Avoiding the Coffin Ships: A Church’s Need to Engage

Recently, I stood at the base of Crough Patrick, a pilgrimage site on the coast of Western Ireland. There, the National Famine Memorial commemorates the deaths of over 1 million Irish citizens and the famine that sent another 1 million immigrants to the United States between 1846 and 1849.  The memorial is a ghost ship or a three-masted coffin ship in swirling skeletons.  It is graphic reminder of the failure of a nation or an empire to feed its people.

Famine is something I have always cared about but seldom had the opportunity to engage.  It has always been too big or too distant to get my head and my heart around.  However, recently, a client of ours decided to make a response to the famine in the Horn of Africa and in Kenya.  I was asked to facilitate the planning and then help coordinate the plan’s implementation.  Because of our strategic approach, we don’t do these activities from the safety or security of our Washington office, much to the chagrin of many of our sponsors.  We get on the ground; we interview people; we talk to government officials; and we watch how systems respond or fail to respond.  We try to get a feel for the realities of a crisis and then formulate our plan.  This experience has put a human face to a big word – FAMINE.

Famine is not a shortage of food but the failure to adequately distribute food and to create acceptable market conditions for people to access food.  Economists and governments have begun classifying famines into three categories:  political, economic, and environmental.   Thomas Keneally, who gave us the book, The Shindler’s List, in his somewhat controversial work, Three Famines, said that in the famines he studied (Ireland, Bengal, and Ethiopia) the “mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than the initiating blights, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or the grain named teff.”

Our most recent example of this complex analysis is the famine that has emerged out of Somalia.  Originally political compounded by a severe drought and the loss of livestock, it has become an economic tool to keep Somalia divided.  The victims, unfortunately, are not the politicians or the hundreds of NGOs responding to the crisis, but the millions of people making their way across land bridges that promise some kind of safety and security.  Dadaab, in eastern Kenya has become the largest refugee camp in the world and the third largest city in Kenya.  These refugees are escaping a famine that is political and environmental.

Now the numbers:  1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty and about 950 million people are going to bed each night hungry.  Every day 16,000 children die from starvation – that is one every 5 seconds.  The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008 and the subsequent recession of 2010 has pushed an additional 100 to 150 million people in to poverty.  This reality has defined civilization over decades if not centuries.  In the 21st Century, excuses are obsolete.

As a person of faith, I struggle with what our response should be and how we should engage this burning issue.  Faith community responses usually find themselves at the end of the continuum of responses when dealing with global famine – we organize food distribution programs. While necessary, this activity has somehow absolved us of our responsibility in prevention. We need to be on the prevention side of the continuum and not chasing the problem with garden hoses  of food aid that feed a person for a day, a week, or a month if they are lucky.

To be sure, faith communities have often led in crisis response and sometimes have been the only groups to actually show up.  Global faith organizations such as Bread for the WorldWorld VisionWorld Relief, and Catholic Charities raise awareness and seek to influence policies within nations either causing the famine or they often become a resource for a solution to famine. Smaller faith communities such as Nazarene Compassionate Ministries cannot simply relegate the policy work to these global faith organizations.  Whatever the reason, either because they believe they lack expertise to engage in these conversations or are content to allow these organizations to represent us, the membership within the Church is more sophisticated about these issues than previously imagined.  While we don’t need to duplicate efforts, we stand to benefit by taking our own initiative and promoting action that prevents famine.  Local churches and compassionate ministry efforts in nations impacted by famine raise the flag of hope when we engage in these issues.  It shows leadership. We can engage on the policy level and we should be asking ourselves these questions:

  • How do governments distribute food during a crisis?
  • Do we support local commodity markets when supplying food and nutritional supports?
  • Do we promote sustainable agriculture and water projects?
  • Do we evaluate and measure impact when we commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to address famine?
  • Do we understand and then promote democracy and civic participation in the activities of government?  There has never been a famine in countries engaged in creating and supporting democratic institutions.
  • Given the global impact of famine and the reality that over 13 million people in the Horn of Africa and Kenya alone are involved in famine or drought, can we not organize a famine relief task force to explore ways to engage at the policy level while responding the urgency of the immediate crisis?

While I have been working largely in the context of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, this analysis applies to most congregational or denominational engagement throughout Christendom. It is vital that we show up to respond to the urgent need for food – however, our need to respond in these situations can be enhanced by showing up to affect policies that contribute to famine.

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