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Poverty and Hunger
Ending world hunger and poverty requires more than compassion and more than sustainable development. It also requires justice.
From overwhelming debt to the repression of women to wars and conflict, issues of social justice are directly linked to poverty and hunger. Even complications related to natural disasters like famine often have injustice hidden below the surface, such as land monopoly or unjust farming practices.
Poverty and hunger are complex issues that defy a single, simple solution. Families or individuals of any age can become poor or homeless, temporarily or permanently, for a variety of reasons. However, each person who finds themselves homeless or stuck in poverty is a unique individual—a child of God whom we are called to love as a brother or sister, to care well for, showing mercy and compassion.
How do we end hunger? We work together to address immediate needs but also to dismantle the root causes of global poverty. Work through the links below to learn more, to reflect, and to take specific actions that can help people around the world who are poor and hungry.
World Renew Global Hunger Month
World Renew provides a wonderful tool each year for World Hunger Sunday. Each year's materials include great education resources that are appropriate for individuals, families, and congregations.
World Renew Maternal and Child Health Sunday
Many of the deaths due to childbirth and malnutrition are preventable. World Renew's special Sunday shares their development work on this topic.
This 2014 issue of this magazine focuses on justice and provides rich resources.
Prayers, offering of letters, and preaching resources are all provided by this partner organization.
In 1976, in response to a massive famine in eastern Africa, the CRC synod created a task force on world hunger. The task force examined crucial issues such as increasing disparities between rich and poor, the need for preaching about world hunger, a fresh understanding of stewardship, and the distinction between humanitarian and Christian endeavors. Their report, "And He Had Compassion on Them: The Christian and World Hunger" (Acts of Synod 1978, p. 567-632), recommended concrete actions for responses from within the church, including a world hunger action program. Synod 1978 accepted the report on world hunger and adopted its recommendations.
But the task force felt its work was incomplete unless it also spoke to the structural and systemic problems causing world hunger, and it took another year to produce an in-depth analysis of systemic sinfulness—including the biblical and theological underpinnings for such an analysis. "For My Neighbor's Good: World Hunger and Structural Change" is that report to synod. Adopted in 1979, it is still as applicable today as it was then.
Why does the CRC do relief work?
The church is concerned that people are starving for want of food to feed their souls: the bread of life and the living water of Christ. Yet the church may never divorce this concern from its care for the body. The human is a unity of body and soul, and our Lord is filled with compassion for this matchless whole being with all its potential. We cannot feed only the spirit and blithely disregard the body or relegate such a concern to someone else. Christ did not—he saw being human as a totality.
“As people redeemed by Christ, we know that to feed only the body is to leave unfed the starving spirit. We further affirm that to feed only the spirit while the body cries out in pain and hunger is sheer hypocrisy. Therefore, the people of God, of all people, should be the first to respond to the plight of the world's hungry with a compassion that breaks all barriers.” (See "And He Had Compassion on Them", p. 567.)
Taking on Jesus' love for the poor and hungry, World Renew equips local deacons to do their work, brings relief in times of disaster, and establishes long-term development projects in Canada, the United States, and 28 other countries around the world. For more information, visit WorldRenew.net.
Why does the CRC advocate to change the root causes of poverty and hunger?
Many Christians’ instinctive response is that the church has no business working for change in the socioeconomic structures of this world. The church, these people say, should limit itself to the proclamation of "the simple gospel" and to the administration of mercy. Because the temptation to avoid the issue of structural change can be so strong, we need to ask what the consequences would be if we gave in to that temptation.
- First, we would then decide to tolerate unjust systems in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
- Second, by avoiding the issue of structural change, Christians would consign themselves forever to fighting the symptoms instead of getting at the disease itself. These systems need to be changed before people can provide food for themselves. While the church is unable to feed all the hungry masses of the world, it can certainly call for changes in systems that may significantly improve the lot of millions.
- Third, if the church does not advocate for systemic change, then it would be guilty of proclaiming a truncated gospel. A message that fails to proclaim our radical liberation through Jesus Christ from every configuration of sin greatly limits the stature of our Deliverer.
- Fourth, this failure would place the Christian mission in the world at a severe disadvantage over against false gospels that provide answers to these social injustices. (See "For My Neighbor's Good")
While World Renew provides relief and development assistance to feed the hungry, the CRCNA's work in social justice seeks to address the root causes of hunger. To reform systemic injustices that keep people in hunger, the social justice team assists members of the CRC in advocating for just and equitable policies on issues that affect food security and global poverty. The CRCNA's social justice team, World Renew, and other partners work together to defeat hunger and poverty because any lasting development work that enables people to thrive ultimately requires systemic change in order to be successful.
Our advocacy for more just economic and political systems—moved by love and done in solidarity with people who are hungry, impoverished, displaced, trafficked, and oppressed - completes and gives integrity to our work of mercy and missions.
Freedom to Serve: Meeting the Needs of the World
Synod revisited world hunger and poverty in 1993 when it passed a major follow-up report to the hunger reports of the late 1970s. “Freedom to Serve: Meeting the Needs of the World” reiterated the central importance of responding to suffering and injustice in the world and identified a long list of practical steps that individuals, congregations, classes, and the denomination could take to reinvigorate its hunger and poverty work.
It was this report that identified the need for a staff person responsible directly to the denomination’s Executive Director of Ministries to coordinate the reinvigoration of our world hunger and global poverty work—particularly the work on systemic causes. It was this staff position that eventually grew into the Office of Social Justice, whose mandate can be found here. Later, a similar office in Canada, the Centre for Public Dialogue, was established with roots in the Committee for Contact with the Government.
Hunger exists everywhere—both internationally and right here in North America. The reasons are complex, varied, and often interconnected.
Poverty is the main cause of hunger. Eradicating poverty in all its forms is an absolute requirement for ending hunger— because the root causes are often the same. Most people who are hungry are living in extreme poverty, which is usually defined as income of $1.25 per day or less.
In places like the United States and Canada, hunger often results from job scarcity, joblessness, or jobs that don’t pay enough. Hunger rates rise when economies flounder. People lose their jobs, and finding work becomes increasingly difficult. Even when the economy improves, finding jobs is not easy for everyone.
War and Conflict
During times of war and conflict, it is often the poorest who are most affected—leaving them more vulnerable than ever. Hunger and poverty can also be the cause of war when governments ignore the desperation of their people. Further, conflict creates displacement—forcing people to flee violence and persecution or to seek opportunity elsewhere. Visit our pages on immigration and refugees to learn about displacement.
Education provides opportunities for individuals and families that could break the cycle of poverty. At a global level, completing post-secondary education can mean the difference between hunger and food security for a family, but for many people facing poverty and hunger, education simply is not a feasible option.
We have made great strides in addressing structural and interpersonal discrimination, though many are still treated unfairly, have resources inequitably distributed to them, and do not have the same opportunities as others.Disadvantaged groups are often left farthest behind. In most places, these are women and racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.
Persons returning home from jail or prison face discrimination in applying for housing or a job, voting, and readjusting to society, all of which can contribute to poverty— it’s hard to find work and a place to live and to put food on the table if you have a criminal conviction. Visit our page on restorative justice to learn more about criminal justice reform.
Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada bear the wounds of a legacy of colonization and systemic racism that has led to poverty. Lack of access to safe drinking water, high incarceration rates, low educational achievement, and hunger find their roots in this foundation. Visit the page on Indigenous Justice from our partners at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue to learn more.
Lack of water and sanitation infrastructure are some of the main forces behind hunger and malnutrition. Without roads, transporting food to the places it’s most needed is impossible. Without irrigation, growing enough food is impossible. Without wells, women and girls spend hours every day fetching water, often limiting their ability to attend school.
For people in extreme poverty, any rise in food prices can create hardship. Basic grains (like wheat, rice, and corn) make up the majority of calories for people experiencing hunger in developing countries. When the prices of these grains spike for a prolonged period of time, families are faced with hard choices. For example, some parents may have to pull children from school so that they can work to help pay for food.
We are facing the greatest environmental challenge in history: climate change. The poorest countries, who contribute least to the growing issue of climate change, are the most affected by it. Climate change is damaging food and water security in significant ways. Meeting the needs of these communities (and ultimately eradicating hunger) depends heavily on how we address climate change. To learn more, visit our Creation Care page.
Maternal Health & Nutritional Quality
Malnourishment is a natural consequence of hunger, and we’re familiar with what it looks like for a child to be malnourished. There is another form of malnutrition, often referred to as “hidden hunger,” that stems from the quality rather than the quantity of food. Malnutrition is particularly damaging when mothers and their child are in the pre-natal or infant stage. Lacking quality nutrients, one in four children in the developing world face health problems such as the stunting of growth and development and higher susceptibility to disease. It is equally important that mothers, in addition to their children, have access to nutritious food and care.
We care because Christ cares.
Mass impoverishment of human beings is not God’s intention for the world. It is incompatible with the love and compassion that sent Christ to redeem the world. Such inequity is the result of human brokenness, human activity, human-built systems that enrich a few of us while impoverishing many more of us.
In accepting this reality without protest, we betray Christ’s redeeming work, violate God’s will, damage our community, and dull our relationship with Christ. The church’s witness to the gospel of Christ is threatened and incomplete.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is this: Mass impoverishment is human-made and can be ended. It is a sin, a scandal—but it is not beyond our control. In fact, when the world decides to act, progress is made. In 1990 almost half the world’s population—1.9 billion people —struggled to survive on less than US$1.25 a day. By 2015 that number was cut by half to 836 million. According to Bread for the World, at the turn of the century, one in four people experienced hunger; today that statistic has dropped to one in eight.
Because we are Christians, our commitment to end mass impoverishment is rooted in our identity as followers of Christ. By refusing to accept the status quo and by doing our part to dismantle and improve unjust systems that cause and maintain mass impoverishment, we embrace God’s will for the world, we walk more humbly (and a lot more joyfully) with God and our neighbors, and we are faithful to the integral mission God has given the church.
Restoration looks like shalom. It looks like everyone having the nutritious food and resources they need to live and flourish. The freedom God intends for us and for the rest of creation is more than from our individual bondage to sin. It is also freedom from the bondage and oppression of unjust, distorted, and damaging human-made and human-maintained economic and social systems.
Many of us do not have to imagine these changes; we’ve watched them happen, and we've been part of making them happen. You can help with restoration too—through educating yourself and adding your voice to the many others advocating for change.
Advocacy works. Adding our voices to those of people suffering injustice is a powerful ministry—especially if it is combined with the gospel witness of strong relationships and empowering love. Here are a few examples:
- In 2016, Congress passed the Global Food Security Act (GFSA), which authorized a U.S. whole-of-government global food security strategy for two years, with overwhelming bipartisan support, including a strong push from our partner Bread for the World. GFSA builds on the success of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s whole-of-government program to reduce global hunger and malnutrition.
- In 2010, Congress was focusing on budget reductions. In particular, lawmakers were looking to disproportionately cut programs vital to hungry and poor people. In response, a group of Christian leaders, including a representative from the CRCNA, came together to form the Circle of Protection. They prayed, fasted, and advocated on behalf of the most vulnerable—and succeeded. Read the statement they made here.
- In Mali, several thousand Fulani families in the arid Sahel region nearly lost their land to dishonest government developers. They expected to be forced to leave their homes. . . (read more)
- When violence first erupted in Sierra Leone, seasoned missionaries Paul and Mary Kortenhoven, who were accustomed to such outbreaks, didn’t take it very seriously—until soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front began to terrorize villages, maiming, killing, and cutting a bloody swath of diamond-fueled destruction through territory the CRC had been working in for 15 years. . . (read more)
- In 1999 Nigerian Reformed churches asked the CRCNA to stand with them in their struggle to make peace between warring ethnic groups and estranged churches. A few years later they celebrated a political peace agreement in their area and a restored relationship between sister denominations. . . (read more)
- Spurred by the rise in youth homicides in Toronto, CRC pastor Fred Witteveen of Friendship Community Church joined with other faith-based leaders to stop youth violence at its roots. The coalition received a $3 million grant to carry out its proposal targeting education programs, community, and family support.
Bread for the World, a non-partisan Christian anti-poverty advocacy organization, works to end hunger in the United States and around the world. The CRC has been closely involved with Bread for the World for a long time, and we think they're a great group for you to be a part of!
Circle of Protection is a group of faith leaders committed to ending hunger and poverty in the U.S. They advocate for a bipartisan “Circle of Protection” around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad. Visit their website here.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of Canadian church-based agencies. It has a number of resources on its website that can help you learn more about global hunger.
Citizens for Public Justice is a Christian organization that encourages Canadian citizens, leaders in society, and governments to support policies and practices that reflect God’s call for love, justice, and stewardship.
KAIROS is a dynamic church-based social justice movement that works with its members, partners, and its cross-Canada community-based network to pursue social transformation.
World Renew is a ministry appointed by the CRCNA that works in community development, disaster response, and peace and justice. They promote and advocate for an annual World Hunger campaign, sustainable agriculture programs, and creation care efforts to alleviate world hunger and poverty.
Alliance to End Hunger is a coalition dedicated to developing innovative partnerships among it members, political commitment among government leaders, and connections among groups working to end hunger domestically and internationally.
Bread for the World, a non-partisan Christian anti-poverty advocacy organization, works to end hunger in the United States and around the world.