Sorry about the little delay in posting, but like so many others lately I have been – if you’ll pardon the ubiquitous pun – a little “pre-occupied”.
In this pre-“occupation” I am seemingly in good – and teaming – company. Whether one counts themselves among the under-employed, debt-ridden and under-insured members of the 99% of the “Occupy the–Fill-in-the Blank Movement”, the over-worked and over-taxed 53%, the 18th Century Costume Wearing over-regulated Tea Party Movement, or even the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace at the Vatican in Rome; it seems that just about every-body lately is pre-occupied thinking and talking and complaining about the dismal state of the global financial system. While there is no unanimity amongst those complaining about the state of the world’s finances on how to best fix what is wrong, there definitely seems to be a consensus that things are seriously awry and that we need corrective action – sooner as opposed to later.
I actually went down a number of weeks ago with a friend to visit Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and see for myself the goings on at the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement’s (or OWS) ground zero as it were. I had been reading a lot about the protests for several weeks from various sources, and I wanted to see for myself exactly what was going on that was sparking so much interest across the globe. What I witnessed there was a collection of people – from various walks of life and different age groups – who felt significant alienation from the direction that their society was taking, as well as a certain inability to control the powerful forces that were shaping society in what they felt to be very detrimental ways. To a certain extent, these “Occupiers” – although politically far removed from the conservative Tea Party Movement – were united with that other movement in a spirit of disenfranchisement: feeling that the world is changing in fundamental ways that are beyond the abilities of ordinary people – the 99% if you will – to control. This is certainly a feeling that I in my more despairing moments could commiserate with, and because of this feeling I – for one – was not surprised when the “Occupy Movement” sprouted legs and wings and spread to over 900 cities across the globe.
I will blog more about OWS and the events in Zuccotti Park in future posts, but for now I’d actually like to tell you a bit about another place in lower Manhattan – one of my favorite spots in the city actually, and a place only about 4 or 5 blocks west of where OSW is located – on the banks of the Hudson River in a small park located in Battery Park City. It is there that you will find New York City’s memorial to the great Irish famine that occurred from 1845 to 1852 – which began with a blighted potato crop and was exacerbated by a confluence of political inaction that increased an already desperate situation. Fully one-third of the people living in Ireland at that time – one half million – died of starvation, and another third – of whom I am a living descendant – emigrated in a great diaspora out to any ports that would welcome them all over the world. The memorial itself is beautiful: a rugged half-acre of cantilevered landscape thickly planted with native Irish flora and plants growing in fallow fields, along with the remains of an authentic, famine era Irish cottage; beneath is a stratified base of glass and fossilized Irish limestone that creates a space where accounts of historical and contemporary sentiments about hunger world-wide are etched in the glass and broadcast from an audio installation overhead. All in all, this space does what memorials at their best are supposed to do: it raises public awareness about an event that happened long ago that led to the Irish Famine of 1845-52, while encouraging its viewers to address the causes of current and future hunger world-wide.
Hunger has been in my thoughts a lot lately, primarily because for the past week I – along with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan and several of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – have been participating in “The Food Stamp Challenge”, an annual campaign sponsored by the “Fight Poverty with Faith” Mobilization – of which Catholic Charities USA is a partnering organization – which ran between October 27th to November 6th; the goal of the Food Stamp Challenge is to encourage participants to live for one week on the average national benefit given to those who are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which roughly translates to approximately $31.50 per week, or $4.50 a day. Let me tell you – that’s not a lot of money…especially here in New York City, and its not easy to restrict your shopping budget for a week to what many of us might pay for a single meal in a restaurant. Being on such a restricted budget certainly presented it’s challenges, but armed with a shopping list and a calculator, I set out to the supermarket to plan out my meals for the week returning with staples that consisted mostly of oatmeal (store variety), brown rice, frozen vegetables and on sale chunk light tuna (in water of course!) These were the mainstays of my diet & accept for a Saturday night treat of a 10-piece McNugget (no fries or soda); I pretty much stayed to the challenge, winding up with just under $5.00 by weeks end. During the challenge – while I have to admit that I was not REALY every truly “pangs in the stomach” hungry – what I can tell you is that the cuisine I was eating left me definitely uninspired. While oatmeal (made with water and no milk), dry canned tuna, brown rice and frozen chopped carrots, beans, corn and peas might be healthy, they are not the tastiest things to eat on a daily basis. In fact, to give myself a little flavor, I used to use packets of soy sauce I had saved from Chinese take-out and add it to the brown rice and vegetables – that definitely gave it a flavor, with all that sodium, I shudder to consider what my blood pressure must be now!
All in all though, I am glad that I have taken the challenge, and I certainly do not want to complain: it seems to me that there is something unseemly about complaining about a situation that you voluntarily take on in order to attempt to understand the reality that others live but have little choice about. In fact, the past week’s experiences reminded me a little of the time that I spent in Africa last September, when we were staying in some of the guest houses with larger groups of people back in Tanzania. Often, the dinner meals that were served were put out at one time to feed all who were staying there, and we would all line up cafeteria style to serve ourselves from whatever was being prepared. I almost always found myself at the end of the line, and sometimes when I got to the front, whatever the meat that was being served was gone, and all that was left was white rice and sauerkraut (not a favorite), which I would combine on my plate and eat because I was hungry. Then – as with last week – I found after eating such a meal that I definitely was not hungry, but also not fully satisfied either; and yet – then as now – I did not complain about my meal because having been in Ethiopia in the days before – to witness first-hand the tremendous work that Catholic Relief Services does to provide food assistance to that drought ravaged region in the Horn of Africa – it would have been not only unseemly but obscene to do so.
The Food Stamp Challenge this year comes at a time of great challenge to our financially-strapped nation and its historic moral commitment to feed the hungry at home and abroad. As many of you are aware – in an effort to address the burgeoning budget crisis here at home, the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is working on producing a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars; the day that this deficit reduction plan is due is – ironically – the day before Thanksgiving. Many anti-hunger advocates are concerned that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food stamp assistance to those struggling to put a meal on the table might be a target for massive funding cuts. In addition, another area that appears to be ripe for budget cutters is slashing financing for the State Department and its related agencies – this at a time of desperate humanitarian crises across the world; life saving, poverty-focused international assistance that fights hunger, disease and poverty makes up less then 1% of the U.S. Federal Budget, and yet the Unites States Senate is currently looking to drastically cut this funding. Sadly, it seems clear that reducing the federal deficit by 1% will not balance the federal budget; in fact, the one thing that such action seems certain to do – at a time that 12 million people in East Africa are facing malnutrition and starvation – is cost lives.
Through my work, I have been blessed to witness how such U.S. government assistance helps Catholic Relief Services and other similar agencies quite literally save live overseas, and how back home similar assistance helps Catholic Charities ensure that the families of those trying to make ends meet don’t have to literally skip meals as they struggle to pay their bills from month to month. In a recently published book “Three Famines: Starvation and Politics” about three of the greatest famines in history: the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, the Bengal famine in India in 1943-44, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s & 80s, author Thomas Keneally writes persuasively about how politics helps to turn a crop failure into a famine. As Keneally notes, famine is caused less by a failure to produce food then it is by a failure to distribute food correctly – mostly because those in power feel they are not accountable to the starving. Unfortunately today, the hungry do not have a large and vocal constituency: and that’s where we come in!
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are both now currently advocating with both houses of Congress and the Administration to ensure that needed hunger-related assistance – both international and domestic – is not compromised in the current deficit reduction debate; to add your voice to these efforts please press the links here and follow the related instructions; in this way you can help to ensure that the words of the Lord in the Gospel are made manifest when he said to “give the people something to eat”. After all, for Christians feeding the hungry is not some peripheral “nice thing” that we should do if we’ve got the time – its literally part of our “final exam” that Jesus told us about on the Sermon on the Mount, along with clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and caring for the ill. Since we already know what we are to be graded on, there is really no excuse for us to get this one wrong. In fact, no less an authority then the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Food Day back on October16th went so far as to say that “liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life, which – despite its having been solemnly proclaimed – is often very far from being fulfilled effectively.” Its up to us to remedy this situation – to ensure that what has been solemnly proclaimed is fulfilled effectively…….While the rest of the world’s attention is focused on the 99% fighting the alleged evils of the top 1%, with the 53% somewhere in the middle, lets be sure that our attention is focused on the 15% who live here below the poverty level – and the much larger percentage of our brothers and sisters who do across our world.