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A united act of compassion

An estimated 14 million people die annually from hunger-related causes.
What can we do to make a difference?

By John W. Kennedy

The Assemblies of God has effectively integrated ministry to physical needs with meeting spiritual needs.

A child cries because she hasn’t eaten in days. Her mother weeps because no milk or crumbs are available to feed her. Their plight is hopeless. The child will succumb to disease and then death.

Each year this scene is repeated millions of times around the world. But through a united act of compassion known as Assemblies of God World Hunger Day, families like these are receiving physical help and spiritual hope — and life. Their lives are being saved, and many are coming to Christ.

Unlike many other relief organizations, the Assemblies of God not only feeds people but presents the gospel and endeavors to connect them with a local congregation that can provide ongoing care and discipleship. Many organizations work diligently to feed hungry people, but aren’t necessarily concerned about their souls and where they will spend eternity.

The Assemblies of God has effectively integrated ministry to physical needs with meeting spiritual needs. And the Fellowship has demonstrated through World Hunger Day offerings, for example, that much more can be accomplished when congregations across the country combine their resources and work together.

The challenge
One billion people suffer from chronic hunger. It claims more lives than the natural disasters often associated with starvation. The World Health Organization reports that 49 percent of deaths of children under age 5 are related to a lack of food, up from 39 percent last year. In all, 14 million people, half of them children, die annually from diseases associated with malnutrition and starvation.

While hunger has been stemmed in some parts of the world, migration patterns have caused additional problems. Poverty-stricken rural dwellers, for example, have moved to many urban centers — Cairo, Manila, Calcutta, Mexico City — looking for work. Typically they build shanties that are unsanitary. Mexico City’s population is swelling by 600,000 a year. Although the rate of world population growth is slowing, hunger is increasing because of migration, war, drought and flooding.

"Christians should care because Christ cares without respecting persons," says Don Tucker, director of Africa’s Children. "We are His hands. We are commissioned to care. We can’t turn our eyes away from human suffering."

The general problem of hunger is not going away, particularly in the developing world, according to JoAnn Butrin, director of HealthCare Ministries, the worldwide medical arm of Assemblies of God Foreign Missions.

Hunger is a component in more than half of the deaths of the world’s children. Those who survive may be left physically and mentally impaired or perpetually subject to illness.

"When children are lacking vitamins and nutrients in their diets," says Butrin, "even though they may not appear emaciated and severely undernourished, it can have a tremendous effect on their mental and physical growth."

The hunger crisis is complex, says Butrin. Lack of food leads to poor health. Poor health necessitates increased income for health care, which further drains family resources. "The cycle is poverty, malnutrition, infection and disease," Butrin says. Malnutrition makes people more prone to illness. Ill health causes loss of productivity. If people are sick, they can’t work; therefore, they don’t obtain better-paying jobs.

But, according to experts, the solution is not found in merely redistributing food, taking from the fat and giving to the thin. Many of the countries where people are suffering are rich in natural resources, but there is no distribution mechanism to get food to the people. Farming techniques may be antiquated and land is under-producing.

These problems are only compounded in times of natural disaster or man-made tragedy. Hurricanes, flooding and drought can leave a country, already teetering on the edge of survival, devastated for a lifetime. And, inevitably, war leads to more hunger. Farmland is left fallow. Refugees flee. Money intended for food production is spent on weapons.

"You’re not going to break poverty by passing out sandwiches every day," says Ken Dahlager, director of Latin America ChildCare. "That’s not going to change lifestyles." Thus, LACC efforts at educating children five hours a day for six years under the influence of a Christian teacher go a long way in breaking the cycle of hunger.

Also in this issue on hunger:

Jesus loves hungry children by Dave Roever

Conversation with Randy Hurst on Hunger and Evangelism

Frontline report on Convoy of Hope outreach in Detroit, Michigan

Enabling women to grow their own food or develop their own businesses has merit, Butrin says, because often the husband has died or deserted the family. "Women are often the main providers of the family," she says. But about half of the childbearing-age women in the developing world don’t get the caloric requirements to maintain mental and physical health.

Although the Fellowship deals with vital physical needs first, feeding the hungry has spiritual implications, too. When people are introduced to a hope in Jesus, there is a new motivation in their lives.

It may not always be easy talking about Christ to people who are starving, but meeting immediate physical needs is itself a demonstration of the love of Jesus, Butrin says. "Often in the most dire circumstances I have been amazed at people in their vulnerability who are eager to hear about God," she says. Butrin remembers being surprised last year by the response of Kosovar refugees. "Instead of being met with an angry rebuttal, I found a softening of their expressions and requests for prayer," she says. "With tragedy comes an awakening and a seeking after spiritual help."

A vital network
On occasion, food sent by governments and relief agencies has found its way into the wrong hands, especially in cases of civil war where one faction will feed their soldiers or resell the food for money to buy weapons. Sometimes food rots and is never delivered. But that is less of a problem when there is a worldwide family of fraternal Assemblies of God fellowships of more than 35 million people.

One of the advantages in meeting human needs the Assemblies of God has is its vast church infrastructure. The worldwide Fellowship has a network of more than 150,000 local congregations in 163 countries. If assistance can be given through national churches, there is a much higher probability that food will reach people who need it.

Because missionaries are already on location, they can arrange for food to be provided more quickly and effectively than most relief agencies that come on the scenes long after urgent physical needs have passed.

Overseas disasters provide opportunities for Christians in the United States to support fellow believers in a crisis and to reach out to the lost with compassion.

This year, for example, relief has been given to flood victims in Belize, India, Mozambique, Venezuela and Vietnam, as well as those displaced by civil unrest in Indonesia and Fiji.

Tucker says other relief organizations often choose to work through local Assemblies of God churches because of the extensive grassroots network and reputation for integrity and accountability. "There is no network in the world that surpasses that of our local churches," he says.

Helping children

Africa’s Children buys and ships food and water purification units to crisis areas.

A disproportionate number of the hungry are children, and the Assemblies of God focuses on them through World ChildCare programs — Save Europe’s Children, Asia’s Little Ones, Africa’s Children, Eurasia’s Future, Latin America ChildCare and Children of Brazil Outreach. If children don’t develop correctly during their formative years, it will affect them for a lifetime — should they survive into adulthood.

Christians rarely think of Europe when the topic of world hunger arises. Yet Sandra Mundis, coordinator of Save Europe’s Children, notes there are hunger-related problems throughout the continent. In Romania there are hungry street kids; in Serbia, Albania and Macedonia there are hungry refugees; even in affluent Paris and Amsterdam, teen-age runaways, both girls and boys, become prostitutes because they are trying to find enough money to feed themselves. All over Europe Gypsy children dine from garbage heaps. This year Save Europe’s Children is sponsoring a project to provide food and clothing for many of these children.

In Latin America, LACC director Dahlager says the agency is providing a daily meal for 20,000 students who are attending Assemblies of God schools. "In many cases, it’s the only meal the kids get each day," he says. Pupils bring their own plate, spoon and glass for the meal, provided at 300 schools in 21 countries. In addition, students are taught in classes about nutrition, hygiene and diseases. In most schools, parents attend monthly sessions on the same topics and learn about preparing meals.

Africa’s Children buys and ships food and water purification units to crisis areas. This year’s priorities have included floods in Mozambique, which left 640 dead and 450,000 homeless, as well as civil war in Sierra Leone, where more than 5,400 children have been kidnapped and forced to fight.

The current focus of Africa’s Children is the Horn of Africa, where the agency expects to partner with Convoy of Hope. The U.N. estimates that 8 million people in Ethiopia are at risk of starvation because of the three-year drought.

HealthCare Ministries has a program called Community Health Evangelism in developing countries such as Zambia, where need for producing food is combined in a microenterprise that enables a family to survive. Missionary Terry Dwelle, who supervises the Community Health Evangelism programs in several African countries, says the priority is to make sure a family is sustainable. Families learn how to increase food production fivefold in some cases by using compost, digging more effectively and preparing the soil differently.

Dwelle believes that family disintegration is a large reason for hunger’s increasing in Africa. Fathers have been killed in war or abandoned families in an effort to find work, sometimes forcing children to live on the streets begging for food.

"The compounding problems are almost insurmountable, especially with the AIDS pandemic, which is worse than anywhere else in the world," Tucker says.

Still, Africa has only 26 percent of the world’s malnourished children. An amazing 72 percent of the world’s malnourished children live in Asia, for reasons that include a plethora of natural disasters, civil unrest and polluted water.

Asia’s Little Ones is active in 11 countries, including the Philippines. Asia’s Little Ones is feeding 2,000 children a day in 100 locations on 13 Philippine islands, according to coordinator Nathan Turney. All feeding stations are connected to local churches. In addition, 15 full-time nurses help train parents to make nutritional meals. Turney notes that sometimes malnutrition is caused not from a lack of food but because staples such as rice are prepared in a way that nutrients are lost.

Mongolia this year has endured a severe drought and market reforms that have left one-third of the nation living below the poverty line. Each month the Fellowship provides food packets to 150 street kids as young as 4 years old in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.

By some estimates, 3 million people have starved to death in North Korea since 1995. Five consecutive years of chronic food shortages from floods and drought have resulted in people digging up roots, sifting through cow dung and eating tree bark. Asia’s Little Ones sent a $50,000 grain shipment to North Korea in July, where 70 percent of children under age 5 are in jeopardy of dying from malnutrition or starvation.

The Assemblies of God also has been active in aiding refugees in Indonesia, where thousands of Christians have lost their land and have no way to plant food. A year ago, 200,000 refugees fled violence and persecution in East Timor. Camps have been further strained with an influx of refugees from Ambon this year.

The Fellowship participates in feeding programs in Calcutta in conjunction with Mission of Mercy. In India, industrial trade schools have been established to teach people how to support themselves.

Jerry Parsley, Eurasia regional director, notes that hundreds of widows, orphans and pensioners on fixed income are being fed at churches throughout the former Soviet Union each week. Because of an unsettled economy, Parsley says sometimes pension payments due to retirees are months behind schedule.

A Feed My Sheep project in rural Central Asia is an innovative way to help the hungry. Missionary Herman Kuhn bought small flocks for families, not for meals but rather a livelihood. Families can either breed the sheep to provide income or annually sell the wool for clothing, carpeting and bedding, Kuhn says. Once established, families that have been helped originally will give away sheep to more needy families so that the program can be self-perpetuating.

Hunger in America
In the United States, few people are literally starving to death. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 27 million people — including almost 11 million children — don’t have enough food.

Mike Ennis, Convoy of Hope executive vice president, says, "When people are hungry and their stomachs are hurting, it doesn’t matter what part of the globe they’re on. Many of those coming off welfare here in the States don’t have skills to get a living wage job. There’s a great opportunity for the church to come in as the government has backed out and fill those voids, not only with distribution but also with job and skills training."

Ninety percent of those that Convoy of Hope helps in this country are working poor families rather than unemployed homeless.

"Many of them have two or even three jobs," Ennis says. "But when you’re making minimum wage, even if you’re doing it twice, it’s not enough to even care for a family of four."

Convoy’s goal is to break the cycle of poverty that many have grown accustomed to. Government programs and social services, for the most part, do not restore hope, Ennis says, and even a grocery giveaway is merely a temporary help. "True change comes only when a person can be assimilated into the network of local churches — a spiritual family," he says. "Through that process they can be empowered to move to another level."

As a result of Convoy of Hope outreaches, ministries have sprung up around the world. "Churches are being encouraged to do food pantries and soup kitchens," Ennis says. "Those things don’t necessarily change a person, but they do provide a connection to the church. The church gets involved; the church demonstrates that it cares, that it has compassion; then people respond to the church and the love of Jesus. The church becomes relevant in their community."

The USDA reports that restaurants, retailers and farmers throw away nearly 100 billion pounds of edible food each year. That is some of the food Convoy of Hope collects with its fleet of 18-wheelers and distributes with Bibles across America and around the world. About 12 million pounds of food has been distributed, helping 1.2 million people.

"Today is the greatest opportunity the church has to make a difference in hunger, not only in America but around the world," Ennis says. "The need has never been greater. Thankfully, more churches every day are stepping to the plate and doing their part. This is not time to throw up our hands and give up. It’s time to ask God what we can do to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of hungry people."

When you give an offering through Assemblies of God ministries to World Hunger Day, you are providing more than just a meal. You are providing the Bread of Life so men, women and children can have eternal life.

John W. Kennedy is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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