Addressing Hunger

June 21st, 2013

Laura Lapins Willis is a writer and community organizer, wife and mother. She has been working to make a difference in the lives of those around her since she was 8 years old. She lives with her family in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she is known for her work at the Community Action Committee as a community organizer and advocate.

You’ve compared the food pantry lines to those receiving communion. How so?

The lines of people outside the food pantry, combined with the people inside, along with those who had come to help—it was not so different from Sundays at my church as the Eucharist begins. Hungry souls patiently stand in line, with a sense of need, moving toward the abundance that awaits them. At the food pantry, nourishment came in boxes and coolers. At church, it comes from a taste of wine and a bite of bread. All are gifts of God to feed our empty places.

Do you see hunger as being about more than the need for food?

I saw a different hunger that runs deep beyond the empty bellies and poor nutrition in my clients’ faces: people of all ages yearning for affection, needy for love, and seeking respect and compassion. They hungered for God.

Those of us free from physical hunger and poverty, those of us who are accustomed to having as many meals as we’d like, have a different ache that is no less important than the pain of an empty stomach and malnutrition. We too yearn for affection, are needy for love, and seek respect and compassion. We also hunger for God.

It is these most basic needs—affection, compassion, respect, love — for which all people hunger. And it is this hunger that helped me understand and relate to my friends on the lowest rungs of our rich nation’s economic ladder. Recognizing my own poverty, my own needs, and my own brokenness is essential to my spiritual journey. And it is these parallel journeys, of feeding the poor and exploring my own yearning for God, that helped me frame the stories of my time at the Community Action Committee (CAC).

How would you reply to someone who says they don’t understand why poverty still exists in our country?

If we could wave a magic wand to solve addiction, mental illness, and the nation’s healthcare crisis, we could solve rural poverty.

We are putting Band-Aids of love on gaping societal wounds. That’s all we can do. Feed people, love them, offer them a safe place to come and talk, and share their sorrows. That’s it. During my time with CAC, we couldn’t fix the education system, get transportation for families, or make jobs for the unemployed. We were not, and the public is not, in the business of solving rural poverty. It is not on anyone’s radar, except for the people who live in poverty every day.

How is rural poverty different from urban poverty?

Real poverty is much more complex than it looks on TV or in the movies. And rural poverty can be nearly invisible. There is no park bench for the homeless to sleep on; no grate for someone to build a cardboard shelter over; no soup kitchen with a line winding around a city block. Homeless people sleep in cars, stay warm wandering in 24-hour stores; and in Sewanee, they visit CAC for food when they are hungry. So I wanted to teach people about the complications, the confusion, and the uncertainty of real poverty: the poverty in Sewanee that CAC (and that others face around the country and the world) tried to make better.

What does rural hunger and poverty look like?

We are in a perpetual hungry season in the rural South. Much like developing countries have a hungry season — a time when people run out of food on a cyclical basis — many people in the rural South regularly do not have enough to eat. Some do not have enough money to pay their utility bills. Some do not even have enough resources to have a place to live, subsisting in old cars, broken down trailers, dog houses or sheds with no electricity, no running water. Nothing that anyone would ever call “home.”

Our hungry season isn’t sexy or interesting to others and we don’t have a name for it. Aid workers don’t come to America to fix it, and government officials slap pathetically inadequate bandages on it.

Do you think that rural poverty is getting the attention that it needs?

In our country today, rural poverty is not a topic people discuss and most politicians ignore. As most of us drive our nice cars through the suburbs and exurbs, we zip right past the dilapidated trailer homes with broken windows and roofs and we turn away from the houses with sagging porches and cars in the yard. It is so easy to not see these places. If we acknowledge them, we might have to confront them and what they say about our lives as Americans. Are there really equal opportunities for all? In the rural South, poverty is rampant and its impacts are tremendous: people with limited access to health care cost our entire economy when they fall ill and have to seek emergency treatment; people who can’t afford to eat healthily either starve or become obese (imagine shopping on $40 a week and see what your grocery cart gets filled up with: processed food and empty calories); people who can’t afford transportation can’t find work; people without access to job training and skills development can’t hold down a job greater than minimum wage (try living on $7.25 an hour). Rural poverty seems an insurmountable problem in our modern life, and yet, thousands of people and hundreds of agencies continue to work to make life better for the rural poor.

If someone would like to help those suffering from hunger and poverty, what would be some suggestions that you’d give them to help start them on the right path?

Volunteer time at a local food bank. Make a donation to a homeless shelter; rather than have traditional birthday gifts, ask friends to donate to a charity that works to alleviate poverty. Organize a food drive with your book group, Sunday School class, or supper club; ask people to bring jars of peanut butter and donate them to a nearby food pantry. Skip eating lunch out for a month and donate that money to a hunger program in your community. Educate yourself about hunger by talking to folks working in this area. Consider the decisions you make about food: buy local, buy only what you need, shop at community markets. Begin a “giving jar” and collect pocket change to donate to hunger programs. Tell your legislators that hunger matters to you. Pray for the hungry, the poor, and the needy.

What will people find within the pages of  your new book, Finding God in a Bag of Groceries?

You’ll find what happens to a faithful woman, and the people she encounters, when she steps beyond the structures of the church and is called to serve the poor, the hungry, and the stranger. It is a story of how God becomes evident through the most unusual places and the most unexpected people. How being hungry can mean different things depending on one’s circumstances, and how taking the next step in our life is all God asks us to do.

What do you hope that people will take away from your book?

I hope people will have a greater sense of compassion for those who are in less-fortunate conditions. I hope we can learn to be less judging when we see others, less likely to make assumptions about why people are poor. I hope we can be more caring to people who are different than ourselves, to love our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus called us to. I hope we can learn to be open to God’s presence, even in the most ordinary moments in our daily lives.

comments powered by Disqus