Feeding the Hungry
Many of the world’s religions call their adherents into the practice of charity, particularly to feed the hungry. There is a second call to question why hunger exists in the world to begin with. It makes for a fine tension, between giving people fish and teaching them how to fish, where do you put your time and money?
On a Sunday afternoon in April, hundreds of people across different faith traditions (and of no tradition) came together to pack meals for Syrian Refugees. The event was hosted by the Children of Abraham, a local interfaith group, of which I am part. My part was to serve as the treasurer. Our plan was to first raise five thousand dollars to pay for the ingredients and supplies. This would allow us to make roughly 20,000 meals. We quickly discovered that our initial goal was too small, so we increased our goal to $7,500, making 30,000 meals.
That afternoon in the gym of the Greek Orthodox church, a Rabbi and a Methodist lay person helped form us into five tables like factory lines to prepare the packages. Some people scooped in the rice or the soy, others added the spices. It was measured and balanced and then sent off to a second line where the food was vacuum sealed and placed in a box.
There were 60 people per shift actively working in the assembly lines at any time. We were children and elders, white and middle-eastern, Secular people with Muslims, Jews, Christians, and UUs all working side by side in the lines. And we had to convince people to move out of the line after a 30-minute shift to let others in. It was a wildly successful event. (We had a parallel food drive for our local food pantry, which raised several barrels of non-perishable food.) Everyone who participated raved about what it meant to them.
In the end, we raised far more than the $7,500 we’d had as our goal. We raised over $12,000. The Children of Abraham planning team decided we would do three things with the excess money that would be in line with the intentions of the givers.
First, we decided to keep a portion as seed money to repeat this event in the fall. (Which we did, and it was just as successful half-a-year later.) Second, we donated funds to the shipping company that took the food to the refugee camps in Greece where many Syrians are waiting to learn where they will be settled. The company worked on donations only. So, we donated. And third, we decided to send some of the money to Jordan. When we started this our plan was to split the shipment between Greece and Jordan – both countries have many Syrian refugees waiting to be resettled.
We learned, however, that Jordan would prefer we just send the money so they could do the meal packaging there in Jordan which would stimulate the Jordanian economy as well as help the refugees. Not only would that help the refugees, it would help the Jordanians and we wouldn’t have to spend money on shipping the food. If our only goal was to feed the Syrian refugees, the Jordanian plan would be more efficient.
But feeding the refugees was not our only goal. We wanted to feed the hungry, but we also wanted to give people a chance to think globally and act locally, to have a direct experience of helping, to develop a connection of compassion across the need.
Charity alone will only ever alleviate the presenting need while never touching the system that perpetually creates that need. But with direct experiences of the need, we can reflect together about ways to change the harmful system as well.