We arrived in the mountain village of Nicaragua with a truck load of food aid for the small village recently decimated by flooding. We began the process of handing out food to desperate families and, as typical, the line was filled with women and children.
Except for one man; a farmer with head bowed and floppy straw hat covering his eyes.
As he moved forward to receive his share, he glanced up at me and I recognized him as Santiago, a farmer who had showed me a few months earlier how to plow behind a team of oxen.
The look of shame in his eyes forever changed my life. This man, just like the rest of men, women and children, were the hardest working people I knew. I could not keep up with any of them on my best day.
Until I caught the look in his eye, I was feeling pretty smug about rushing in as a hero with life-giving aid. Suddenly, I realized what an arrogant **** I was. Santiago was born in a land of war, strife and poverty. I was born in the land of plenty. We might be created equal, but that doesn’t mean we have equal opportunity. I was born with a massive head start. It’s what Warren Buffet calls, “The Ovarian Lottery.” We don’t chose where we’re born, what color our skin is, or what gender we are.
At that moment, I made the restoration of human dignity my mission for life. At that moment, I began to hate charity because charity only feels good to the person who has it to give; the person who needs it is humiliated. Hunger first steals a person’s worth. The ability to take care of yourself is an important part of your self-esteem.
I’ve been engaged in the fight against hunger for twenty years. The idea that 65,000 people will die today because of hunger-related issues is a matter of injustice that drives me at the core of my being.
My Dad used to say, “Life ain’t fair, but it’s our job to make it that way.”
Along the way, I have, at times, been crippled by the enormity of the problem. Upon returning from a refugee camp near the Somalia border where 1,500 starving refugees fleeing death by war and hunger, arrived at the camp, I began slipping into depression.
One day, my wife came home from her job and called attention to the fact that each day my depression worsened. Then she made this comment: “At work, when we run into a problem, we put it in context and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not trying to solve global hunger.’ It’s no wonder you’re depressed; that’s what you wake up to every morning.
I thought about that for a few days and I came to this conclusion: “I cannot fight global hunger by myself; but I can do everything I can to engage as many people in the fight as I can.”
That’s why I do meal-packaging events. Although the primary goal is to fight hunger, another goal I have in each event whether it is 10,000 volunteers or 10, is to engage people practically in a common goal of fighting hunger. In the last ten years, I have had the sacred privilege of uniting around a packaging line, hundreds of thousands of people from every race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status.
I do meal-packaging events because it creates a community of people engaged in a practical activity around a common goal; the injustice of hunger.
If you gave me the choice between spending an afternoon with a group of people packaging meals or being the keynote speaker to a large crowd, I’ll choose a packaging event every time. Every. Time. I’d much rather do something practical and get others to help me than to spend time talking about. I’ve sat through too many settings where people talk about the problem but do nothing practical to address it.
Any problem we face must be addressed in the context of community and that community needs something positive and practical to rally around.
In that same refugee camp near Somalia, I learned this phrase:
“Today it’s me; tomorrow it’s you.”
They shared what little they had today with the person who had none, knowing that tomorrow, they might not have any and would need others to share with them.
Their community was based on survival. Ours, in America, is based on convenience.
They knew they needed each other to survive through the week; I might go months without talking to my neighbor.
We base our community on convenience and comfort.
They based theirs on survival and sharing.
For me, the best definition of community is this:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Paul, the Apostle
As the founders of The Outreach Program, Floyd and Kathy Hammer, often say:
“Together, we make a difference.”