When our daughter was a toddler, she burned her hand on one of the burners of our kitchen stove. She screamed in agony. Quickly we put some ice in a plastic bag and placed it in her tiny hand to relieve the pain. Whenever we had to replace the ice, the tears and screams would start all over. I can still see her blowing on her hand with all her might and begging us to do the same. That entire day she sat in Susan’s lap seeking comfort and understanding. That night she slept with us and whenever she woke up without the ice pack in her hand, she cried out again in pain. The next day she was better. Her hand was tender, but not as painful. Within a few days she returned to being her active and happy self.
Nothing tugs at parents’ hearts like seeing one of their children in pain. At that moment sympathy becomes empathy, and love becomes compassion (literally, “suffering with” another). Twenty-nine years ago, I read the lament of a mother who lives in a slum in Brazil. Her name is Iracema da Silva, and here is what she said to a mission worker who was striving to bring nutrition and better living conditions to that part of God’ earth.
Sometimes I think, that if I die, I won’t have to see my children suffering as they are. Sometimes I even think of killing myself. So often I see them crying and hungry, and here I am without a cent to buy them some bread. I think, My God, I can’t face it! I’ll end my life. I don’t want to look anymore.
Iracema’s words reveal the agony of many parents throughout the world as they must daily witness the suffering, hunger, and slow, agonizing deaths of their beloved children. Tens of thousands of children die every day in our world from hunger and diseases related to malnutrition. On the evening news we may hear with horror of the deaths of over one hundred passengers who die in a plane crash. Or we hear with sorrow and anger of the deaths of children who perish in a fire in substandard housing owned by greedy landlords who ignore the fire hazards in their buildings. Such deaths should horrify us. The families of those plane crash victims and of those dead children suffer real anguish, cry painful tears, and need deep consolation. But every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, thousands of children die needlessly from hunger. However, that statistic you will rarely hear on the evening news, for it has become an acceptable tragedy. Apparently, these children are expendable in the eyes of the power structures of the world who decide what deserves priority spending and what does not. But to Iracema da Silva and millions like her throughout the world, the pain is real, the grief is devastating, and there is no consolation for their agony. For them, this tragedy is not acceptable, and their children are not expendable.
Hunger statistics are stark and shocking. We can easily become overwhelmed by numbers, but what we must remember is that those numbers represent children and parents as real as Iracema and her family. I will mention only two statistics, but I would ask each of us to consider what our lives would be like if we or our own children were among the hungry in our world: 1.2 billion people live in grinding poverty as they try to survive on $1.25 or less a day. Another 1.2 billion people try to live $1.26-$2.00 a day. In other words, one-third of the world’s people (2.4 billion) struggle to exist on two dollars or less a day.
For very little money, these deaths can be prevented, and the suffering and malnutrition of millions of children can be eliminated. For the price of a meal at a fast food restaurant, a hoe can be purchased to aid in a family’s food production. The price of a sirloin steak can provide enough seed to plant a garden that would feed a family for a year. The price of a pair of designer jeans would provide enough Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) packets to save the lives of 263 children. The price of a mail-order fruit basket would provide a well pump that would irrigate many gardens. Very little expense is required to stop the most insidious tragedy of our time – the daily holocaust of God’s children. There is more than enough food to feed every human on this planet.
The United Nations estimates that the cost of ending world hunger is $30 billion per year. (There are other estimates ranging from $7 billion to $263 billion depending on what priorities and policies are implemented.) That may sound like an enormous amount of money, but consider the cost of that humane goal compared to other expenditures. For the fiscal year of 2019 the U S Department of Defense was allocated over $693 billion. The United States spent $241 billion on advertising in 2019. According the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), personal consumer spending in the U. S. for the 4th quarter of 2019 was $14.799 trillion (TRILLION!). Congress just passed a much needed $2 trillion legislation to serve as an initial Federal step in dealing with the Coronavirus. The $30 billion (or even if the $265 billion is a correct projection) annually needed to end world hunger could be split between developed nations. The U S could and should take the lead in this endeavor, but the total cost of ending world hunger could be shared by other wealthy nations. I am reminded of the saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Apparently, for all our sentimental talk about justice and compassion, there is not the will to end this global tragedy.
All of these figures are staggering, but we must not forget that we are talking about children, women, and men who are suffering and dying in astronomical numbers every day—children, mothers, fathers who all have names, feel pain, and are made in the image of God. We can stop the tears of parents like Iracema who daily witness the suffering of those they most love. The day Miriam burned her hand, I would have done anything to stop her pain and suffering. Through Christ, Iracema da Silva is my sister, and her children are my children. What will I do – what will we do to offer hope and fill the world of mothers like Iracema with joy and love?
It will take time to cultivate the compassion and to prioritize our resources if we are to feed all the hungry is this world. However, individually and as small communities we can begin the radical transformation needed to feed the world. If I can help someone like Iracema da Silva, then I can make a life and death difference to a mother and her children. May the day hasten when children of mothers like Iracema become a priority in my life. If I am in Christ and if Christ is in me, then their children are also my children. . . and I have no doubt what Jesus would have me do for the least of these who are held precious in the heart of God. Is it time for those of us who claim Jesus as our Lord to conspire in novel and radical ways to end hunger on this planet? And if not now, then when?