Back in 1993, as a Member of Congress, I went on a 22 day fast to protest the lack of conscience of the U.S. Congress towards poor and hungry people. Now, almost twenty years later, the stakes are even higher. That’s why on March 28, 2011 — almost one month ago — I stopped eating and started fasting, calling on friends and colleagues from across the country and around the world to join me.
This coming Easter Sunday I will stop fasting. The Hungerfast campaign is coming to an end, but the movement to ensure our leaders don’t balance the budgets on the backs of poor and hungry people is only getting started.
But before moving forward, I want to pause for a moment to look back one what we have accomplished together, and to express my gratitude for all the ways people have broken out of their normal routines — going above and beyond — in order to make the Hungerfast movement possible.
Hungerfast has brought together a large and diverse coalition of partners; Meals on Wheels and the ONE Campaign. World Vision and MoveOn.org. Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations breaking out of business as usual to call their constituencies to fasting, prayer and personal sacrifice.
With over 36,000 Americans, including 28 Members of Congress, committed to fasting, prayer and other forms of serious personal sacrifice, the HungerFast movement will have repercussions long into the future; it has not only set the stage for our ongoing budget debate, it has moved all of us into deeper levels of solidarity with those who Jesus called, “the least of these.”
When I think of the people who responded to and were represented by this movement, I think of people like Kim Daniels who wrote me to say: “Thank you for what you are doing. I am one of those people that are living on food stamps. I never thought I would be in this position. I worked 18 years as a nurse. But a failed marriage and a bad turn in my health and now I am where I am. I am left to feed myself and 2 children on 246 dollars a month. If it was not for the food banks and my parents garden I am not sure how we would make it.”
I think of the youth group in Tennessee, with dozens of teenagers who joined the fast for 30 hours to show their support. I think of my friend Congressman Jim McGovern who gave a speech about the fast on the U.S. House floor every day for the first week, calling on Congress to do the right thing for poor and hungry people. I think of the men and women at living at Christ House, a homeless group home in Washington, DC, who somehow pulled together $1,000 of their own money to personally support the cause.
Whenever you have this many people, from this many backgrounds, doing something together, especially unto God, it creates a powerful force — both spiritually and politically — that cannot be ignored. Some of these effects are visible; others are deeper and invisible, changing hearts and minds for decades to come.
Hungerfast didn’t focus on any one specific political ask. Instead, we sought to fundamentally alter the contours of the budget debate; we wanted to change the very nature of the political and spiritual environment within which the national debate took place. Our goal was to put a moral frame on the budget, and make the case that “budgets are moral documents.”
The national budget debate is often just about line-items and numbers; it needs to be about real people and the common good. Picking up my daily newspaper, I’ve seen more and more articles about how people are struggling and Op-eds calling attention to how the budget effects poor and hungry people. Questions of what to cut, and how deeply, have taken on a moral dimension, for both parties — referenced in dozens of national stories about the fast.
We softened the blow of proposed cuts in the FY11 budget; things were not as bad as they could have been, though there were serious losses as well. Internationally, Republicans had proposed cutting McGovern-Dole — a feeding program that benefits 15 million poor and hungry people — by 50%; in the end they only cut 17%. They barely touched Development Assistance Programs, PEPFAR, or the Global Health and Child Survival accounts — a decision that literally saved at least 70,000 lives.
Domestically, we didn’t fare as well, underscoring the importance of these debates moving forward. Programs benefitting poor kids and their mothers (WIC) saw $518 million in cuts, a 7% reduction. Grants for Hunger Free Communities — a cause near and dear to my heart — were eliminated. As a final blow, funding for the Congressional Hunger Center was completely stripped from the budget. This just isn’t right.
As bad as the cuts in the continuing resolution were, looking ahead to the 2012 Budget debate, Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposal — approved last Friday by ALL House Republicans save four — is even worse. This goes beyond responsible budget cutting; the proposal literally targets poor and hungry people, asking them to carry the burden of decades of fiscal irresponsibility in Washington. We can’t let this happen.
Personally, I respect Paul Ryan for putting serious deficit reduction back on the public agenda. That being said, the Republican proposal goes too far in slashing funding for vital programs that ensure millions of Americans don’t go hungry and that save lives around the world.
By voting for the Ryan budget, my colleagues have chosen to continue ignoring the voices of poor and hungry people. On Easter Sunday I will start eating again, but millions of people here in America and around the world will not have the same luxury; they will continue to go hungry.
On a personal note, this fast has also changed some things inside of me, or a least rekindled some things I have always believed but too often lose sight of. You cannot find success without suffering. When we suffer, especially for righteous reasons, it not only makes things happen in the world — it changes us. Fasting is a form of suffering; it breaks down our daily patterns and causes us to focus on problems bigger than ourselves. It sends a signal that this isn’t business as usual. It causes us to measure success differently.
In the end, I believe fasting is effective because moves us closer to the heart of God, resulting in a humble and quiet transformation of our own hearts that fundamentally changes the way we walk through life.
With gratitude for your participation this important movement,
Ambassador Tony P. Hall