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God has an assignment for Baptists in combating hunger, speakers say

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–As persistent as world hunger is, even more so is God’s command to minister to the poor and bring them to Christ — or so a Baptist could conclude from speakers during a World Hunger Consultation Oct. 9-11 at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center.
Southern Baptists often “have upheld the spiritual disciplines of life to the neglect of feeding the hungry and clothing the poor,” said Avery Willis, senior vice president for overseas operations with the International Mission Board.
Borrowing Scripture’s familiar words regarding marriage, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder,” Willis noted: “… it is applicable to many other things that God has put together that we as Southern Baptists have put asunder by our practice.”
“We, many times, have proclaimed that we are those who believe in righteousness by faith and that faith is enough, but have not put the works with that, to put clothes on somebody’s back or put food in their belly,” Willis said. “We have been very careful to have many programs that help people tithe and give, but often neglect mercy and justice and righteousness, as Jesus said.”
The conference focused on raising awareness of hunger concerns among Southern Baptists to increase prayer, giving and hands-on ministry and, in the process, lead people to faith in Jesus Christ. Sponsored by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board in conjunction with the North American Mission Board and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, it was attended by about 100 SBC and state Baptist leaders.
Numerous Scriptures were cited during the consultation as the biblical basis for “ministry evangelism,” including passages from Matthew 23, Luke 10 and 14, John 6, James 2, Proverbs1, 14 and 21 and Isaiah 58.
The Christian’s calling, said one speaker, Don Kammerdiener, IMB executive vice president, is that “we don’t live for ourselves anymore, but we live for others,” citing the words of 2 Corinthians 5:15.
Steve Nelson, ERLC director of hunger concerns, noted, “In terms of human life, this is our most pressing issue.” Compared to the total number of infants who have been killed in the 25 years since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Nelson said an equal number of people will die in just 25 months from hunger and hunger-related illnesses.
“Hunger ministry is one of the keys to revival for the American church,” Nelson said, “and a key to revival in our world.”
Nelson underscored the need for a balance in both evangelism and human needs ministry. To those who emphasize social ministry and those who emphasize preaching, he noted one will send people to hell with a full stomach while the other conveys “an image of a harsh and uncaring God.”
Globally, children comprise the vast majority of the 15-18 million people who die of hunger and hunger-related, yet preventable and treatable diseases each year, with 500,000 to 1 million of them literally starving to death, said Bill Cashion, the International Mission Board’s human needs consultant who became director of its Volunteers in Missions department Oct. 12. Another grim global statistic: There are 160 million street children, Cashion said.
More than 75 percent of the world’s most impoverished adults and children live among people groups still unreached by the gospel, Cashion said, noting a link between physical suffering and eternal darkness.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ was always involved in ministry evangelism,” Cashion said, and “if we’re to obey the Word of God, we dare not ignore human need.”
“God rewards that kind of obedience” that follows Jesus’ commands to teach and preach and, at the same time, heal and feed, Cashion said; “to have one without the other is biblically subnormal.”
Southern Baptists’ gifts to the World Hunger Fund had declined for about five years, but last year increased by 15 percent and, so far this year, are up 35 percent, Cashion said.
But in the last five months, requests for funds have gone up by about 115 percent, he said, citing crises such as flooding in Bangladesh which has left 30 million people homeless — 20 million of them in danger of dying without massive outside assistance, according to U.N. assessments.
While $20 per month given to some private charities will sponsor one child for that month, the ERLC’s Nelson noted $20 given monthly to the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund will do all of the following: feed eight North Korean famine victims for the whole year; provide three milk goats for families in Indonesia; provide 15-pound emergency food supply packages to 10 needy families in Washington; feed a hot meal to 100 homeless people in Miami; provide food for 232 meals to needy families in Memphis, Tenn.; supply milk for a hungry infant in Argentina for a year; and teach a marketable skill to the mother of a malnourished child in Colombia.
Said Nelson, “You know it’s being used to lift up the name of our Savior.” With Southern Baptist personnel already in place throughout the world, all contributions to the World Hunger Fund are used directly for ministry evangelism, not administrative expenses, Nelson said.
Jeff Palmer, an International Mission Board agricultural missionary in the Philippines, recounted an oft-cited analogy of the world as a village of 1,000 people, 564 of whom would be Asians with only 60 North Americans. Of the 1,000, 60 people would possess half the income; 500 would be hungry; 600 would live in shanty towns; and 700 would be illiterate, Palmer said.
Palmer works with Harold Watson, an IMB missionary who founded in 1971 the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center, a training center in food production techniques and dispersal center for seeds and animals.
“Our ministry is saving the soil and saving souls,” said Watson, recipient of a World Food Day Silver Medal from the United Nations. The world’s key agricultural problem, he said, is soil erosion — soil washing down mountainsides and hillsides that can never to be replaced — not economics or lack of effort among the needy to grow food.
Watson pioneered a technique, SALT, or sloping agricultural land technology, to help farmers with one or two acres cultivate along hillside contours without relying on outside tools. The Mindanao center, one of the first recipients of World Hunger Funds, has provided training to small farmers and agricultural leaders across the Philippines and from numerous other countries.
“I believe it is just as much a sin to destroy God’s creation” as any sin, Watson said. “The environment’s destruction affects people.”
By using agriculture as an avenue of ministry evangelism, Watson said, people learn that God loves them and wants them to have a better life, prompting them to ask, “Why are you doing this?” thus yielding opportunities to explain Christ’s love and call to faith.
“The Muslim faith does not have that kind of love,” Watson said. “Many religions do not have that kind of love.”
In Belgrade, Serbia, 3,000 refugee families from ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia are being assisted each month through the ministry of Bread of Life, an organization operating in behalf of evangelicals who number no more than 2,000 in a city of 2 million people.
Jasmina Tosic, co-director of Bread of Life, recounted that Belgrade’s evangelicals, whose evangelistic vision once was limited to their neighbors, began to pray and study the Bible after the ethnic strife erupted in 1991 and refugees began flowing into the city. There are now about 2 million refugees in the former Yugoslavia, and 650,000 in Serbia, she said.
Evangelicals realized “we have to do something about … people who came to us without any hope or any strength to continue,” Tosic said, “without anything, really.”
Bread of Life’s refugee ministry, involving volunteers from 11 Belgrade churches, now encompasses visitation teams to personally visit each refugee family receiving food assistance, handyman teams to tackle needed repairs in their living quarters, small business and agricultural pilot programs to help refugees begin working again, a secondhand shop, a kindergarten, as well as relief initiatives in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Domestically, “hungry people oftentimes look very well fed,” said Donoso Escobar, who manages domestic hunger funds at the North American Mission Board. “You have to scrutinize the psycho-social scars, such as a sense of helplessness, poor self-esteem, mental retardation, school dropout rates and many other conditions which are invisible to the naked eye.”
In the United States each year, 11 million people experience hunger and more than 35 million people are threatened by it, Escobar said, adding federal funding for temporary assistance to needy families reaches only 25 percent of the needs.
“Even full-time work does not guarantee escape from poverty,” Escobar said, explaining that a family’s breadwinner working at the minimum wage of $4.50 per hour 40 hours per week would earn $9,360 in a year — far below the poverty line of $12,800 needed for a family of three to survive in America or $16,400 for a family of four.
While the federal Department of Health and Human Services reports that welfare caseloads dropped 24 percent in 1997, and 40 percent in some states, Escobar noted, “… most clients were forced off welfare after the two-year period dictated by the law. So, while the welfare caseload decreased, homelessness and hunger grew rampant.”
Second Harvest, one of the nation’s largest organizations responding to domestic hunger, reports that the demand for food assistance has increased by 23 percent, Escobar said, while the International Union of Gospel Missions reports 20 percent of the people in homeless facilities are there because of loss of government benefits. Children under age 18 constitute 25 percent of the urban homeless population, he added.
About 20 percent of SBC World Hunger Funds is spent on domestic hunger needs, Escobar said, recounting that NAMB has expended $877,000 thus far this year, feeding 1.2 million people in 33 state Baptist conventions — and leading to more than 6,000 professions of faith.
At one ministry to the homeless, Noonday Ministry in Albuquerque, N.M., lunch is served to 200 to 400 people daily, ranging in age from 12 or 13 into their 70s and encompassing Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks and whites, reported director Dennis Lihte.
Of the tendency in the evangelical world to say people should “pick themselves up by the bootstraps,” Lihte said, “It’s not always that easy. … Life isn’t fair, and there are some things you and I will never figure out” about why people are homeless. He told, for example, of a young mother, now dead, who had never gotten over the trauma of seeing everyone else in her family burn to death in an auto accident when she was 5 years old; of an alcoholic who began drinking at age 7 because of the severe beatings his father used in discipline; and of a woman who “looked very middle class” yet had frequently been in and out of jail, stemming from having a mother who was a drug addict and prostitute and losing her father in a shooting when she was 14.
People seen as “derelicts, hobos and bums” account for only a small percentage of the homeless, Lihte said, also estimating about 20 percent of the homeless are clinically mentally ill who are not institutionalized because they are not regarded as a threat to others.
“We have Ph.D.s who are homeless. We have people from every walk of life … whose lives have gone haywire. … Homelessness has almost nothing to do with money … [but] with lifestyles and deep-seated problems,” often starting early in life and in a lack of positive role models, Lihte said, and often involving a family history of alcohol and drug abuse.
“We are our brother’s keeper,” Lihte said, underscoring the value God places on extending mercy to the homeless. “There is tragedy all around us, but it’s our opportunity and our duty to make a difference.”
Among other speakers during the consultation were Henrique Cesar Gomes, general secretary of the department of social ministries of the Carioca Baptist Convention in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who leads outreach to street children and others in need or crisis; Jorge Herrera, pastor of Iglesia Bautista del Sur Amistad, Douglas, Ariz., a congregation which operates two soup kitchen ministries; Wanda Lee, president of Woman’s Missionary Union, with ministry initiatives through its Christian Women’s Job Corps and a partnership with Habitat for Humanity; and Mickey Caison, adult volunteer mobilization associate for disaster relief with the North American Mission Board.