Tony Hall is a remarkable man. He represented Ohio in the House of Representatives for 20 years, and later served as the US ambassador to the several organizations based in Rome that are dedicated to producing and distributing food (among them the United Nations’ World Food Program). Today he heads the Alliance to End Hunger. He is a wonderful role model, that brave voice of conscience that we need today more than ever to point to what is right. He speaks out constantly, with hard truths, but also with great hope. He delivers a core message time and time again, in only slightly different words: Good nations, great nations, are evaluated by what they do for other people, especially poor people. That means their own people in their own country, and people outside. America has so much, and we should give and serve accordingly.
In 1993, as a congressman, disappointed at the seeming indifference of his colleagues and his nation to the plight of so many hungry people, he started a fast; it lasted 22 days and it helped to bring a sense of conscience to the deliberations of the time. Today he is more worried by what he sees in US politics than ever before.
So today, Tony Hall is leading a hunger fast (that means water only), to draw attention to the impact that so many of the proposed budget cuts that are so hotly debated today in Congress would have on those who are most in need and most vulnerable. Hall has gathered a large group of people and organizations, most (but by no means all) of them religious, and coming from many faiths. All are committed to the cause of ending poverty. Fasting, an ancient ritual that helps you to feel the problem of poverty in a real sense (in the gut), is the symbol of their joint commitment. The fast is launched in part in the spirit of Lent – highlighting the importance of sacrifice but above all caring and commitment.
David Beckman, a passionate advocate for poor people everywhere (whom I am proud to call my friend), calls the fast a “circle of protection around programs that benefit hungry and poor people in the United States and abroad” .
The Hunger Fast group invites one and all to join them, in whatever way works – a day fast, a skipped meal, whatever is most meaningful. I am joining in the fast and urge others to do so. It is an important and meaningful way to demonstrate caring and a reminder of what the fight against poverty is about.
There are many ways to fast but they all share a common message – in our concern about fiscal discipline let us never forget or neglect poor people, in the US and in the world. Another important point is that supporting poverty programs is not only about caring, conscience, and charity. It is also an essential investment in our future, because ending poverty is a realizable goal. David Beckman and Tony Hall keep their focus sharply on the effort to end hunger, to them the cruelest and most unnecessary aspect of poverty. Others focus on the hard fact that women suffer most from poverty, while others look to more specific solutions, like microfinance. The alliance is diverse, and includes Islamic Relief and American Jewish World Service, showing its essential interfaith character.
The hope is that the unity and caring that the fasting group demonstrate will appeal to the better instincts of those who now sit in Congress as they struggle to craft a decent budget compromise. The appeal is to their hearts, which surely have human compassion and decency. It is to their minds, so that a sense of proportion and long term vision will prevail. And it is to their souls. Religious belief is a common bond that links many in Congress – the core sense that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Perhaps today’s Tony Halls in the Congress have already joined the fast.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.