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A Journey Up River

A Summary of HNGR's Seventh Annual HNGR Symposium: "When Did I See You Hungry? Advocacy, Hunger and Faithful Citizenship

Christians shouldn't just be pulling people out of the river. We should be going upstream to find out who's pushing them in.
Desmond Tutu

From the beginning of Arloa Sutter’s ministry to the Chicago homeless community, it’s been about feeding the hungry. Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, she moved to Chicago and was taken aback by the homeless on the streets asking for leftovers people carried out of restaurants. She opened a small storefront in downtown Chicago and organized people to bring sandwiches and soups and Crock Pot meals to make available to the needy. Now, years later, Arloa is Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Garfield Park, where they provide an impressive list of services to their poor urban community, including a fresh market food pantry that accepts food stamps.

But feeding the hungry doesn't just mean meeting immediate needs. At our 2012 HNGR Symposium, “When Did I See You Hungry? Advocacy, Hunger, and Faithful Citizenship” Arloa said, “I’m on a journey to find out if Breakthrough is really helping people. We collected food to make Thanksgiving baskets for many families in Garfield Park, and as I watched them walk away with the baskets, I wondered whether or not we were actually solving their problems.” Several other panelists shared this humble sentiment—how do we feed the hungry well? 

“I’m on a journey ‘up the river’, to find the source of the problems for hungry people in my neighborhood,” Arloa said, referencing Desmond Tutu’s famous quotation.

This year’s HNGR Symposium highlighted the importance of advocacy and civic engagement for people of faith to fight poverty and hunger.  That is a mission Bread for the World is very familiar with as a "collective Christian voice urging our nations decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad." Bread for the World’s President, David Beckmann, brought our chapel and plenary messages. 

Through Bread for the World and the Bread for the World Institute, he has lobbied Congress for many years on issues of hunger and poverty,  especially to protect programs like SNAP and WIC in America and continue US foreign aid abroad. Beckmann believes strongly that people of faith can “change the politics of hunger.”

Our first panel set the foundations for a discussion of advocacy among people of faith. “People of faith in America are holding civic life together, but not advocating for structural change,” they discussed, citing Robert Putnam’s (author of Bowling Alone) new book, American Grace. 

Why aren’t Christians pushing for change? Gary Burge, professor of Bible Theology at Wheaton said that most Christian advocates have had some sort of “conversion experience” that urged them to confront injustice. For him, it was an experience with Palestinian students in Israel that moved him to be involved in conversations about . For those wanting to get involved with advocacy, he set the foundation for our Christian imperative, “Ask yourself, ‘What is God’s project in this world?’ This is the starting point. This question has been answered in a very individual, personalized way in the Evangelical world. But there is a corporate way to answer that—God restoring humanity and the world together. Does God envision a group of individuals or a new social reality (the Kingdom)?"

The rest of the three symposium panels set to refine our ideas of what this might look like for those trekking “up river.”

On our second panel, “Facing the Facts: The Power of Research to Combat Poverty and Hunger,” Todd Post, Senior Editor of the Hunger Report at the Bread for the World Institute, said there is a big need to interpret vast amounts of information on hunger and poverty for the public. “Christian academics have an imperative to be public researchers,” Professor of Politics and International Relations Larycia Hawkins added, “They need to take information and make it readily digestible for the church…and useable for Christ’s Kingdom.”

The final two Symposium panels dealt with issues of hunger around the world, examining questions about local and global food security, trade, access, and production. These panels discussed broad issues of food production and distribution—“The rich buy land to produce fuel, in order to reduce the price of gas--for  the most part a luxury. The poor use land to farm it and reduce the price of food, which is a necessity,” said Todd Post—but also challenged us to know hunger on a more local level. “When is the last time you shared a meal with a poor person? Someone who really didn't know where their next meal is coming from? This is where we meet Jesus,” Arloa Sutter exhorted.

In the forward of David Beckmann’s latest book, Exodus from Hunger, Desmond Tutu writes about the crucial role the church plays in confronting injustice--what Arloa and other Symposium participants are doing in their own contexts. “For most of my life, many people thought that racial oppression was an immutable fact of life in South Africa. As a pastor, I encouraged people who believed in God to get active in pushing for change. In the end, God blessed us with transition to a more just society.”  The HNGR Program thanks our many speakers and guests who participated in this year’s HNGR Symposium, enabling our faith communities to “look up river” to break cycles of hunger, poverty, and injustice at their source. 

by Christy Schweigert, HNGR Research and Program Assistant