Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Peace Forum and the Beginning of Second Semester

By Valerie Hurwitz

You may have noticed a quietness on the blog lately. First semester ended right after Thanksgiving and students and faculty were in and out for most of December and January. Second semester began this past Tuesday and life here is speeding up.

At Peace Forum on Thursday we had an Oxfam hunger banquet. Each person entering was randomly assigned to sit at a table, at a set of chairs in a circle, or on the floor. The distribution of people in the room, as you might guess, mirrors the distribution of wealth in this world. The people sitting at the table (15%) were served a full meal. The people in the chairs (35%) went to the back table to get rice and beans. Those on the floor (50%) were brought a huge pot of rice and given bowls.

A few comical notes: Pastoral Care professor Jim Higginbotham and I were seated at the table (upper income) with an Earlham student. It was quite lonely sitting at the table, and a little awkward. While the meal organizers were in the kitchen, we (rebels, apparently) snuck over to give our extra food to the people on the floor. As Peace Forum organizer Audrey said, “The problem with doing this in Brethren and Quaker circles is that people don’t know how to act rich.” We tried to offer our food to the middle income group, but they sarcastically told us they didn’t want our charity. Finally, as the low-income group was muttering about rebellion, the middle income group jokingly sent a few people and a pointy umbrella over to defend the last of the beans.

When the meal was over, organizers Audrey and Abbey shared a few observations:

• The low-income group served each other food, passing bowls around the circle.
• We (the high-income group) snuck our food over to the low-income group but then sat with the middle-income group (perhaps we felt more comfortable there?).
• We (the high-income group) ate before sharing the leftovers with others (that’s my observation).

The world produces enough food to feed every man, woman, and child. Starvation and malnutrition doesn’t need a complicated agricultural fix or new technology to raise crop yield. It is a simple matter of wasting less food and distributing it more fairly. (Take a look at this recent article about the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization research.)

This meal called to mind very strongly the meal ESR’s faculty had in Rwanda this summer, two hours off the main road from Gisenyi with a group of widows ESR alum Etienne was assisting. When mealtime came, we were invited up to a buffet of many different dishes. We each took a plate and food. Then, large platters of rice, beans, and cooked greens, were brought out for the women to share; perhaps 8-15 women per platter eating with their hands. It was difficult to sit there and be faced with the luxury we were afforded, even (or especially) in rural Rwanda.

Some questions for reflection:

1) Have you attended an OxFam Banquet? What were your observations?
2) How and where have you encounter poverty in the US?
3) How does a middle-class lifestyle in the US perpetuate an unequal distribution of food?
4) What actions might Americans take to lessen the uneven distribution?

Those of you who know me well know that I am obsessed with feeding people. I cooked in a co-op for four years and from scratch almost every single night. I cooked for a friend’s wedding in 2007 and for the Young Adult Friends Gathering in 2010. In 2008, my friend and I challenged each other to keep our food expenses for the month of January under $80. (I managed $72, and I had been out of the country for two weeks before that and so certainly wasn’t eating much from reserves . . . and yes, I did eat my veggies every day.)

Given that part of my personality, the last two questions above are very much on my mind. I eat primarily organic food as a political statement; I think the industrial food system and US food aid are morally bankrupt (that’s a much longer rant you can ask me about separately). Americans pay a smaller percentage of their income towards food than most other countries because of US subsidies, cheap labor, and because the food system can externalize its costs and push them onto governments or individuals. Organic certainly doesn’t answer all the issues. Additionally, many Americans are food-insecure now, with 1 in 7 on food stamps some people simply don’t have that option.

Where is God in all of this? I have been taking ESR’s online Intro to Old Testament and Literature and am noticing a lot of things in the first five books of the Bible that I hadn’t noticed before. God is quite clear about caring for the poor (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”) Later in Isaiah, God makes it clear that worship alone is not sufficient and that we must “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (1:16-17) The world we help create for those with less power and resources is directly relevant to how God sees us.

April Vanlonden, registrar for ESR and Bethany Seminary, gave a sermon in programmed worship Thursday, just before Peace Forum. She emphasized that spirituality could come from action, and that to become wrapped up in our inner reflection is to lose sight of the world around us. She encouraged ESR students and faculty to integrate an action-led spirituality into our lives. I pass her message along to you all as well.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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