Bread for the World founder challenges Lutherans to do better for the sake of hungry people
The Rev. Arthur Simon, founder of Bread for the World, the nation’s primary citizen lobby on hunger issues, recently stopped by the Metro Lutheran office while on a book tour for The Rising of Bread for the World: An Outcry of Citizens Against Hunger (Paulist Press, 2009, www.paulistpress.com). Simon was interviewed by editor Bob Hulteen. In full disclosure, Simon and Hulteen were members of the same Washington, D.C., Lutheran church in the late 1980s.
Hulteen: Who were you before you engaged hunger issues?
Simon: From infancy on, my brother Paul and I learned that life was a gift from God and was meant to be given back to God. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we were reconciled with God in a way that prompts us to seek justice for others.
My parents not only taught that, they lived it. When I was 11 years old, growing up in Eugene, Oregon, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and put in prison camps. My dad was one of the few who spoke out publicly in Eugene against that. Today there is a memorial to those citizens in Eugene. There’s a stone with my dad’s name on it, and a little inscription, “He spoke in protest, his courage inspired others.”
“It’s better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than to have an ambulance at the bottom.”
Those were the kinds of things that shaped us as kids. They had a lot to do with Paul choosing a career in public service, eventually as a [U.S.] senator.
What opened your consciousness to the issues of world hunger?
Paul got that awareness earlier than I did. He ran for Congress when he was still quite young. That was an issue that really captured him. He even wrote a little book about world hunger.
I became a Lutheran pastor and spent most of my ministry years in a parish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York. It was very crowded and economically deprived. It was that experience that provided the seedbed or the cradle out of which Bread For the World emerged.
I went there as a pastor, not a social worker. But in gathering a community of believers around Word and Sacrament, I visited people and got acquainted in the neighborhood. I ran into one emergency after another. The congregations tried to respond to the need. But the harder we worked on it, the further behind we got.
I remembered something my dad used to say to us as kids: “It’s better to build a fence at the top of a cliff than to have an ambulance at the bottom.”
The congregation got involved in conversations about hunger and what we could do. Bread for the World emerged as a way of building a fence.
We were doing direct assistance. Churches everywhere were involved in assisting people, either directly or through agencies like Lutheran World Relief. But virtually nothing was being done to challenge Christians to use the gift of their citizenship to be in touch with the nation’s decision makers on U.S. policies that have a huge impact on hungry people.
So I invited a group of seven Catholics and seven Protestants to struggle about how we could mobilize a politically nonpartisan, faith-based, citizen’s outcry against hunger. So 35 years ago Bread for the World was born from that.
How did you turn church ladies into public policy wonks?
We are still trying to do that, and Bread keeps growing. Bread for the World was launched nationally in 1974, at a time when we had famines in several regions of the world. A lot of people wanted to do something, and I think they sensed that Bread for the World offered them a way in which we might be able to get at some of the causes of hunger in a way that direct assistance can’t do. People in relative small numbers did begin to see the connection between what they can do as a citizen and making some headway against hunger. That’s the message I still carry today.
What is it in Lutheran theology that inspires Lutherans to be active on hunger issues?
I think you are being too generous with Lutherans. In fact, there is quite a tradition of quietism within Lutheranism. Now, this varies a lot from place to place and church to church.
I am a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We have much more of a reluctance to think in terms of advocacy as a genuine expression of Christian ministry than do some of the other denominations.
What opportunites and challenges does Bread for theWorld face?
Going back a couple years, we got introduced and passed a Global Poverty Act. It asked Congress to encourage the president to initiate a government-wide study of our global development policy, our whole stance toward hunger and poverty in the world. That never quite happened because other things bumped it off the screen — the economic collapse and related matters.
Just five weeks ago David Beckmann [Simon’s successor at Bread] got a call from the White House informing him that the president had just signed a directive to do exactly that. This study is being initiated and will be headed by the White House. It will involve Congress and all the agencies that have responsibility in global development, as well as private voluntary agencies like Bread for the World.
What’s the first step to getting involved?
Join us. You have got to do this work in concert with others. Bread for the World can do research and track what is happening on Capitol Hill.
To join, go to the Web site: www.bread.org.