Mass starvation—does anyone give a *%^$?

A terrible food crisis looms in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Kenya and Nigeria

May 17, 2017 | Web First
John Longhurst | Special to Canadian Mennonite

“I have three things I’d like to say today,” said American author Tony Campolo to a crowd at the 1982 interdenominational Spring Harvest church conference in England.

“First, while you were sleeping last night, 45,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.

“Second, most of you don’t give a shit.

“Third, what’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 45,000 kids died last night.”

Campolo’s words—for which he became infamous—come back to me as I think about the terrible food crisis in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and parts of Kenya and Nigeria.

An estimated 20 million people face starvation in those countries, the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945 according to the UN.

And it’s not as if this came out of nowhere; the disaster has been forecast for many months. And yet, for the longest time, it seemed as though the world—to use Campolo’s words—didn’t give a shit.

Except for a bit of media coverage here and there, there was virtually nothing in about the situation in newspapers, radio or TV.

There are several reasons for this—it’s hard for the media to get into the worst-affected regions, and they don’t have the resources they used to. Then there’s the Trump effect; the new President, and his unpredictable ways, has sucked up much of the media oxygen.

Added to this is the general fatigue everyone feels over the extended Syria crisis; will it never end?

Two groups that are trying to break the silence are the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Council of Churches. The two groups have issued a call for a Global Day of Prayer to End Famine on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

Noting that “more people face famine today than any time in modern history,” the groups are calling on national and international church bodies and organizations to ask their members and supporters to pray for an end to the hunger, and to the conflict that is causing so much of the need.

“Churches have a prophetic role in calling to mobilize their members, the wider society, and governments, and making a difference during this unprecedented period of suffering,” they state, adding that “food is more than a human right; it is a divine gift that cannot be impeded.”

Since that is the Sunday of the May long weekend in Canada, it’s possibly the worst time for a day of prayer in this country—attendance at worship services will be lower than usual. But people can still pray at the cottage, the lake or the beach.

As of this writing, the only Mennonite bodies that have signed up to participate are the Mennonite Church of India and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

But what to pray? The Global Day of Prayer website has some resources, as do Canadian Foodgrains Bank and MCC. 

By praying, we can give an answer to Campolo—we do care that 20 million people are at risk of starvation. And the fact that so many are in danger of dying matters more than someone using the word “shit” in a sermon or a column.

As Campolo said back then in his now-infamous sermon in England: “The Christ of scripture is not so much concerned with the four letter words we use as he is with those who are dying and in need.”

To that, all I can say is: “Amen.”

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

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Thanks, John. Words matter whether they are off-colour used by a modern-day prophet like Campolo or grace-filled ones by others. This story is a powerful tool to raise awareness of a pressing need all Christians, especially us more affluent ones in the West, need to address.

Does anyone care? The short answer is that Mennonites do care, and care a great deal. And that's good. And it's also a huge problem. Canadian Foodgrains Bank, MCC and MEDA, not to mention our schools, have become remarkably adept at making a case for support, and our church has responded. Then these same successful agencies have targeted major donors: "We get results, we solve problems, we are lean and effective!" And so resources have flowed to these agencies, but they in turn no longer feed back to our congregations in a way that also renews numerically our congregations. Put crassly, these agencies take but do not give back. They are so focused on the deaconing work of relief they do not see and engage with the whole mission of the whole Church.

The result is that the ministry of gospelizing those who might be open to faith withers for lack of talented leadership and funding, because it is hard to show results in the stony ground called Canada. In 1982, "Does anyone give a %&*( ?" might have been the right question. Not today. Today, the question among our successful Mennonite agencies: "Will you develop programs through your organization that strengthen congregations even as you call upon us to care for the brokenness of this world?" Will you work with the global Mennonite communion and not ignore them even as you seek support in NA?

Does CFGB, or MCC, or MEDA give a &*(% about congregations in NA? What will you do to put water in that well?

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