Bread for the World Founder Arthur Simon Reflects on His Life and Mission

By Greg Gaudio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Mississippi, the Rev. Arthur Simon met a 2-year-old girl whose parents could give her milk only a couple of times a month. In Florida, a family that lived on a diet of bread, syrup and beans left a lasting impression on him.

And amid the broken-down tenements of New York's Lower East Side, Simon watched members of his own congregation endure hardships most people can hardly imagine.

It was the early 1960s. Simon was a young man, but he knew something had to be done beyond dispensing food -- something that attacked hunger at the roots and attempted to prevent it. Eventually, he created Bread for the World, which has grown into the country's foremost citizens lobby on the issue. Its 61,000 members and their annual letter-writing campaign have helped to generate billions for the cause at home and abroad.

In his new book, "The Rising of Bread for the World: An Outcry of Citizens Against Hunger," Simon, 79, who lives in Bowie, reflects on his life's work.

The book, released last month, chronicles Bread's rise from a shoestring operation run out of a parish building in Manhattan to a Capitol Hill mainstay that leverages $1.2 billion annually for hunger prevention. Its philosophy, taken from an adage Simon's father often shared with him, is the same today as then: that it is better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than to have an ambulance at the bottom.

"I realized that I was driving the ambulance all the time," Simon said of his early efforts to stem hunger and poverty. "Bread for the World then emerged over a series of several years as a way of building a fence."

Simon frames the organization's story with his own memoir, often touching on how his personal experiences as a Missouri Synod Lutheran have shaped Bread's mission of Christian charity.

In an interview at Bread's F Street NW offices last week, Simon talked about looking back on life approaching 80, growing a nonprofit group and the challenges he faced along the way -- some of which aren't broached in the book. Wearing pressed beige slacks and a blue pinstriped shirt, he leaned forward in his armchair and spoke in a steady voice turned gravelly with age.

He'd written books before, 10 in all, about poverty, hunger, politics and religion. But writing his own story was different. "It wasn't the writing so much as it was the thinking and reading to prepare for the writing," he said.

With unflagging attention to detail, he reminisces in the book on his boyhood in Oregon, his studies at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and his early encounters with hunger: in his first pastoral appointment on the Lower East Side and on a five-week trip through Appalachia and the South.

The heart-rending scenes he witnessed didn't shake his faith, he said. "The question is not how could God let this happen. But how can we let it go on if we have the means to put an end to it?"

The scenes moved him to start Bread.

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