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Book Review: I Was Hungry

In the richest nation on earth, millions of people experience hunger every day, and it is the responsibility of all Christians to set aside any ideological divides and find a way to share the abundance. This is the central message of Jeremy K. Everett’s new book: I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End an American Crisis. For 10 years, Everett, MDiv ‘01, has served as the founder and executive director of the Texas Hunger Initiative (THI), a collaborative project aimed at ending hunger, housed in Baylor’s School of Social Work.

Everett’s debut book is a quick and emphatic testimony of his journey of discovery about poverty in America. From working in disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina to building a coffee shop/community center in San Antonio’s West Side, Everett recounts the lessons he has learned.

I Was Hungry serves as part autobiography and part how-to for anyone looking to engage with Everett’s mission to end hunger in the United States. He presents compelling evidence both anecdotally and through research and statistics that outline the gaps through which large sets of Americans still fall, despite the many non-profit missions and governmental programs aimed at providing food for the food-insecure.

Startlingly, more than 40 million Americans are food-insecure and nearly one out of six children in the U.S. live in a food-insecure household, at risk for hunger. Anecdotally, Everett presents vivid stories he has encountered depicting the plight of impoverished Americans, including stories where children are digging through dumpsters for food or failing classes on purpose just to get a free meal in summer school. The stories and statistics are enough to evoke the sympathy of any American, but Everett’s strong theological convictions are what he hopes brings all sides to the table to solve the problem of hunger.

The book opens with a passage from the Bible, Matthew 25: 31-46. This is the parable in which Jesus describes God’s judgment on two groups. God grants eternal life to the righteous, who provided food for the hungry and cared for the vulnerable, while those who did not care for the needy were banished to eternal punishment. In an often-cited line God says, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Everett often returns to this passage and other similar ones in hopes of spurning his fellow Christians to action. He sees the inability of Americans to find a way to feed the hungry as the great moral failing and sin or our time. Everett argues that while many of us have too much food, “it is a tragedy to argue over policies and politics and even Bible verses” instead of finding a way to solve the problem.

The Jesuit theologian, James Keenan, argues in his book, Moral Wisdom, that “Sin is not in our weakness; it is in our strength.” Sin is when the strong do not bother to love. Everett drives home a similar message when he writes, “Hunger in our modern American context is not about famine or a lack of production, but about a lack of concerted effort to ensure that people have access to food… Simply put, they are the people Jesus instructs us to look after, because our mutual well-being requires it.”

Through collaboration, THI has helped to create systems that have led to 100 million more meals being served annually to Texas children than in 2009. To enact that sort of change, Everett knows from experience that the gaps between an increasingly divided America must be closed, and he outlines a number of ways to build consensus. As much as the book is about understanding the plight of the impoverished and appreciating their humanity, it is also about appreciating the perspective and humanity of people with different political beliefs or experiences.

When we see all people as created in the image of God, he argues, then we have no choice but to enact changes to our systems that are letting our neighbors down. “This is our time to recognize the createdness of all of our brothers and sisters, no matter their socioeconomic level, their ethnicity, where they live, or where they are from. We must alter history with the idea that hunger and poverty are not required human conditions.”

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