December 2013

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This holiday season's box office hit is "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." In the movie, the corrupt leaders in the Capitol of the nation, Panem, have punished people in the 12 national districts for years with forced labor, food insecurity, and – the most ghoulish of them all –"The Hunger Games," an annually staged and televised fight to the death among 24 teenage "tributes." The victor is rewarded with money, a luxurious home, and an abundant food ration for life.

Indifference to the Poor Spans the Ages

Although our living standards have not reached the depths depicted in the "The Hunger Games," their leaders' indifference to hunger and poverty bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that displayed by some of our current national and state leaders. These leaders forget they are part of an interdependent community, and so they celebrate an arrogant individualism over a humble collectivism. They have forgotten that government exists to protect all of its citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Mostly, though, too many of our leaders treat hunger and poverty as a game. Cuts are proposed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as "food stamps") under the guise of fiscal responsibility, even while large farm subsidy programs – many benefitting multinational agribusinesses – are preserved. Cuts to regular and extended unemployment benefits are made based on naive claims these benefits are so generous workers deliberately put off searching and applying for jobs.

Leaders voting for these cuts, and many of their supporters, sometimes like to cite the Bible for their actions and beliefs – "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10b, New Revised Standard Version) Certainly, the apostle Paul does not condone laziness. Yet I wonder – do people citing this verse realize Paul was directing his comments NOT to the rank-and-file, but to their leaders? Paul chided them for failing to be good leaders – for acting as though their leadership positions exempted them from working to serve the common good.

How Should Leaders Act?

How would Paul prefer these leaders to act? He spells this out clearly in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thes 2:1-12), where Paul describes how he, Silvanus, and Timothy earned their keep when they visited. "You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God" (1 Thes 2:9, NRSV).

If anyone had a right to pull rank, it was Paul – yet, he did not. Paul worked hard, side by side with both the leaders and the followers. He modeled how a "servant leader" should lead – by example rather than position, enthusiasm rather than fear, influence rather than mandate, and compassion rather than indifference.Read more of Todd's articles on Leadership

Many of us will soon celebrate the birth of a great servant leader, Jesus. Jesus constantly taught to, lived among, and cared for "the least of these" – the hungry and impoverished. He knew the religious and civil leaders of his day had forfeited their responsibilities to this group, and Jesus called them out for it. Unfortunately, these leaders did not like being challenged, so they silenced Jesus by putting him to death.

How Will You Give This Holiday Season?>

During this holiday season, we will see groups of all sorts helping "the least of these." Many will be collecting canned goods for charitable organizations such as Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM). These food donations immediately help the working poor in our community, many of whom head single parent families struggling to get by on a near-minimum-wage paycheck.

In past years, GUM provided food assistance to about 50 families each day. In the summer of 2013, this number skyrocketed to, and remains at, around 125 families daily. Mike Aiken, Executive Director of GUM, attributes this increase to:

  • The still-weak economy in our community,
  • Glitches in the food stamp system at the state level in both the summers of 2012 and 2013,
  • The ending of food stamp program expansions made during the Great Recession,
  • The failure to renew extended unemployment benefits, and
  • Sequester-driven program cuts affecting the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Impact of Federal Funding on Hunger

Here's an amazing statistic from Bread for the World. For every 1 bag of groceries distributed through charity, the federal government's various nutrition programs provide 23 bags! This means our taxes provide about 96% of all food assistance. Even a small change to federal nutrition programs needs to be offset by a large change in charitable support – for example, a 2% federal decrease requires a 50% charitable increase, just to stay even.

As you can see, contributions to charities such as GUM are especially important when federal programs are being reduced, as they are now. At GUM, no sooner are food donations received and sorted than they are picked, bagged, and given to people in need.

Get Involved!

How can you help – not just during the holiday season, but all year long?

  • Understand the roles both charities and government play in food assistance.
  • Make regular food donations to organizations such as GUM through your work, school, faith community, or civic group. Consider volunteering to organize a food drive through one of these groups.
  • Ensure your elected representatives know you support budgets that include food assistance and promote food security.

Read more on homelessness and what you can do

Hunger is NOT a game! While a fictional hunger exists in a popular movie, real hunger and food insecurity are facts of life for far too many in our community. If Jesus were here today, he would step up, speak out, and offer help. Since he's not, the question is – who will? You, perhaps?

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Todd L. Herman