Hunger Banquet 2014

BYU Hunger Banquet 2014, Co-hosted by The Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU (source: http://tinyurl.com/lfz42t3)

BYU Hunger Banquet 2014, Co-hosted by The Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU (source: http://tinyurl.com/lfz42t3)

BYU’s 24th annual Hunger Banquet yesterday was a perfect way to welcome in Fast Sunday and as a prelude to the upcoming season of Lent beginning this week. The Hunger Banquet was a wonderful success, as it has been in past years, and I would like to express my thanks to the students from various initiatives across campus and the Kennedy Center for their work in continuing this important experience for the community. Fasting today on the food I received as someone assigned to the “developing world” in last night’s events has directed my mind to the less fortunate even more starkly than on a normal Fast Sunday.

My two oldest daughters, 10 and 12, accompanied me to last night’s Hunger Banquet. This was their first time. Before we entered the ballroom in the Wilkinson Center for the meal itself, we spent 30 minutes visiting the various booths of NGOs and other non-profits set up outside, learning about the important work that so many organizations are doing around the world in helping to lift brothers and sisters trapped in poverty and improve their lives. I enjoyed chatting with the people at the booth for the Liahona Children’s Foundation. At the Mothers Without Borders booth, one zealous volunteer asked my 12 year old daughter if she wanted to head out to Zambia this summer to help out! It is wonderful to see the energy of the BYU Students and their non-profit partners as they tackle these issues.

As we entered the ballroom for the Hunger Banquet itself, we received our random assignment (they treated the three of us as a group) for the evening. Consistent with probability, we ended up in the 70% of people allocated to the “developing world” who would have to sit on a blanket on the floor and eat simple fare compared to those who were assigned to the “middle class” who sat on chairs around the edges of the ballroom and ate more expensive food, or to those assigned to the “upper class” who sat at finely set tables at the front of the ballroom, conspicuously eating a multiple course meal served by waiters and waitresses.

A group of seven high school girls was put together with me and my daughters so that we formed a larger group for purposes of receiving our allocation of food. Then we were coupled with another group of about 10, and a woman from our combined groups was given the responsibility of being the “water carrier” for our two groups. She had to go to a separate location in the ballroom and grab a gallon of water for each group. When the tray with rice, black beans, and tortillas arrived (a much more lavish spread than I’ve received as part of the “developing world” at past Hunger Banquets, usually consisting of simply rice and perhaps a piece of bread), everyone in our group started to dig in. (We were hungry after listening to announcements and watching the “upper class” people being served their salads and then their main course.)

As my daughters and the seven high school girls grouped with us started to grab for the tortillas, I quickly noticed that we had received only nine tortillas though there were ten of us in our group. We had also received only nine water cups for use with the gallon of water. I surreptitiously went without so that each of my daughters and the seven others with us could each have a tortilla with the black beans and rice on the tray. This seemed realistic and appropriate for the activity, though I do not think it was necessarily planned this way because I don’t think they counted out each group that precisely.

Having resolved myself to go without, I was very touched when, in the spirit of the event, my 10 year old daughter noticed I hadn’t grabbed anything and tore off a third of her tortilla filled with rice and beans and gave it to me! This really invited some pondering about the ties that bind within families and that can sustain us regardless of material circumstances. I realized that my relationship to her was more valuable than what I own or even than my capacity to acquire things to own. It also reminded me of the myriad threats, dangers, and risks that would be a part of her everyday life if she really had been born in the developing world.

As I reflected on this during the keynote speaker’s talk (about the hundreds of millions of women in India dealing with anemia), my heart broke for the billions of people who face such threats, dangers, and risks on a daily basis. At the same time, I almost subconsciously offered a silent prayer of gratitude in that breaking heart that my specific ten year old had come to our family and that for whatever inexplicable reason our family had been so lucky to be the beneficiary of the strong institutions, robust political philosophies including the heritage of the European Enlightenment, and vibrant democratic society (with the corresponding robust and reliable rule of law) that we enjoy in the United States and in developed Western European countries. The disparity between the security and plenty that we enjoy and the plight of hunger and poverty faced by a majority of people around the world came into very stark relief. And all of this was accompanied by the chilling realization that there, but for the grace of God, go we all in our societies that we smugly consider superior to “them” because of our current circumstances. And in recent decades, as income inequality has increased dramatically between the richest and poorest segments of society, with the accompanying shrinking of the middle class at the same time that the richest have profited from the conditions that have contributed to the demise of the relatively egalitarian American dream, it seems we have indeed moved closer to such circumstances ourselves.

My mind turned to The Book of Mormon, a book that describes itself as, and which we collectively understand to be, written specifically for our use in these “latter days” of Biblical prophecy. This guidebook “for our day” describes the downfall of several civilizations that were also rooted in strong Judeo-Christian values, benefiting from strong, traditional political and religious institutions. (In my mind, however, there is little if any practical comparison between the hereditary political judgeships existing in The Book of Mormon after Mosiah’s reforms — or the monarchies preceding them — and our republican or parliamentary political institutions in Western developed countries in the Modern Era aside from the general shared Judeo-Christian background that arguably contributed to the development of our institutions as well.)

One of the central themes of The Book of Mormon, after the centrality of the message of Christ’s universally applicable Atonement and our need — the need of the “natural man” — for his saving grace, is how such disregard for the poor, such failure of equality and equitable dealing, all in contradiction of the Gospel’s message, self-destructed the societies described in the book. From the very foundation of his society, Nephi appropriated Isaiah to teach his people that they should not oppress or “grind the faces of the poor” (2 Ne. 13:15). As the various societies depicted in The Book of Mormon begin to prosper, they immediately begin to ignore this injunction, dividing into pronounced classes distinguished by all the evil hallmarks of class or caste societies. For example, approaching one such cataclysmic, societal destruction, “they began again to prosper and to wax great . . . and there was great order in the land; and they had formed their laws according to equity and justice” (3 Ne. 6:4), but they then “began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Ne. 6:12).

The lack of access to or opportunity for education accelerated the growing income inequality and other class disparities as “there became a great inequality in all the land” by which their society was defined (3 Ne. 6:14). The “iniquity” plaguing their society — in a cautionary tale specifically meant for our warning in the “latter days” — was in their prosperity “puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world” (3 Ne. 6:15). In fostering this “great inequality in all the land”, in thus grinding the faces of the poor contrary to the Lord’s injunction through Nephi’s repurposing of Isaiah, the people of this society “did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore they did wilfully rebel against God” (3 Ne. 6:18). Ultimately, this evil class system, the vast and wicked income inequality, and the resulting iniquitous lack of opportunity for education and thus calcification of the castes, led to rampant corruption among the political elites (the hereditary judges) who entered into “secret combinations” or, rather, conspiracies, to assassinate the governor/chief judge and undermine the political and religious institutions that could still stand in the way of their continued pursuit of power and wealth (3 Ne. 6:25-29). The end result of this state of affairs — this widespread political corruption, power seeking and influence peddling, assassination, income inequality, and suppression of voices raised in opposition to these societal evils (see 3 Ne. 6:20) — was the entire collapse of civil society into tribes along ethnic lines, each vying only for its own success and protection, a hellish scenario of corruption, intimidation, oppression, and violence not unlike the situation on the ground in many places in the developing world today (3 Ne. 7:1-7).

* * *

Oxfam, a reliable, established internatinal aid organization (source: http://www.oxfam.org/en)

Oxfam, a reliable, established internatinal aid organization (source: http://www.oxfam.org/en)

Nearly a decade ago I was serving as Young Men’s President in my ward in an area with a high concentration of Latter-day Saints. These issues weighed on my mind as heavily then as now (and this was before the collapse of a number of key economies worldwide in 2008 and the ensuing “Great Recession”), and I proposed an Oxfam Hunger Banquet as an outreach activity for our ward’s youth — perhaps an activity that could have involved the youth and members of the whole stake working together with the youth and members of other churches in the area. (See the Hunger Banquet Memo I prepared for my bishop at the time, explaining the activity and the benefits I hoped it would provide members and non-members in our area alike.) Unfortunately, the idea did not gain any traction in my ward’s leadership at the time and we did not stage our own community Hunger Banquet. Despite this disappointment, I have returned again and again to the idea and last night’s experiences and reflections have renewed my interest in this activity. I might very well be proposing this again soon in my current ward/stake — how wonderful would 2014 be if all of you did too!

Comments

  1. Nice, John. What a great shared-experience with your daughters, too. I imagine something like this being foundational to a building world-view in a young person. I love the idea, and I love that BYU does this- I’d never heard of it before. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I had the privilege to attend a couple of these back when I was in Provo. Always a great experience. Much if not all of the food was donated, and the proceeds went to a deserving project in a developing country. The students who put this on put a lot of work into it and do a great service for not only a developing country but also for the BYU community.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you for these thoughts, John.

  4. This sounds like a wonderful event. I wish I’d known about it. Lately I’ve started to feel like I’ve been living in a bubble for most of my life, but I so appreciate posts like this that are helping me see more of the world around me.

    Inspired by Mark’s recent post, I volunteered at a local soup kitchen last night for the first time. I didn’t know where to park and ended up parking two blocks away by a homeless shelter and then walking to the soup kitchen. I’ve seen homeless individuals before, of course, but usually just one or two in a given location. However, last night I passed at least 150 homeless people in those two blocks – including children and disabled people. I don’t think I’d ever consciously realized how many, many people lack adequate food and shelter.

    I helped serve around four or five hundred meals, and a number of the people expressed their heartfelt gratitude for the food, which was so humbling to me. I left feeling a little overwhelmed and confused by how blessed my own life is in comparison. I don’t know why I was so fortunate as to be born into my particular circumstances, but as I drove away, I had the exact thought expressed in the OP: there, but for the grace of God, go I. The experience makes me feel both more grateful for what I have and more committed to helping lift others. So I’ll be going back, to help out in my own small way. But thank you for posts like this. In case you wondered, they do make a difference.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Great stuff here, John. I’ll be sure to take my family next year. How deeply this activity resonates with the major Book of Mormon messages you shared! This post is indeed a marvelous kick-off for Lent.

  6. John, you’re a great human being. Thanks for sharing this message with us.

  7. I would love to propose something like this in my ward. I kind of have already, but I don’t think I’ve given my fellow ward members the vision yet. What did your proposal look like? How did it raise funds? My understanding is that ward activities shouldn’t involve fundraising. I would love to hear your thoughts on how best to sell this idea.

  8. john f. says:

    Dave, the actual memo I prepared for the bishop is linked in the final paragraph. Feel free to make any use of it that you’d like.

  9. We did one for Enrichment last year. Not everyone loved it, which made it even more interesting, really (the number of women who refused to sit on the floor because of pregnancies/back issues was astounding). I recommend it!

  10. Lots of things to think about in this post. Thanks, John.

    ESO, so what you’re saying is that you took a Relief Society activity meant to draw attention to the circumstances of the poor and needy and meant to help the women in your ward examine their judgments of others, and then used that activity to judge the women in your ward based on their first-world circumstance of not being trained to sit on the floor as adults?

    My, how curious and complicated humans are.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, John. (But there’s a defect with your memo to the bishop. I didn’t see the part where the plane crashes and the kids are ushered into separate rooms representing the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms.)

  12. Great thoughts, John. As an international development professional I feel compelled to point out that the reality in the developing world is that the working father would almost never be the one to go without when there isn’t enough to go around. The youngest child would almost certainly be the one to be suffer, leading to outcomes like high infant mortality, stunting, cognitive delays and more. Just another sad reality to consider.

  13. Thanks Erika. Do you think that’s the same in practicing Christian or religious families?

  14. This is great. I’m curious, though, as to how you respond to fellow LDS who claim that we shouldn’t give money to the poor, we should simply “teach them to fish”; that the poor often bring it upon themselves; etc. Back when I was in college, I used to try to talk a lot about poverty and related issues at church, but I gave up, because inevitably such discussions were met with the usual right-wing anti-poor rhetoric. I don’t see that things have changed much among church membership politically, so do you have a strategy for trying to help people understand the issues? (I’ve pulled out all the usual BofM quotations on socioeconomic inequality and the like, but in my experience they are usually brushed aside.)

  15. J1, that is difficult. I think that all anyone can do is hold fast to scriptural principles that obligate each person claiming to be a disciple of Christ to care for the poor (Matt. 25), to give to the beggar with no strings attached (Mosiah 4), etc.

    I think you are right to point out it is a politically influenced position to claim that those suffering in poverty have brought it on themselves, and it is unfortunate to the extent that we have allowed it to invade our religious rhetoric, perspective, or teachings. I have sensed a sort of “Wasatch Front translation” of basic Christian teachings unfortunately emerging that has the characteristics you describe.

    To use your example of the culturally dominant imperative to “teach him to fish”, the “Wasatch Front translation” of Matthew 7:9-11 would probably read like this:

    9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

    10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

    11 If ye give them bread or a fish then ye are evil. Say instead, let me teach you to fish. Then you will know how to give good gifts unto your children that are policy approved by Heritage and CATO (not to mention the Sutherland Institute and Eagle Forum), and how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Yea, verily, even God will say, I will not give you in your hour of need but will teach you how to get for yourselves based on the eternal principles of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’

    As to the loathing of the poor, or blaming them for their plight (in contradiction of King Benjamin’s teachings in Mosiah 4:16-25), this is something that is culturally ingrained in us and will take a lot of work to overcome. I wrote some preliminary reflections on this issue in a recent comment on Mark Brown’s “Two Dinners” post: http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/02/24/two-dinners/#comment-324150.

    Thanks for opening discussion about this aspect of the problem in our current culture.

  16. Also, J1, note that the tongue-in-cheek “Wasatch Front translation” of the verses above focuses on the problem of bringing those think tanks’ and partisan lobbying groups’ policy mandates into the scriptural text and thus applying them as though required by the Gospel (when in some cases, such as the concerns you highlighted, they are actually contrary to the Gospel, at least as articulated by Christ or King Benjamin). I think there is nothing wrong with people embracing certain political preferences and policy principles congruent with those preferences, including policy positions articulated by such partisan think tanks and lobbying groups, as long as an awareness is retained that those are separate and apart from religious doctrine or teachings.

    The problem I am seeing is the conflation of the two. The policy positions put forward by such entities, because they are consistent with an individual’s particular political preferences, are presented as equivalent to and required by Gospel teachings. They are sometimes presented AS Gospel teachings. And this is where we stumble and, incidentally, create a major if not massive and insurmountable (though unnecessary) stumbling block for others who might be looking for just what the Restored Gospel can offer when stripped of this baggage and presented in the plain way taught by the Savior in Matthew 7 and 25 (and elsewhere) and by King Benjamin in Mosiah 4:16-25 and elsewhere throughout The Book of Mormon. As noted in the original post, I believe The Book of Mormon to be a book of scripture dedicated to bringing people to Christ and warning us in the “latter days” of what can lead to the dissolution of our civil societies through the “case studies” of the collapsed civilizations depicted in the book — societies who self-destructed through massive income inequality, grinding the faces of the poor, lack of access to or opportunity for education, thus further calcifying class divisions and preventing people from rising from poverty, and ultimately the breakdown of central government and the devolution of society into tribes, each violently pursuing their own self-interest rather than seeking the interest of the broader community first, in contravention of the idea of establishing Zion (see, e.g., D&C 82:19).

  17. This is very heartfelt. It is sparking many thoughts about ways toward more meaningful incorporation of service and outreach in my own life and in that of my congregation. Thank you.

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