others in acts of devotion. The Rev. Caroline Kelly of Central Presbyterian Church sang “God of the Hungry.”
Archbishop Gregory said the purpose of the day was to increase awareness of “this all too common tragedy” among those who have the capacity to change it. While some think of hunger as a problem only in developing countries, they must also realize “right here in prosperous Atlanta there are far too many hungry people.”
Some associate hunger just with people holding up signs asking for food or money on expressway exits and on street corners, he said.
“Many of us have grown accustomed to seeing people at expressway exits who carry signs saying that they are hungry. There are street people who mingle among us and tell us by their very presence that they are hungry and homeless. Often we find them a nuisance. We regularly see them as a blight on an otherwise prosperous neighborhood. We might even suspect that they are charlatans who are simply too lazy to earn an honest living—like us,” he said. “World Hunger Awareness Day is not intended to justify these entrepreneurs of the highway—it is a reminder to all of us that there are hungry people in our midst, most of whom never parade their hunger because they are too young, too old, too sick or simply too frightened.”
In conclusion he spoke of John’s vision in Revelation of the reign of God as an experience of abundance, where hunger was no more, a state toward which all are called to work.
“Do we not have on obligation, based in Faith, to do all within our ability to feed the hungry so that they can better grasp their dignity as God’s children and we can cooperate with God’s mercy? Will this response to injustice not be a sign that our hearts are being shaped and fashioned into the vessels of tenderness that God Himself has designed them to become?” he asked. “Thus will even the unwelcome scourge of hunger once again be the occasion when God’s Providence will bring about conversion and deeper faith, only we shall be the recipients of a grace far more generous than the alleviation of hungers that abound even within this bounteous society in which we live. Then will God’s Kingdom be ever closer to us where hunger will be no more and God will be all in all.”
According to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, for the third consecutive year the number of Americans living in poverty has risen, with the official poverty rate for 2003 (the most recent year available) at 12.5 percent. The total number of Americans below the official poverty threshold is 35.9 million, up by 1.3 million since 2002. Since 1999 the number of poor Americans suffering from “food insecurity,” not enough food for nourishment, and hunger has increased by 3.9 million, with 34.9 million in 2002 living with food insecurity. The South has the highest poverty rate at 14.1 percent, and Atlanta is the city with the nation’s eighth highest poverty rate, with 23.5 percent living below the poverty line. Over 1 million Georgians live in poverty.
Bolling, who had just returned from the National Cathedral in Washington where over 2,000 people gathered for a convocation, said that hunger walks, food drives and special events were taking place all over the country through the auspices of more than 50,000 community-based groups.
“Every faith tradition calls on us to serve, calls on us to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to serve as an advocate for those without a voice, to those most in need. Today we are here to celebrate our shared destiny, our common call and our important work,” said Bolling.
He echoed the archbishop’s message that food can transform the providers as well as the recipients. “Food can connect us as a community, building social capital that is essential to any community’s health and well being. And the amazing thing is that there is plenty of food. As Martin Luther King has said, ‘There is no deficit of resources, just a deficit of political will to act.’”
The Atlanta Food Bank serves over 750 community-based organizations throughout North Georgia, 70 percent faith-based, making it the largest faith-based network in the state.
“It is in our faithfulness that we come together. It is in our willingness to name the disease that moves among us, hunger in a land of plenty, poverty in a land of wealth … a lack of political will in a time that demands moral leadership,” Bolling said.
He described how some answer the call to serve, some recognize it but ignore it, and others live “in the fog of life” oblivious to their higher purpose. “To have more meaning in one’s life one has to share that which is most precious—our time and resources.”
“Have a food drive, organize a volunteer group, work for living-wage jobs, conduct a Hunger 101 class, create a community garden, advocate for affordable housing and adequate health care, organize a youth group, donate your time or money to your favorite charity, give leadership within your own community,” Bolling said. “Give generously, act boldly and consistently, and know that in feeding the hungry we are doing God’s work on earth.”
Imam El-Amin challenged all at the very least to donate the amount they spend on pet food, citing the call of the Quran to take the steep path and truly live their faith by freeing the slave and giving food to the orphan and indigent.
“Help us to leave this place hungry for justice and compassion, hungry for mercy, hungry for goodness, hungry for service. Help us to turn hurt into hope, help us to turn weakness into strength, to turn our longing into another direction, into a real vision of brotherhood and servanthood,” he said.
In an interview afterward, Bolling said over 50 Catholic ministries are involved with the Food Bank, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which in March partnered with them and five other nonprofits in the Hunger Walk/Run at Turner Field, raising over $23,000 for the Society. He said Archbishop Gregory’s presence in Atlanta brings him new hope in his work.
“I’m very hopeful and very excited he’s here,” he said. “I think he’s going to not only offer leadership in the archdiocese but also moral leadership to the city that we need.”
Sister Mary-beth Beres, OP, president of the Atlanta Sisters Conference, found the service to be very meaningful, saying, “It’s extremely important for all of us from different faith traditions to come together around what all of our faiths call us to be in our communities.”
Sister Mary-beth traveled with other faith leaders on a FAMA trip to Turkey with a mission to get to know one another and become friends.
“I’m very optimistic about the leadership of these faith leaders, and I’m very excited about what it means for us as a Catholic archdiocese to be connecting with these faith leaders in terms of what we both have to offer and receive. I think there’ll be some exciting relationships there,” she said. “I think it’s very important for our interfaith community to work together to help all of us to remember that God is the creator of every person and that we all are brothers and sisters.”
Taylor, publisher of the Muslim women’s magazine Azizah, also participated in the Turkey trip, which she found to be “an incredibly joyful time” that helped her feel more comfortable entering churches. She said people of faith must be as faithful in serving as they are in worship.
“Unless we are careful not to neglect the needs of other human beings that ritual worship can easily become empty or hollow … People take comfort in the fact that they’ve gone to church, prayed in the morning, but simple things like a testament to our faith, like reaching out to those in need, are an act of worship,” she said. “It’s not a situation where you can just say I believe in God, that’s easy. Having concern about people who are hungry and homeless, that’s part of our worship.”
Sandra Hollett, executive director of Catholic Social Services, was glad to gather with Taylor and others to address problems of common concern.
“There are lots of social issues that cross over religious lines, and we all have the same mission of bringing our interpretation of God to people in need. We keep in touch, and when there’s an opportunity to work in collaboration we do and it enriches the whole community,” Hollett said.