More mouths to feed: ‘Food insecurity’ grows to record numbers

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother" (1936)

One of the benefits for which we can give thanks this year is that a growing number of signs say we’re pulling out of our deep economic recession.

But it’s no secret that recovery is a slow train coming for millions of Americans. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that record numbers of people in the U.S. had trouble getting enough food in 2008.

“Seventeen million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure,” meaning they “lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That’s an increase of more than 1.5 million homes in one year and the highest figure since such statistics started in 1995.

Tennessee’s food insecurity for 2008 was slightly below the national average, at 13.5 percent of households. But if history is any guide, the Appalachian counties are likely to show above-average rates when detailed figures are released in January. Poverty is typically more prevalent in Appalachia than in other regions, and the lack of enough resources to obtain basic needs is “the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Children are especially vulnerable. Virtually every measure of poverty or food insecurity reveals that children fare worse than adults. For instance, while Tennessee’s overall food insecurity rate in 2007 was 12.8 percent, the rate was 20.5 percent among children. The general poverty rate was 14.8 percent; for children it was 20.2 percent.

In the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, 52 percent of schoolchildren were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2008, according to the Tennessee State Report Card. That is, more than 37,000 schoolchildren were eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or other public assistance.

Of the 49.1 million people in the U.S. who lived in food-insecure households in 2008, more than one-third – 16.7 million – were children.

Such numbers are almost overwhelming, obviously too big for even the most generous individual to make a dent. The good news is that we have ways to work together to feed neighbors in need.

In this area, more than 200 nonprofit organizations work with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. This nonprofit clearinghouse, part of a nationwide network of food banks known as Feeding America, gathers food in bulk directly from manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – which helps keep costs down – and distributes it to congregations, food pantries and other nonprofits. Second Harvest distributed 6.5 million tons of food last year.

The organization itself isn’t faith based, but 75 percent of the organizations that work with it are, according to Communications Director Kathy Smith. The biggest partners for Second Harvest in at least six of the region’s eight counties are churches or church-related ministries.

Certainly we’re in the best season for food banks. The message of Thanksgiving and the warmth of Christmastime apparently make people feel more generous than other times of the year. Just this week, listeners of WCQR, a Christian radio station, donated $27,000 to Second Harvest in one of several food drives this season.

Still, the gap between supply and need is never far away.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the increased need at this point,” Smith reported on Wednesday. “But it appears to be an ever-growing need. Donations are up compared to last year, but not significantly. The food is going out the door as fast as it comes in.”

Food banks like Second Harvest welcome and rely on the extra efforts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But then comes January. Then February, March and April. The Second Harvest Web site lists at least 17 events in November and December. But between January and April 2010? Five.

The need for food doesn’t end when the holidays are over and, as the USDA reports, more Americans are hungry now than in any recent time.

But individuals, families and small groups can help feed hungry people year-round.

“They can organize food drives through their churches, businesses or in their neighborhoods,” Smith suggested. “They can consider holding a fundraising drive on our behalf, like a dinner. And of course they can volunteer with Second Harvest. We have various opportunities through the year.”

And of course, we can donate money. The Web sites for Second Harvest  and Feeding America even include secure links for making donations online.

That’s something to chew on, all year long.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 Nov 2009.

Cancer comes: ‘There will be no more ordinary days’

Ray Giles had tolerated the soreness near his abdomen for weeks. A man who had lived in the back country of Ethiopia for years could handle some discomfort. He thought it might be gall stones.

But one night in July the pain grew so agonizing that his wife, Effie, drove him to the emergency room at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center. After a battery of tests the next day, the physicians brought bad news.

Advanced cancer of the liver. Also in the pancreas. Inoperable. “It’s not a pretty picture,” said Ray’s physician.

The typical survival rate is about six months, but Ray’s doctors refused to set a time. Some patients live for years, they told him. Chemotherapy was an option.

“This was not an ordinary day,” Ray wrote in his journal the night they heard the diagnosis. “There will be no more ordinary days for me or Effie. Each day is a gift … gilded by the beauty God has made in the world.”

Ray and Effie Giles, now in their 70s, retired to Johnson City nine years ago, following a long career as missionaries in Ethiopia. (I wrote about their work last week.) They stayed active – teaching, mentoring young missionaries, regularly traveling to visit children and grandchildren or back to Africa. The cancer brought that to an abrupt halt.

“I never felt, ‘Why me?’” Ray said last week, sitting in their living room. “I never felt I needed to be exempt. Rather than focus on the problem of suffering, it forced the light to shine on the good.”

Even so, the news hit Effie hard.

“We all know we’re going to die,” she said. “But it’s different if you know the mechanism is already at work. You know one day we’ll not be the ones walking out of the hospital room.”

About two months ago it looked as if that day had come, when the cancer or the chemo pitched Ray into severe nausea, pain and disorientation.

“I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t pray,” he said. “I thought if it’s going to be like this, I don’t know if I want to live.”

He seemed to turn a corner a few weeks ago, however, and he feels good for now. So he and Effie are doing all they can to enjoy these days – “to use the time wisely,” he said – knowing they are not likely to last.

They try to bask in each other’s companionship. They revel in regular visits from family and friends. Ray feels strong enough to restart a few of his old church responsibilities, and he recently taught at a senior citizens rally.

“All we have assurance of is now,” Effie said. “I have a tendency to look ahead to the big event. Maybe it comes from our days on the (mission) field, when we’d look forward to the mail drops or to having the kids home from boarding school. But I’m learning to live as much as possible in the NOW.”

On a recent morning, watching a sunrise from the living room, she found herself thanking God as she mentally traced a list of blessings: Family. Friends. Phone calls and notes of encouragement. A good church. A full life. Time with Ray.

Each day, they agreed, is an answer to prayer.

“We usually think about praying for THE answer, as if there were one thing,” Ray said. “But we pray for good days, and we have good days. I don’t know what the one answer is. I’ll take each day as a gift of God.”

Ray draws comfort from a familiar verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

He recalled what the late Anglican priest David Watson wrote before his own death from cancer: “We know the evil will come. We just don’t have to fear it.”

Is that true for him? Ray paused. Yes, he said in a steady voice. Then he looked over at his wife of 55 years and his eyes filled with tears.

“I suppose if there’s anything, it’s thinking about leaving one another, the separation,” he said. “But other than that – no, not really.”

They try not to dwell on fear, Ray said.

“That psalm ends, ‘Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,’” he said. “And they have. God has blessed us. He’s been there in every time.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 Nov 2009.

With Ethiopia in turmoil, a calm commitment

image from CMF International

Ray Giles had reason to be nervous. It was Ethiopia in the 1970s and he was an American missionary in a strained land.

With a few colleagues, he had traveled to a small town miles from his own home base to visit three Ethiopian evangelists who had been jailed on false accusations of branding converts. Local authorities were agitating the townspeople.

Ray and his companions stayed at a friend’s house, and a large, menacing crowd started gathering there. Missionaries had been attacked elsewhere, and people seemed primed for violence. The homeowner went out and offered himself to the mob. “Take me,” he pleaded. “Please don’t hurt my friends!”

“It got dark and things quieted down,” Ray recalled this week. “Nothing happened, but it could have easily erupted into violence. People went home after a while, and the next day we went about our business.”

Such calm commitment is fairly typical of Ray and Effie, his wife of 55 years. In 1968, they and their four young children left a church ministry in Greenville, N.C., for the Ethiopian highlands, after being gradually convinced by the Holy Spirit, they say, to join a team from Indianapolis-based Christian Missionary Fellowship. First with the Oromo people and later with the Gumuz people in the lowlands, they offered general education, basic medical care, Bible teaching and leadership for the new congregations.

“The time I most delighted in was a village meeting at night,” said Ray, now 74. “I’d often walk about 20 miles and go into a smoke-filed house to have a meeting of eight to 12 people. I’d do that on a regular basis, week by week.”

They moved to Africa during the turbulent post-colonial period, when dozens of nations on the continent were gaining independence and the Cold War was at its height. Unlike most African nations, Ethiopia avoided colonial rule almost completely, but resentment of the West could cross borders. Politicians and war lords exploited suspicions about Western domination.

Ethiopia mapAll the missionaries in Ethiopia were evacuated when the Marxists took power in 1977. The Gileses briefly assisted with relief efforts during a 1985 famine. They finally returned in 1992, a year after the regime was pushed out, and stayed seven more years. When they retired in 2000, they settled in Johnson City, where they had connections through Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.

“Our experience in Africa gave us an appreciation for the many different ways of life and of understanding reality,” Ray said. “As a visitor, you see the poor people and think how unfortunate they are. But you see more laughter there than in the U.S.”

They were also impressed by the ingenuity of the people and their ability “to live within the environment without changing the environment.” Ray and Effie’s dedication to a simple life was a gift from Africa.

 “People haven’t heard that being content with what you have is what you should pursue,” Ray said. “Family and friends are more important than things. Hospitality is important.”

He fondly recalled visits in homes, where drinking coffee – in the land where coffee was first cultivated – was a once- or twice-daily ritual that allowed time for long conversations.

“We have gained more than we have been given,” said Effie, 73. “We have been accepted by people even though we are so different, really in spite of our differences.”

Not that the Gileses idealize Ethiopia. Governmental corruption and a deep-seated culture of nepotism still cause problems, not to mention regular threats of drought, famine or regional conflicts.

But they look past those troubles. What motivated them, Effie said, was to see people transformed. In animistic societies, she explained, people will do almost anything to appease the spirits that control their lives, even sacrificing humans.

“It was exciting to see the change,” she said, “to see their freedom from fear.”

Their days are still full. There’s family: 11 grandchildren and 11 great-children (“with four more on the way,” Effie noted). There’s Lone Oak Christian Church, where Ray serves as an elder. They often teach in seminars and at colleges as guest lecturers. They are mentoring a new generation of missionaries, including some of their own children and grandchildren.

And as of July, there has been Ray’s cancer.

So that typically calm commitment, which has served them so well before, is being tested in a new way. That’s the story for next week.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 14 Nov 2009.

A new road leading to Rome, via Canterbury

welcome matAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”

After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.

The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.

The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.

Canterbury Cathedral

That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.

The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)

Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.

But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain.  Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Vatican

insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.

“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”

Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.

“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”

The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.

Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury. 

St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”

He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.