U-C: What I See

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Joining Hands Against Hunger - the church in the age of globalization

Sisters and Brothers,

For those who haven't heard about our denomination’s wonderful work through Joining Hands Against Hunger (www.pcusa.org/hunger/jhah ), here is my brief synopsis on what I learned as I traveled with our partners in Peru and Bolivia at the end of October.

The fundamental purpose of Joining Hands Against Hunger is to get to the root causes of hunger and poverty. Many of us are familiar with the oft repeated adage that if you give someone a fish, she eats for a day, but if you teach that person to fish, she can eat for a lifetime. This program partners with those around the world who would embrace that statement, but whose experience of global economic trends and an increasingly endangered environment has pushed them to a far more penetrating analysis.

“If the water in which the fish swims is polluted, how will anyone be able to eat?” This question takes on real significance when asked by our partners in La Oroya, a mountain community in the high Andes of Peru where people are genuinely afraid to fish the once trout-rich rivers downstream from the mine (owned by a U.S. company called Doe Run) whose smelter smokestacks, fugitive emissions and waste and tailings makes their community look like a mining community of 100 years ago in the U.S.

“If we have no access to the river or lake because all of our natural resources have been privatized, how will we be able to feed our children?” The frightening specter of citizens unable to afford water to drink or cooking gas is all too real for our sisters and brothers across Latin America and the rest of the world who are watching as their most basic natural resources – what Dr. Vandana Shiva of India has called “our common good” – are being systematically sold to private interests. As we traveled over the last few weeks, many in Peru and Bolivia lifted up the selling of God’s creation as a matter that raised profoundly theological questions, as well as political ones.

“If we do manage to get access to the lake, how will we be able to compete in the new global economy to sell our fish?” Increasingly, folks who make their living on the land are forced to compete with the largest multinational food production and processing companies in the world, and they wonder how their communities will be able to survive. Small farmers and artisans and business people across the “two-thirds” world (that is, 2/3 of the world’s population who live on the underside of the global economy), are organizing in their opposition to a world economy in which it is impossible for them to feed their children, or to imagine a future of hope and possibility for their children as most of us imagine that future for our own children here in the first world.

These are the fundamental questions of faith that have driven the Presbyterian Hunger Program to develop Joining Hands Against Hunger. The participants in that project insist that they will not be satisfied with anything less than an energetic response to the underlying causes of hunger and poverty in the world. Here’s how it works.

Presbyterian Mission Co-Workers are assigned as “network facilitators” in eight countries around the world. In each of those countries, they support the creation of a network of church bodies and non-governmental organizations that are committed to getting to the root causes of poverty in their country.

In Peru, (Joining Hands Against Poverty) there are fourteen different church and nongovernmental organizations that make up the network. In Bolivia (Joining Hands for Life), there are eight. In each case, the network members work together to determine what their priorities will be and how they will join forces to respond to poverty in their country.

Joining Hands Against Hunger then seeds each network with small grants of roughly $20,000 to provide a fund to help staff the network and to provide start-up funds for joint efforts that the network agrees upon. More importantly, they help to develop Presbytery partners here in the United States to support the work of the networks. In the cases of the countries I visited this week, Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery from the St. Louis area has partnered with the Peruvian Network, and San Francisco and Newark Presbyteries have partnered with those who are doing the work in Bolivia.

The trick is, the Presbyteries are asked not to respond financially to specific needs or projects of the member organizations of the networks. The first goal is accompaniment – to walk with folks in their communities and to learn about their challenges. Simply put, the first task is to build deep, personal relationships that will undergird the work of the future. Members of the network are invited to share their stories in the U.S., and delegations are sent from the supportive Presbyteries to visit the communities that the network organizations are working in.

As a result, the folks are genuinely getting to the root causes of hunger and poverty in these countries, and our U.S. folks are making the connections about the ways in which the global economy connects us to communities around the world. For many of our partners, this is the first opportunity they’ve ever had to share their lives and their opinions with a U.S. citizen, and many of their presuppositions about who we are have been blown out of the water. Conversely, many participants from the U.S. are doing the hard and introspective work of analysis of the ways in which our material comfort and over-abundance is built on the shaky foundation of an increasingly desperate population in the rest of the world.

Together, with thoughtful facilitation by PC(USA) mission co-workers and staff, these partners are discovering that they can, indeed cross borders to make a real difference in poor communities around the world.

When people ask me if I am against the global economy, I generally respond that such an affirmation would be akin to suggesting that I am against air. Globalization is a fact of our lives, and there are many ways in which it can be harnessed to create good in the world. However, the testimony of our sisters and brothers around the world is that they are getting annihilated by globalization.

Put another way, there are powerful economic and political interests that would have us believe that it is possible to have a global economy without taking responsibility for the global community. That assertion is theologically bankrupt. Time after time, Jesus stood with the poorest and most marginalized in his community and listened to their stories. It has always been, and always will be, our job as Christ’s followers to stand with Jesus and to listen to those voices. Further, in an age when many U.S. citizens live in fear of terrorist action, our family around the world is trying to tell us that our over-consumption comes at their expense. As I spoke with some of those brothers and sisters over the last few weeks, it was clear to me that until we address that fundamental reality, our lack of security can only grow greater and greater.

Joining Hands Against Hunger is yet another example of “The Church being Church.” Our relationships of kinship in Jesus Christ are the building blocks for the security that we must rediscover in and through God. After a couple of weeks, I find it just a little easier to imagine what we could do if the church we’re to take seriously its mandate to live Christ’s values in the world.

In the next couple of entries, I’ll share more specific stories of Joining Hands work in Peru and Bolivia.