David Beckmann: ‘Asking God to open doors for hungry people’

Asking powerful people for help in the name of God is profoundly religious work, says the president of Bread for the World.

The Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a grassroots Christian lobby organization dedicated to eradicating global hunger. The group works through Christian denominations and congregations, on college campuses and in strategic partnership with a variety of other organizations. It describes itself as “a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.”

David BeckmannBefore joining Bread for the World in 1991, Beckmann served at the World Bank for 15 years, overseeing projects to make the bank more effective in reducing poverty. A Lutheran pastor, he holds degrees from Yale University, Christ Seminary and the London School of Economics. His books include “Transforming the Politics of Hunger” and “Grace at the Table: Ending Hunger in God’s World.”

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity spoke with Beckmann in February 2009 while he was attending the Hunger No More conference at The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Raleigh, N.C.

Q: How is your work different because it’s faith-based?

When we’re lobbying in Congress for hungry people we’re always outgunned, and it’s always uphill. In a very real way this is work done on your knees, asking powerful people to remember really poor people, asking people across the country who have the influence of citizens -- or who have dollars to contribute that influence -- to get something done for poor people.

Fundamentally we’re asking God to open doors for hungry people. So I think the work of Bread for the World for hungry people is profoundly religious work, and doing it has actually given me a more lively faith, a clear sense of God’s presence in the unfolding history of our world. We often have the experience of doors opening in an uncanny way. Some of that is the moral claim -- that we come to powerful people in the name of God and ask for help, and sometimes they help. They do something that is not really in their own interest, so there’s a palpable sense that the word of God really has power.

Q: Could this work be done by any well-meaning group of people?

There are effective secular organizations that are grounded in humanitarian concern, so you can work effectively that way. But it’s not an accident that the biggest lobby for poor people in the country is Christian. I think 90 percent of the energy in Bread for the World comes from people who know the love of God in Jesus Christ and there’s real power in that. The love of God in Christ does really move people to action and to persistence. Active concern about hungry people is not limited to Christians, and we can work with secular organizations that are often very effective, but Bread for the World’s effectiveness and energy and persistence does draw on the power of the Christian gospel.

Q: How do you keep enthusiastic in the face of such a formidable goal as the elimination of hunger?

The world has made progress against hunger, poverty and disease. That’s real. In 1960, 55,000 kids died every day from unnecessary causes. That’s now down to about 25,000 kids. Bread for the World’s work was a big part of that. In the 1980s Bread for the World got U.S. funding for child survival programs. Those programs were expanded all over the world. They’re still being carried on. Poor parents all over the world now know some simple things that they can do to keep their kids alive, and all over the world mass inoculations are available, so that has dramatically reduced death among little children. Despite rapid population growth, the number of people in extreme poverty in the world has dropped from 1.8 billion in 1995 to 1.4 billion in 2005. It’s just not true that we haven’t made progress.

There’s still a lot of poverty and misery in the world, of course, and the economic crisis is a huge setback for us. One thing we do to keep people motivated is to help them see that their letters to Congress often contribute to real change in U.S. policy, and changes in U.S. policy have contributed to major improvements, have made things better.

Q: How can Bread’s grassroots efforts be a model for others seeking change?

Clearly a lot depends on people coming together at the local level to tackle problems. Bread for the World is an example of that. Our great strength is that local people provide the leadership and the energy to move their members of Congress. Another thing that other groups can learn from Bread is the power of diverse people of faith working together in churches and other faith communities.

A lot of motivation comes from God, and so organizing in the churches to solve social problems can sometimes be really effective. But if people organize at the grassroots level and don’t try to influence government policy, I think they’re missing a big opportunity. On many issues it’s crucial for local people to get together and figure out what the problem of the community is and tackle it.

Q: Isn’t Bread’s leadership model about deputizing citizens?

We provide information on national issues that are important to hungry people and to local people of faith all across the country so they can act effectively and act together to change policies in a way that will reduce hunger. We don’t have to deputize in the sense that they have that power. But most people don’t use their power, and Bread for the World provides information that helps people do it. The other thing Bread for the World does is help Christian people be aware of the social justice dimension of faith. But our best contribution is then to provide people who get it with [a way to] really make a difference.

Q: Abolishing world hunger is an imposing goal. What is needed now from faith communities?

We need churches and faith communities to help people deal spiritually with the economic crisis, to pray about our problems. When we do that then we don’t pray just about our own problems, we pray about the problems of other people in need, and right now almost all of us have been hurt by the economic crisis. But it’s easy to forget that hungry and poor people in our country and around the world have been hurt most acutely.

We must also preach about the goodness and mercy of God in a way that will help us avoid spiritual contraction in the midst of this economic contraction. The economic crisis calls the churches to faith and generosity, shifting our sense of security from our 401(k)s to the provision of God and being generous when it really hurts; it’s not being generous out of our excess, but being generous even at a time when we have a little less.

Q: In interviews, you have praised the antipoverty work of former President George W. Bush. You also have praised some of President Barack Obama’s antipoverty proposals. What are your hopes for President Obama’s leadership on hunger relief?

In President Obama we’ve got a president who has promised to end child hunger in America, to cut poverty in half in America. He wants the U.S. to be supportive of the global goal of reducing hunger and poverty by 2015. He supports reform of U.S. foreign assistance to make it more effective for poor people.

Q: How can pastors empower people in the pews?

I hope the churches help their members to engage in solving the problem by reaching out to people who are desperately in trouble locally and on the other side of the world. And one way to do that is to influence our government. The government right now is making huge decisions and those decisions can be more or less helpful to the least of these. Christians need to weigh in to help get the federal government to do things that will protect poor people and help them to participate in the recovery.

Q: In the Gospel, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” This moral injunction is binding for Christian leaders. How are they doing at carrying it out?

I have never met a Christian of any stripe who didn’t understand that helping hungry people is to Christian faith as breathing out is to breathing in. Everybody knows it. It’s really obvious. In fact I’ve never met a religious person who thought you could get close to the holy and walk away from hungry people.

I think what usually moves people to action is a sense of the goodness and mercy of God. So it’s that we as Christians are hungry people who are fed by God. We ask God for our daily bread and we are provided with our daily bread. We eat bread and wine that is the body and blood of Christ; so we’re hungry, we’re fed.

Q: How do you get people to see that it has to be a change in the way they live -- not just something they believe, but something they do?

I think that faith in the real God moves us to real sacrifice. When I talk to people who are moved to sacrificial giving it starts with the sense of God’s abundance in their lives, shalom in their lives, the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God in their lives. Out of that sense of being embraced by God some people are moved to share.

Q: How important is it for Christian leaders in seminaries and congregations to make anti-hunger initiatives part of the living faith of their respective communities?

I think the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures suggest that religion that doesn’t move people to share their bread with hungry people is phony religion. We can sing all the hymns we want and pray the nicest prayers. If we’re not in real solidarity with people in need, that’s not worshipping the real God.

I also think that seminary education in America would be strengthened by more practical knowledge of how to proclaim our faith in God in the public square -- how to get involved in public life, political life, in a way that reflects God who is the Lord of nations.

Seminaries do almost all encourage clinical pastoral education, so many people in their clergy training learn how to listen to people, and they learn something about counseling and psychology. But a lot of people come through seminary and don’t learn much about practical ways that the church can make a difference in public life and proclaim its faith that God is not just about our personal lives, but that God is also the Lord of history, that nations rise and fall according to whether they’re faithful, whether they care for people in need. That’s a real deficiency in American theological education.

Q: How do you receive God’s mercy in your own life?

I live in a nice house and drive a nice car, and I am grateful that God is patient with me, and that I wake up every morning and God forgives my sins and says, “OK, you’re not that great, but go do something.”

And I just think God’s mercy trumps God’s justice often. But it’s God’s mercy that then moves us to respond to people in need. We’re not going to be Mother Teresa, but to take a step, to do something to help those in need, even in a time of economic difficulty for all of us.

Q: As a leader, how do you stay attentive to the gospel and not feel as if you are merely running another bureaucracy?

I go to church every Sunday and pray every morning, and I try to ground my life in the gospel. As staff of Bread for the World we start most important meetings with prayer. We have routine times for prayer. The board is also a prayerful board that really, I think, is led by the Spirit.

And Bread for the World groups across the country usually include worship and religious reflection in their meetings. We really are a Christian anti-hunger movement, so staying grounded in the gospel is basic to the vitality of Bread for the World at every level.

I’m reminded that this is the Lord’s work, not just ours, and ask God for guidance.

Q: When you feel down or overwhelmed, what do you do to help relieve that stress?

When I’m overwhelmed or feel down, I often take time to reflect on what’s going on inside me and ask God for help. I actually do it on the word processor, which I find really helpful. I type it out in the form of a prayer -- type out what’s making me feel confused and depressed. It’s really interesting because when you do that it’s often sort of the fifth thing that occurs to you to pray about that you realize, “Oh, that’s really where I should start my prayer,” so you can kind of revise your prayer.

But that’s what I think God really does in prayer, one of those things that happens in prayer. It teaches us to see things from the perspective of God. So it’s a way of reorganizing our worries and putting them in context.

I don’t know of anybody else who does that, but for me it really works to write out my worries as a prayer or try to diagnose my spiritual turmoil in a prayer form, and then actually revise it, write it a different way, move it around. By the time you get down to the end of the prayer, you realize, “Oh, there’s something down here that really belongs at the top that puts everything else in context.”

Q: You exercise daily, including frequent morning runs. Why is it important to you to also take time to care for your body, to be in good physical condition, and why should that be important to other leaders?

We’re only effective if we’re healthy and if our family life is loving and also if we take time for prayers. It’s a systematic part of my life to spend time in prayer and family matters, and rest and relaxation.

I just think that’s good sense. We’re human beings and we need to be in good health in order to do the work we have to do. It’s crucial to stay healthy in mind and body. I put it in my work program in a formal way, so part of my work plan is prayer, family and rest.

So I think I model it (at Bread), and it shows up in other people’s work programs. We have a walking group, a yoga group, an Alcoholics Anonymous group among Bread’s staff. Those programs are organized by staff. We have a Friday morning prayer time. I certainly encourage people to take time for good health.