I heard from my friend Wilson the other day. Wilson* was a student at St Philip’s Theological College in Maseno, Kenya, when we brothers began teaching there six years ago. He was a talented student with a charismatic personality, and I’m sure he’s become a fine priest. Currently he serves several small rural churches in western Kenya. Like so many of the students who pass through St Philip’s, Wilson’s dream is to further his education by earning a Bachelor’s degree in theology. In Kenya, as in many places in the world, advanced degrees open the door to better-paying jobs and a more secure future for one’s family. (*Note: Wilson is not his real name.)
Wilson is proud man who finds it hard to admit that he and his family are suffering. He supports his wife and young children on a priest’s salary of $75.00 a month – or $2.50 a day. Even that amount is not guaranteed and depends on the ability of his congregations to raise sufficient funds each month. On such a meager salary, he has been unable to re-pay the fees for his training at St Philip’s, which he must do in order to apply for further education. His school debt is $730, an astronomical amount given his salary. In addition to time-consuming work for the church, Wilson and many of his fellow priests are part-time farmers who raise the food their families will eat. In fact, Wilson and his family are among the poorest people in their village. He told me once that some of the villagers ask how he can be poor if he serves a powerful God.
There is a severe famine now affecting countries in eastern Africa, the worst famine in over 60 years. Food is scarce and very expensive – as is the seed needed to plant the crops. Nan Hardison, the principal at St Philip’s College, admits that the college is struggling to feed its students and faculty.
The drought has resulted in poor harvests and infectious-disease outbreaks that have spread hunger across eastern Africa. The people lack food, clean water, shelter, and health services. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia have been pouring into overcrowded refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Countless people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their possessions and their lives. Thousands of animals have died, often leaving families with no other source of sustenance. A famine is declared when there are “acute malnutrition rates among children in excess of 30%, and at least four child deaths per 10,000 per day.” The Executive Director of UNICEF UK, David Bull, reports that in southern Somalia “up to 55% of children in some areas suffer from malnutrition” and there are “at least six deaths per 10,000 children per day.” (Source: “Famine declared in Somalia as child malnutrition soars,” by Ed Thornton; published in Church Times, No. 7740, 22 July 2011.)
Meanwhile, closer to home, the front page Boston Globe this past Thursday informed us that “doctors at a major Boston hospital [the Boston Medical Center] report that they are seeing more hungry and dangerously thin young children in the emergency room than at any time in more than a decade of surveying families. Many families are unable to afford enough healthy food to feed their children,” [they report], and “the resulting chronic hunger threatens to leave scores of infants and toddlers with lasting learning and developmental problems.” The report goes on to say that “before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating. (Source: “A Rising Hunger Among Children,” by Kay Lazar; The Boston Globe, 28 July 2011.)
If we were to keep these facts in mind, how might it change the way we read this well-known gospel story from Matthew 14? The story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 has been understood, commented on and interpreted in dozens of ways over the past 2,000 years.
- Some have understood it as a miracle story, demonstrating the power of Jesus to generate enough food to feed “about five thousand men, besides women and children” from just five loaves of bread and two fish.
- Some have suggested that the miracle was in the sharing of food that people had brought with them, a sharing that was inspired by the offering of the few loaves and fish and in response to Jesus’ teaching.
- Some have suggested that the miracle has social implications, considering that Jesus may have fed as many as fifteen or twenty thousand people at this event – a tenth of the estimated population of Palestine at the time.* (*Source: “The Gospel According to Matthew,” by Benedict T. Viviano, OP, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p.658)
- Others have seen it as a sacramental event, prefiguring the Eucharist. Each person received only a very small portion of bread, they say, but it was enough to satisfy their hunger and bring contentment.
Whatever interpretation of the story we might be inclined to accept, the story has relevance for us today in the light of the world’s hunger. Its first lesson is this: that God is a God of compassion whose desire it is to see the hungry fed. Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Col.1:15), has compassion on the crowd; he is concerned that they be given something to eat at the end of this long day. God cares about the hungry, just as God cares about those who are poor, naked, or in prison (see Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 4:16-21). This is the mission of God in the world; a mission in which we are to play a part.
That much seems clear from Jesus’ response to his disciples. “YOU give them something to eat,” Jesus tells them when they suggest the crowd be dismissed to go find food. It must have been a shock to the disciples. Since when was it their responsibility to provide food for the multitudes who sometimes followed after Jesus? The suggestion might be just as shocking and disconcerting to us. Since when is it our responsibility to feed those starving in eastern Africa or in the poor neighborhoods of our own cities? “YOU give them something to eat” is one of those difficult sayings of Jesus that stretch and challenge us, and frankly, make us uncomfortable. WE are to be part of the solution; we are to act in concert with God’s desire and purpose to see that these people in crisis are fed and clothed and housed.
An impossible task. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” the disciples explain – our resources are woefully inadequate to meet the demand. “Bring them here to me,” Jesus says, and with our meager resources he works miracles. The problems that surround us will always be overwhelming, our resources will always be insufficient, but God tells us to offer them anyway. Do what you can do; give what you can give – even if it seems ridiculously insufficient.
Our founder, Fr. Benson, recognized that resources at our community’s disposal would always be insufficient for the opportunities and demands that would come to us. Our numbers would be too few; the needs too great. But instead of being discouraged by our apparent weakness, he encouraged the brothers to offer what they could with joy and hope, trusting God to work in and through their efforts. We do this, he insisted, because the work belongs to God, not us.
“No skill of (ours) can fashion any work, (Fr Benson wrote), so that God shall come and approve of it and finish it. (God) begins and (God) finishes the work; and so (God) begins every work in the greatest possible form of weakness. Therefore in all divine works, instead of being discouraged because things seem to be weak, we are to recognize this weakness as an almost necessary form of cooperation (with God). God delights to begin a work when (our) weakness is specially manifest, in order that it may be perfectly manifest that all the work is (God’s). God delights to show his favour just when (we) can do nothing else than feel (our) inadequacy” (from Religious Vocation, p. 89).
Recognizing that the task before us is impossibly huge gives us reason to trust in God, which is a good thing; but the size of the problem does not excuse us from taking any action. We know that we can’t involve ourselves in every problem, every situation in which there is need; but we can do something. Maybe that something is to take an interest in one person or one family or one project or one cause. Maybe it’s to write a letter, join a movement, send a gift or say a prayer. Maybe it’s to volunteer our time, share our resources, or simplify our own lives. It’s important to do something even though we find it difficult to imagine how our small contribution can have any impact at all on this immense and hopelessly complicated problem.
Leave that to God. Let God weave your efforts, your gifts, your prayers into what God is already doing for that person, in that situation, in that particular place of need, and trust that somehow you can make a difference.
Do something to make a difference in the world today, this week, this year. You can pick up a list of ways you can help address the crisis in East Africa at the back. Or help yourself to one of the pictures in the narthex; put it on your refrigerator or place it in your prayer corner. Let it remind you to live with gratitude, and to be generous with what you’ve been given, and not to turn away from the suffering and the poor just because they make you uncomfortable or because their plight overwhelms you. Send a donation, or search the Internet to see how you might get involved in addressing the problem of hunger in the world, or any other concern that tugs at your heart. Don’t let the size of the task discourage you. Do what you can.
And remember these words of Jesus: “YOU give them something to eat.”
FAMINE IN EAST AFRICA
With East Africa facing its worst drought in 60 years, affecting more than 11 million people, the United Nations has declared a famine in the region for the first time in a generation. Overcrowded refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are receiving some 3,000 new refugees every day, as families flee from famine-stricken and war-torn areas. The meager food and water that used to support millions in the Horn of Africa is disappearing rapidly, and families strong enough to flee for survival must travel up to a hundred miles, often on foot, hoping to make it to a refugee center, seeking food and aid. Many do not survive the trip. Officials warn that 800,000 children could die of malnutrition across the East African nations of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya. Aid agencies are frustrated by many crippling situations: the slow response of Western governments, local governments and terrorist groups blocking access, terrorist and bandit attacks, and anti-terrorism laws that restrict who the aid groups can deal with — not to mention the massive scale of the current crisis. Below are a few images from the past several weeks in East Africa. One immediate way to help is to text “FOOD” to UNICEF (864233) to donate $10, enough to feed a child for 10 days, more ways to help listed here. [38 photos]
– Alan Taylor, “In Focus,” The Atlantic, July 27, 2011
A rising hunger among children
BMC sees more who are dangerously thin and facing lasting problems
Doctors at a major Boston hospital report they are seeing more hungry and dangerously thin young children in the emergency room than at any time in more than a decade of surveying families.
Many families are unable to afford enough healthy food to feed their children, say the Boston Medical Center doctors. The resulting chronic hunger threatens to leave scores of infants and toddlers with lasting learning and developmental problems.
Before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating, said Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at BMC.
– Kay, Lazar, The Boston Globe, July 28, 2011
Famine in East Africa: How You Can Help, by Natalie Angley, CNN (July 27, 2011)
(CNN) — Twelve million people are facing a hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, and they are in desperate need of help. The United Nations declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, calling for a widespread international response to end the suffering. Thousands of Somalis have been fleeing the country each week in search of food, water and shelter — many of them walking for days in the sweltering sun toward refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Nearly half a million children are at risk of dying from malnutrition and disease. Relief organizations are calling on the international community to join together to end the crisis, and they’re working to gain entrance into areas with limited humanitarian access. There are ways you can help.
UNICEF is asking for $31.8 million over the next three months for relief efforts. The money will help provide therapeutic treatment for women and children with severe malnutrition, access to clean drinking water and vaccinations to prevent deadly diseases like measles and polio. “The earlier we act, the more children we can save. Americans are a generous people, and a little goes a long way — just $10 can feed a child for 10 days,” said Caryl Stern, president of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. To help UNICEF’s efforts, text “FOOD” to 864233 to donate $10 from the United States or visit the website. Follow this link to make a donation from other countries around the world.
International Medical Corps has teams on the ground in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya to provide food, water, hygiene, sanitation and mental health services to people in refugee camps. Visit the website to donate from various countries or text “AFRICA” to 80888 to donate $10 to the group’s drought relief response from the United States. It will show up on your next mobile phone bill.
In central Somalia, the International Rescue Committee is giving cash and other assistance to families whose livestock, pastures and farmland have been decimated and helping to repair boreholes and wells for those left behind. In overcrowded camps in Kenya, the group has helped establish reception centers for newcomers to receive food, health screenings and medical referrals. In Ethiopia, the organization is bringing in water and installing water-supply systems in three camps serving 82,000 refugees. Visit the website to make a donation from various countries.
The United Nations World Food Programme has plans to airlift high energy biscuits and highly nutritious supplementary foods for children and pregnant or nursing mothers into southern Somalia. Donations can be made from various countries online or via text. To donate $10 from the United States, text “AID” to 27722; to donate $5 from Canada, text “RELIEF” to 45678; to donate £3 from the United Kingdom text “AID” to 70303.
World Vision is working to regain safe humanitarian access in south central Somalia where millions of children are in urgent need of food and assistance. The organization continues to implement programs in Somaliland and affected areas in Puntland. For families fleeing the drought, World Vision is providing nutrition supplements to malnourished children and improving healthcare and sanitation. To donate to relief efforts from the United States, visit the website, call 1-888-56-CHILD or text “4AFRICA” to 20222 to donate $10.
Oxfam America is responding to the crisis by providing life-saving water, sanitation services, food and money. The organization aims to reach 3 million people, including 700,000 in Ethiopia, 1.3 million in Kenya, and 500,000 in Somalia. Visit their website to donate from various countries.
Staff members from Catholic Relief Services are visiting a refugee camp in Dadaab in eastern Kenya and in surrounding communities that are hosting refugees. Workers are on the ground determining the level of food, water and sanitation needs. In Ethiopia, the group is leading a Joint Emergency Operational Plan that is feeding more than 400,000 people. Visit their website to make a donation from around the world or call 1-800-736-3467 in the U.S.
Mercy Corps has teams in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya distributing food and water and expanding critical relief efforts. The group is currently on the ground helping more than 150,000 people in the region survive. Visit the website to make a donation from various countries.
ShelterBox, which provides tents and essential supplies to people who have been displaced after disasters, has a response team in Ethiopia and a second team on the way to Kenya. The teams will be working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and Rotarians to establish how they can be of assistance during the crisis. To help, visit the website to donate from various countries or text “SHELTER” to 20222 from the U.S. for a one-time $10 donation. Location and time specific donations cannot be accepted.
Save the Children has launched a major humanitarian response in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia feeding underweight children, providing life-saving medical treatment, and getting clean water to remote communities. Visit the website to donate from various countries or text “SURVIVE” to 20222 to donate $10 from the United States to Save the Children’s East Africa Drought and Food Crisis.
AmeriCares is preparing to send urgently needed medical aid to areas of East Africa. The organization will ship medicine and supplies to help medical teams serving refugees in Mogadishu. Visit the website to make a donation from various countries or call 1-800-486-HELP from the United States.
Doctors Without Borders is operating nine medical-nutritional programs in south-central Somalia. These programs, along with three projects in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, provide thousands of medical consultations each day. Teams are treating more than 10,000 severely malnourished children. Donations can be made online in the U.S. and by following this link in other countries.
Samaritan’s Purse is feeding 2,100 families in Wajir and Garissa counties, providing a supplemental nutrition program for 1,700 school children and supplying porridge and health care to 400 children under 5 years old in Garissa. The group is also drilling boreholes in the region to supply water in hard hit communities. Visit the website to make a donation from the United States and other countries.
The UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency distributed 2,500 emergency assistance packages to 15,000 people in southwest Mogadishu. Each package contains a tarpaulin, three blankets, a sleeping mat, two jerry cans, a kitchen set and utensils. The UNHCR plans to distribute 7,500 additional packages in the coming weeks. Visit the USA for UNHCR to make a donation from the United States or go to the UNHCR’s main website to donate from other countries.
CARE is reaching a million people affected by the food crisis in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia and working to provide emergency relief to another million. The organization is providing food, water and sanitation facilities in Ethiopia. In Somalia, CARE is rehabilitating water pans and shallow wells and operating cash-for-work programs. Visit the website to make a donation from various countries.
Relief International provides emergency services in conflict-affected areas in East African countries. The organization is on the ground providing food to hungry families and essential nutrition to malnourished children through feeding centers. Go online to donate to the Horn of Africa: 2011 Famine Response fund or call 1-800-573-3332 from the United States.
ChildFund International is helping to provide food, water and basic health services to victims in Kenya and Ethiopia. The organization is focusing on newborns and children up to 5 years old due to their vulnerability and the lifelong implications of inadequate food intake. To make a donation, visit the website, call 1-800-776-6767 or text “RESPOND” to 90999 and donate $10 to drought relief efforts from the United States.
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