By Dan Haseltine
Following years of involvement in global humanitarian efforts, I was privileged recently to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with some of our Congressmen to discuss the importance of preserving this line item in our U.S. budget. What fuels my passion for this work are stories like the one I share here and Christ’s compassion flowing through me for those in direst need.
I had never heard anything so outrageous in my entire life. At the risk of turning you immediately away from this piece of writing, I feel that it is important for me to write out the sentence that I heard someone say.
“During this current famine, we encountered mothers and children choking down sand in order to alleviate the hunger pangs and emptiness in their stomachs.”
I want the bottom to drop out for a second. I want you to feel like someone just slung a large sack of wet rice across the top of your heart. I want a sudden weight to push the air out of you, so that all that is left to do is gasp until you regain composure. And for a while, I would not mind if our collective breathing was a bit labored. I hope that I am not asking for too much.
Are you gasping? Do you feel the weight?
The conversation about nutrition takes on many different categories and it covers a lot of ground from America’s urban school cafeterias where our processed and packaged foods have created an epidemic mostly made manifest as a plague of obesity and diabetes, to the war-torn deserts of Yemen and South Sudan where the problem is flipped onto its belly taking the form of dire scarcity. It is tragic on both sides, and begs for a hard look at our conscience and our ability to stomach actions that are transcendent of political affiliation. Sometimes we need only to feel the weight of real people who are suffering for a lack of resources that we have in such astounding abundance that the very abundance has led us toward our own graves, in order to open our hands and mouths to inspire change.
I walked the halls on Capitol Hill. I walked into the offices of people who spend their days raising lots of money for political parties; offices where displays were stocked with snack foods manufactured in the respective States and Districts. I sat with pastors and authors and lobbyists to bring up the subject of nutrition.
In the back of my mind, I kept that sentence close. It was underneath every handshake, and woven into the tone of every brief introduction. “Hi, my name is Dan Haseltine. I am the singer for a band called Jars Of Clay, and the founder of an organization that works to help people in Africa have clean water.” And so on, and so forth…
The foundational motivation that kept coming up in the meetings, from government agencies to the offices of senators and house representatives was that caring for people who were hungry, at least with regards to the international community, was best framed in the rhetoric of national security. In other words, we should help people who are hungry so that they will not be mad and hurt us later.
Yes, the idea is that foreign aid is a significant player in the development of future allies or enemies for the United States. And for a Trump administration that does not put a great deal of value on foreign aid programs that serve without adding significantly to our financial bottom line, or initiatives that show more compassion than brute strength, this is very important.
What concerns me the most is that our human story is not enough. What awakens me at night is the reality that the value of human beings in all our vastness, depth, potential, and imagination, does not provoke us to urgently care for the ones among us who are suffering the most. The reality that we must couch our argument for why we should help people who are EATING SAND to feel full, in the language of national security, should be outrageous to all of us.
We should be gasping for air because of the weight of this revelation. But, there is a perfectly good reason why we must use this misguided tactic for making America generous again. We the people have not spoken. We have abdicated our role as citizens voicing our wants and needs and priorities, to those we elected as representatives, while not supporting them with a consistent wind at their backs.
We rage and yell and storm up to the bridge leading to the castle protected by the dragon. And as our representative bolts courageously across the narrow bridge, everyone else stops and watches.
In the rooms and offices in D.C. there was a common theme from those we elected. They could not fight for constituents who did not fight with them. As you can imagine, the risk of sticking their necks out for something they and their constituents believe in must be a well-fortified act. They just want a little bit of support.
You can imagine that if we were all clamoring to end the horrific famine in Yemen and South Sudan that we would not have need for the national security line. If we stood up for the common inherent value of human beings and communicated that our neighbors were not simply those living next door to us, but also those who live across the world, we would see a different and far less reluctant response from the White House.
I learned something in Washington on this last trip. I learned that I am the obstacle that keeps foreign aid from reaching those in need. I have learned that we are often too quiet and even silent in our expectations for how and why we serve other people.