Looking out over his class, one day, a teacher in Minnesota decided to ask this question: "How many of you had breakfast this morning?" A few students raised their hands, but they were definitely in the minority.
And so the teacher went on with his survey. Addressing the students who had not eaten breakfast, he asked, "How many of you skipped breakfast today because you don't like to eat breakfast?" A few hands went up. He asked, "How many of you skipped breakfast today because you simply didn't have time to eat?" More hands went up.
At this point, the teacher realized he needed to be delicate. He guessed that the remainder of those who had skipped breakfast had done so because their family was too poor to feed them. But he didn't want to embarrass anyone. So he asked, "How many of you skipped breakfast today because your family... simply... doesn't eat breakfast right now?" This time, many hands went up.
But there was still one boy who had not raised his hand. And so the teacher asked this boy directly, "And how about you, why didn't you eat breakfast this morning?" With all sincerity, the boy answered, "Because it wasn't my turn."
* * *
I found this story on the Web. By the time I found it, I had already surfed my way through a truckload of statistics.
40,000 people die from hunger-related causes every single day. Most of them are children. Here in the United States, one child in 5 is poor. In fact, we have the highest child poverty rate of any industrialized country.
Also in our country, 2.5 million elderly people experience "food insecurity." In other words, they don't know where their next meal will come from. More than one American in 10 relies on a food pantry, a soup kitchen or some other emergency feeding program.
The numbers scroll by, like a roll call of despair. In the cold, clinical language of numbers, they try to communicate something that defies understanding.
The problem is huge. It is debilitating. It is lethal. It is tragic. The numbers confirmed what I already knew.
And then, I come across the story of a boy who has to wait his turn for breakfast. And this one anecdote moves me more than all of the statistics combined. Suddenly, there is a human face on all of this suffering.
And the funny thing is this: other boys and girls in this class go without breakfast every day. They have already raised their hands to affirm that no one in their families eats breakfast right now. From a purely practical point of view, this one boy is better off than a number of his classmates. At least he does get a turn. Although he may have to wait several days in the meantime, at least he does get a turn.
But it is his story that breaks my heart. His answer shocks me into looking at my own family. Almost against my will, I imagine what it would be like to live with such scarcity. I imagine what it would be like to be faced with the task of deciding which of my children will eat today — and which of them will begin the day in hunger.
Because he surprised me, this little boy was able to sneak past all of my defenses. All of those numbers are eclipsed by a face. And in his face, I see a reflection of my own face. I see the face of my children reflected in his face.
And it breaks my heart.
I want to say again that there is no logic in this. From a purely logical standpoint, I should be heartbroken by the 40,000 people who die from hunger every day. I should be heartbroken by the people who never get any breakfast at all.
But how can I let all of these people into my heart? How can I really face 40,000 deaths every day? I simply cannot endure the weight of it.
And so, I have built up something like a callous against this issue. I have built up a layer of insensitivity against those overwhelming numbers. I have become partially numb to those horrible, fly-covered images of famine.
Most of the time, I don't want to think about it. I just don't want to think about it.
When I was asked to speak today on the subject of hunger, I didn't know what to say. I still don't know what to say. Everything I think of sounds trite. What can I say besides "Hunger is Bad?"
Briefly, I thought about taking a metaphorical approach to hunger. I thought I could explore our "hunger" for God, or even our "hunger" for community. But that approach would overlook the very real issue of literal, physical hunger.
And physical hunger deserves our attention. According to Scripture, God has taken a special interest in the issue of hunger from the days before Israel was a nation up through the days of the early church — from the book of Genesis up through the book of Revelation.
To spiritualize hunger would be like taking everything Jesus had to say against violence and then concluding, "this really has nothing to do with war — the important thing is that we have peace in our hearts." To spiritualize hunger would risk warping the Gospel into something ethereal and insubstantial.
And Jesus is very practical. He identifies himself with the hungry. He actually says, "Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do for me."
But what can you do when Jesus dies of hunger 40,000 times every day? What can be said in the face of such overwhelming need? Of course we don't want to think about it! How can we? How can we comprehend something like this?
Maybe comprehension is the wrong goal.
I think it is safe to say that God brings certain people into our lives. Let's not start with a number like 40,000. Let's start with a number like one or two — if you consider yourself a star pupil, then think in terms of 10 or 12. Who are the people that God has brought into your life? Who are the people that God has placed under your care? There is not necessarily any logic in this process. They are simply the people laid upon your heart.
Can you see their faces? Do you see the face of Christ when you look at them?
We must regard these people. We must treat them with respect. Remember these words of James, ‘Suppose a person comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, "Here is a good seat for you," but say to the poor one, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?'
God does not believe in trickle down economics. God does not believe that the poor are best helped when we benefit the rich. Instead, we must see these people. We must learn to see their faces, to see the face of Christ in them. We must include them in the circle of our community. And we must take them into our hearts.
We must distinguish between the issue of poverty and the poor people among us. We must distinguish between the issue of hunger and the hungry people among us. Even if the issues overwhelm us, we must remain open to the people. We can't have them stand apart from us in a corner out of the way. And we can't have them crouch down beneath us so that they are out of our line of sight.
I still don't know what to say about hunger. But the hungry are our neighbors. When God gives you eyes to see them, then strive to include them. Act on their behalf. Through your actions, give a demonstration of your faith.