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Faces of hunger and poverty

Posted: 10/14/05
Angela Jenkins screams, "Help us, please!" She was outside the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, a shelter of last resort for New Orleans residents who lacked the means to flee the city when Hurricane Katrina approached. (Photo by Brett Duke/NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE)

Faces of hunger and poverty

By Ken Camp

Managing Editor

Hurricane Katrina and the plight of people from New Orleans forced many Americans to focus on an often-ignored image--the faces of fellow citizens trapped by poverty.

But some Texas Baptists wonder whether awareness of poverty in the United States will spark long-lasting compassion and inspire activism among Christians or fade away when the next big story comes along.

"I'm not by nature negative, but my sense is that Americans historically have never responded to poverty issues, unless there's sensationalism as a motivating factor," said Jimmy Dorrell, director of the Mission Waco community ministry.

Velma Brosa, with her name on her arm, wipes her mouth after being fed a "meal-ready-to-eat" distributed by the military in a parking lot next to the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. (Photo by Alex Brandon/NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE)

"Granted, this has been more in-your-face, and that may force us to look at it differently. But it seems like it's almost in our DNA. We respond to the immediate crisis, but we don't think about systemic issues. We'd rather give, feel good about it, and then it's over. It's a quick-fix mindset that's hard to overcome."

Jim Young, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Missions Equipping Center, agreed.

"I fear we tend to respond to seen and felt needs, and when it's out of sight, it's out of mind," Young said. "We dispense compassion a piece at a time in response to obvious needs rather than looking at ways to address long-term needs."

In part, disregard for poor people arises because many American Christians seldom encounter them face-to-face, he noted.

"They blend into the background of our communities as we drive by, and they just become part of the landscape," Young said. "It's a theological problem when we look at the poor and don't see the image of God the way we should. When we look at the least of these, we should see Jesus."

But for those who became involved in ministry to evacuees, the experience "that made the people more than faces on TV" could have lasting impact, said Ginger Smith, executive director of the Baptist Mission Centers in Houston.

"The greatest challenge in communicating poverty in America is discovering a way to personalize it. When people move from a face to a person, they are able to understand situations better," she said.

"Many volunteers who went into the shelters had life-changing conversations with people that days earlier had only been faces on TV. We (in Houston) had 200,000 neighbors that had lived through a horrific experience and were suddenly at our doorstep in need. The multitudes presented opportunities that could not be ignored."

Christians quite rightly respond to needs of people hit by tsunamis and hurricanes, but many seldom consider the ongoing impact of poverty and hunger, said Joe Haag, who directs the BGCT Christian Life Commission's world hunger emphasis.

"Unlike the disasters which command media attention, hunger and poverty take their grim toll day-in and day-out, week after week, year after year--its victims largely out of sight and mind," Haag said.

Many of these victims live in Texas, and a significant number are children, he noted.

"One out of 10 children under 12 years of age in Texas is hungry. Nearly a third of Texas' children are hungry or at risk of hunger," he said. "These children miss meals, eat too little, have low-quality diets, or live in households which regularly seek emergency food assistance because they do not have the money to purchase the food they need."

No state has a higher percentage of families experiencing hunger and food insecurity than Texas, Haag added.

"Nearly one out of six Texans lives in poverty, and Texans in poverty constitute just under one-tenth of the nation's entire poverty population," he said.

Crowds formed long lines to enter the Louisiana Superdome as a last resort refuge when Hurricane Katrina approached. (Photo by Ted Jackson/ NEWHOUSE MEWS SERVICE)

Nationally, 10 percent of all households regularly experience hunger or the risk of hunger. That's 36 million Americans, including 13 million children, he noted.

"The child poverty rate in the United States is more than double that of any other industrialized nation," Haag said.

The Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger addresses immediate needs in Texas, the United States and in more than two dozen other countries by providing funds for established ministries that distribute food and provide essential services. But the offering also helps bring about lasting change by funding community development initiatives and job-training programs, he noted.

When a crisis occurs--such as the twin hurricanes that hit Louisiana, Mississippi and Southeast Texas--it places a special burden on community ministries that provide ongoing ministry to local people in need.

Houston's three Baptist Mission Centers merged two ministries into one site and turned its other center into a distribution point for local shelters.

"I had several reasons for not opening as a shelter, and one was that I couldn't imagine telling a community homeless man I knew by name that he couldn't stay in the shelter because it was only for people from Louisiana and Mississippi," Smith said. "I felt like that would be more damaging in the long run of our ministry to choose who we serve."

Baptist Mission Centers leaders and staff also did not want to "offer false hope in a time when many were left with such hopelessness," she added.

Each month, the three Baptist Mission Centers in Houston provide food to about 3,200 people, including more than 450 senior adults; distribute clothing to more than 1,500 people; and involve 750 children, preteens, teenagers and young adults in ongoing programs.

"We serve the impoverished, and their needs did not change through this disaster," Smith said. "Our initial commitment was to them and our community, which meant we had to maintain our ministry as it is."

Even minor changes to the ministry, such as combining programs from one center into another center a half-mile away, had a negative short-term impact, she noted.

"We have seen significant reductions in our kids' programs, as they have a hard time going a half-mile for kids' club. We went from 50 kids to as few as four," she said.

Apart from the physical demands, community ministry leaders also wonder about the economic impact recent natural disasters could have on donations to their programs.

"Among churches that opened their doors, housed people in their buildings and got to know them, it could have a long-term positive effect," Dorrell said. "But the jury's still out. It could go the other way."

Some potential donors may think they already have done their part for meeting human needs by giving to disaster relief, he noted. But many community ministries rely heavily on year-end gifts around Thanksgiving and Christmas to sustain them through lean months, he said. And weeks leading up to Thanksgiving have become the traditional time for emphasizing the Texas Baptist Offering for World Hunger.

CLC Director Phil Strickland hopes Texas Baptists will not just "take the money from one hand and give it to the other hand," but instead will give sacrificially both to disaster relief and world hunger offerings.

"I celebrate every dollar that has been given to these incredible needs. I also believe that Baptist hearts are larger than we think, that in responding to one need we will not forget the other needs," he said.

"Baptist hearts are tender to human needs right now. We have opened our pocketbooks, our institutions and our homes to those who need our help. Through our offering for world hunger, we can continue to show the world that we are a people who care deeply."

For now, nonprofit community ministries that provide day-to-day programs to help people in need are taking a wait-and-see attitude, Dorrell said.

"Maybe what's happened will raise awareness about poverty and need. Or maybe people will think they already have given and don't have any discretionary money left," he said. "We'll know the answer in a month or two."



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