In an unprecedented gathering, more than 1,000 people of various religious affiliations joined leaders of more than 40 faith communities for an interfaith convocation at Washington National Cathedral June 6 united in a common conviction that no one should go hungry.
Hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., the event formed part of the One Table, Many Voices conference, a mobilization organized by two advocacy groups, Bread for the World and Call to Renewal, to highlight issues of domestic and international hunger and to call on President Bush and the United States Congress to commit to eradicating poverty worldwide.
Addressing the "Hunger No More" convocation, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town spoke passionately about how "the plight of the hungry must not be left for heaven."
Bishop John Chane of Washington welcomed the gathering to the cathedral, insisting that "we are living in a new generation that will no longer know the poverty that destroys millions of God's people."
Introduced by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, Ndungane explained that 852 million people face hunger every day and that, even in a wealthy nation such as the United States, there are 36 million people who are "food insecure," almost 13 million of whom are children.
"Hunger in the U.S. has been on the rise for the last four years," Ndungane reported. "Yet with such need, proposals in the current budget debate to cut [federal government nutrition] programs and deprive hundreds of thousands of working families of food support, cannot be justified, and must be opposed," he added, to a wave of applause.
Ndungane described personal encounters of poverty and hardship from his homeland, South Africa, stressing that people would rather be given opportunities than hand-outs. "I have seen the face of poverty in the eyes of far too many men, women, children, the elderly, people with disability," he said. "Their message was 'Archbishop, take our voices to the corridors of power, and say for us, "We do not want hand-outs; we have brains; we have hands; give us the capacity to eke out our own existence.'"
Speaking about 2005 as a "kairos" moment -- a Greek term denoting special turning points or opportunities -- Ndungane explained that with the run-up to the G-8 Summit in July and the UN Millennium meeting in September, "there is everything to play for" and a real opportunity to make a difference. "Now is the kairos moment when we start making hunger history," he said. "Now is the decisive point to which we will look back when we reach our goal of 'hunger no more.'"
Drawing on different cultures and traditions, the convocation featured a feast of readings and musical offerings that included a Zulu freedom song, gospel choir performances, a hymn from South Africa’s Xhosa tribe and texts from Sikh, Hebrew, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist sacred writings.
A call to commitment came from several children, who asked international leaders to make the world a better place, posing the question: "What will you do to make a difference?"
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, described the convocation as an "unprecedented event" in the nation's history. "This convocation is of God -- bigger than any one of us," he said. "God has made it possible in our time to reduce hunger and we need to get the job done."
Beckmann joined Ndungane and the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), at a news conference earlier in the day, during which Ndungane also described the event as a historic and unique occasion -- "a time when faith leaders are able to unite, regardless of their differences, to issue a clarion call to the world."
Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst in the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations (OGR), moderated a June 5 workshop on the G-8 Summit and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an eight-prong declaration that seeks to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015.
Baumgarten explained that all aspects of poverty are intertwined and that disease and conflict, for example, increase the inhibition of economic growth.
"The goals seek to focus both on traditional development concerns like institutions and governance, but also on the structural barriers that prevent development, like barriers to trade or the burden of debt repayments by impoverished countries," Baumgarten said. "Developing nations spend a large proportion of their annual budgets paying back debt to wealthy international creditors, impeding their ability to deal with issues like poverty, disease, and education."
With 10 years left in the MDGs' lifespan, Baumgarten said, "It's a make or break moment. If we are going to meet these goals, a significant increase in resources from industrialized nations is needed."
According to statistics, there are 54 countries in the world that are poorer now than they were in 1990, Baumgarten explained. "Even with commitment to MDGs we are still dramatically behind," he said.
After three days of workshops and plenary sessions that covered all aspects of hunger, poverty and related issues, the "One Table, Many Voices" conference, held June 4-7 at the American University in Washington, D.C., culminated on National Hunger Awareness Day, June 7, with a rally on Capitol Hill.
Maureen Shea, director of the Office of Government Relations -- which hosted pre-conference workshops June 4 on current legislation, the anti-hunger work of the Episcopal Church at the local level, and grassroots organizing -- described the conference as an important call to action to fight hunger both at home and abroad. "We know there is enough food to feed all the world's people," she said. "This conference is about sustaining the political will to see that all are fed."
The ONE campaign, another effort by Americans to fight extreme poverty as well as the global AIDS pandemic, has produced a video that invites viewers to visit www.one.org to learn more about the crisis and what they can do to make a difference. The ONE video features an all-star cast including Presiding Bishop Griswold, Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Al Pacino, Penelope Cruz, Benicio del Toro, Alfred Woodard, Rita Wilson and George Clooney.
[Further information about the One Table, Many Voices conference is available at www.onetableconference.org. For further information about the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations: www.episcopalchurch.org/eppn.]