"If the churches did what they should do, there would not be so many problems for the poor."
Interview by Crystal Kirgis
Feeding The Hungry, A Priority For Congressman Hall
Twenty-six members of South Korea's parliament signed a letter nominating Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. The letter cited Hall's efforts to "address issues of hunger, human rights and peace," especially in North Korea. Hall, a follower of Jesus Christ, has made the needs of the impoverished and hungry his priority while in office. He spoke recently with Hal Donaldson,
Q: When did you become a believer in Jesus Christ?
HALL: About 21 years ago, and I had been in Congress about a year.
Q: What were the circumstances?
HALL: About one to two years before that, I had heard Charles Colson talk at a prayer breakfast in Dayton, Ohio. I was a state senator at the time and went because it would be a very good place to be seen. I was very surprised by what he said. There was great sincerity there. About a year later I was elected to Congress. For a year I would get up every Sunday morning and go to a different church. My wife thought something was wrong with this. "What are you doing?" she'd ask. "I'm kind of searching for God but I don't know where to go," I'd say. A young freshman congressman befriended me and helped lead me to the Lord.
Q: What birthed your passion to help the poor?
HALL: It probably started in the Peace Corps. I was in Thailand for two years in the late '60s. When you're in the Peace Corps you have to live pretty much like the people do. You begin to get the feel of what these people go through on a daily basis. As a result of that experience, when I came to Congress I was drawn to the issue of poverty. At first, I didn't have the slightest idea what to do about it. Then I became a believer. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, a good friend, mentored me for about three years. He said to me one day, "Do you think it's time you start to bring God into the workplace?" I agreed, but didn't know how. I was uneasy in those days with people who spoke about God, especially elected officials. I felt many used it for all the wrong reasons. But as I began to read the Scriptures they started to come alive in me. There are at least a couple thousand verses that deal with the poor. In 1989, after the death of Congressman Mickey Leland, I took over as chairman of the Select Committee on Hunger. We passed lots of budgets that year: food aid, child survival activities, immunizing children, development of systems ? and paved the way for laws today.
Q: You encountered some challenges.
HALL: Yes. Some in Congress felt that, at a time of high deficits, they needed to start paring back, which was great in principle. But some actions were only symbolic. The first thing they did was cut the Hunger Committee. I said this was crazy; my budget was only $600,000. I was mad. So I felt I should fast. I went on a water-only fast for 22 days.
Q: Did you ever think your political career might be over?
HALL: My staff thought this was the end of my career. But I was going to fast until something major happened. A whole lot started to happen. Students at thousands of high schools around the country started to fast with me, and at a couple of hundred universities. Newspapers began to take notice. A nonprofit agency called The Congressional Hunger Center was formed. They have a national conference on hunger based around the fast. Billions of dollars over the years have been raised to fight hunger. It was a fast unto the Lord to break the chains of injustice. I was so amazed by it.
Q: Would you ever do it again?
HALL: I'd like to do it again. I've fasted on a couple of occasions but not for that length of time. Fasting has to be about the Lord first.
Q: Some people realize there are hunger problems around the world, but don't recognize the problem in the United States. Talk about hunger here and abroad.
HALL: For somewhere between 22 and 25 million people in America, hunger is a way of life. They're not starving to death, like in North Korea, but they are hungry. A lot of people on fixed incomes like senior citizens and the working poor. By the time they pay their utility costs, rent and gasoline, they are out of money with three or four days left in the month. They end up going to food banks and soup kitchens. These are, for the most part, innocent, hard-working people. They are not on welfare. They don't qualify for government assistance or many other benefits.
Q: What about around the world?
HALL: An estimated 900 million people are severely malnourished. Some 25,000-35,000 people die every day from hunger in the world. The worst places are North Korea, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and parts of the Congo. Across Africa drought and civil war are causing hunger. In North Korea, people are surviving on maybe 300 grams of food a day, and many are eating a substitute food such as bark, leaves or grass. They grind it up and make noodles out of it. There is no nutrition in it; you can't digest it. I've been there six times and the malnutrition is tragic; even among the soldiers, growth is stunted.
Q: The world hunger problem is so large, what would you say to the average person who really wants to make a difference?
HALL: I'd say the same things that Mother Teresa said to me. Do the things in front of you. The first time I met her in Calcutta, hundreds of thousands lived on the street. She started 50-60 years ago going to the person on the street she saw first, picking him up, cleaning him off and taking him home. That was the start. Her point was that if everyone would do what was in front of them, we'd probably solve about 75 percent of our problems. You don't have to go to Calcutta; feed the people around you who you know. If the churches did what they should do, there would not be so many problems for the poor, who ought to be the top priority of believers.
Q: Elaborate on that.
HALL: There is a problem of a church at every corner with its own constituents. They don't share resources and they don't accomplish as much as they could. There are great expectations. I have a lot of churches in my district that are doing very well and working hard, and I have lots of churches that are poor and can't do much. But for many churches, there is so much more they could do.
Q: When you travel overseas one of your practices is to invite someone to come with you and pray. Tell us about that.
HALL: I take very difficult trips to places where I see a lot of people who are hurting, a lot of children who are dying. I meet with some leaders who are scoundrels. I have found over the years that if I go with people who are believers, or at least one good friend who can pray with me at night, there is a certain strength and power that God brings. In 1 Thessalonians 1:2, Paul talks about always praying for the Thessalonians. In verse 5, he says three things happen. Believers go with power, the Holy Spirit and with true conviction. For the past two years, even when I go on official trips, I take a believer with me. We are in situations where we're well over our heads. The people we meet are more shrewd than we are; they know the local situation better than we do. They try to manipulate the process, and a lot of times they are killers.
Q: If believers don't pick up the ball and attempt to feed the hungry, what's the future?
HALL: We'll stay right where we are. The government will help, but we'll still have great poverty and the problems that go with poverty.
Q: Anything else?
HALL: Americans are basically good and decent people who give when they know about a problem. We've certainly seen that in our country's response to the September 11 attacks on the U.S.. I don't think Americans know about the hungry in America. You don't see it; you have to hunt for it. You have to talk to senior citizens to discover they're making $800 a month on Social Security but their medical bills are $750 a month. You have to talk to the working poor to discover they're making maybe $6 or $7 an hour and have a couple of kids. These people are shy and embarrassed. They don't want to be on welfare. If Americans ever found out about this, I think they would change. They need to see the need around them and around the world and recognize that whatever role they can play as individuals is vital.
"Reprinted by permission of the Pentecostal Evangel."