We just completed the busiest holiday season in our 33 year history: over 800 food drives, thousands of volunteers, and numerous special events, engaging more and more people in the work of hunger relief. In November and December alone, the Food Bank distributed record breaking amounts of food and grocery products to our partner agencies – eight million pounds. This was not a surprise as our distribution has grown by 85% over the past four years. Our staff, volunteers and supporters have responded to our communities’ needs with creativity, professionalism and tremendous effort. Each time we reach a higher level of service, it’s a marker. It’s something we can be proud of. But, at the same time, we grapple with how to sustain such efforts, knowing that we are embarking on a new era. All indications point to the private sector being required to once again step up our game to meet the growing and diverse needs of people across every strata of society.
Soon after I began to write this newsletter article, our country experienced the tragedy in Connecticut; twenty children and six teachers shot down in cold blood by a mentally ill person with an automatic weapon. It was almost too tragic and sad for words. In fact, there are no words that will ever heal the wounds of the families or the collective wound that we all experience each time something like this happens. And then the gun debate began (again)…the fear that there is easy access to too many guns vs. the fear that somehow the government will come and take our guns away. But very few words about a long failing, underfunded mental health system. That, coupled with easy access to automatic weapons, almost guarantees tragedies like this will happen again and again.
This came on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, a super storm of gigantic proportions. All of us in food banking rally to support our sister food banks when natural disaster strikes, and this one was no exception. We continue to support their long term recovery which we are assured has no quick fix. But weeks after this natural tragedy, there is little conversation about weather patterns, rising seas, super storms, or how we prepare for the next one.
Then the fiscal cliff dominated the news until we all wanted to scream. Was it a cliff or a slippery slope, something that was a critical event or a new metaphor for the future? At the last minute, someone won and someone lost, depending on which pundit or politician was talking at the time. It was clearly not a compromise leading to long term strategies that one might expect in a functional democracy, but a desperate “solution” in preparation for the next cliff. Didn’t we all lose, stuck again in the old argument – more of this and less of that, created for political advantage – and few words about a policy that would challenge all Americans to aspire toward something greater for our country and our children?
While violent acts, natural disasters and national deficits leave most of us stunned, those who must continually fight for survival are actually living with an underlying form of violence every day. How shocking to the system must it feel when there is never enough money to meet one’s basic needs? When there is never enough food, or when you can’t afford to go to the doctor or pay your heating bill? When you’re not sure if you can even pay your rent or mortgage? The stress of never having enough is a form of violence and uncertainty that many people must constantly endure. We see in those we serve the small and large disappointments that bring about fear and a sense of powerlessness. Could this be it? Could this be all there is? And for those of us who have plenty, are our fears and aspirations any different from those with fewer resources? Could this a place of common ground?
Uncertainty and fear seem to be pervading every aspect of our lives today. We worry that someone less deserving will get a benefit – an advantage – and we go on and on about the other people - the rich or the poor, the government or the private sector, or those who somehow seem different from us and who appear callus to our own sense of values and point of view. Sometimes it seems we have no power to change or influence “them”. And we take little time to give thanks for the benefits and freedoms that we do have.
Some of us get caught in the snare of believing so much is wrong that there’s no way we could ever make a difference, so we become paralyzed and don’t do anything. Others of us go in the opposite direction and try to take on too much. The great theologian Thomas Merton has said, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects….is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist….kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Almost everyone has had to fight off cynicism and negativity at one time or another. Even those of us who believe in and work for our collective future have to be careful not to succumb. We’ve had to push forward even when at times when the odds were stacked against us or there was little momentum. So, what are the wise ways to address many of the problems facing us today? How can we tap that inner wisdom Merton speaks about? Perhaps the answer comes in simpler approaches, small gestures that support our own sense of what is right. Perhaps it comes in a slower rush to judgment.
As we begin the New Year we would do well to take stock – create more space – listen more intently – learn more humbly – act more consistently – and sustain our actions more faithfully.
There will always be conflicting interests and we can’t personally address them all. But we can do something. And out of our actions, no matter how small, will come a greater sense of clarity and empowerment. We can build our collective future on this foundation: each of us taking one step at a time. I look forward to taking that step with you.
-Bill Bolling, Executive Director
This letter was published in the Spring 2013 Foodsharing, our quarterly print newsletter. Find out how you can get Foodsharing delivered to your family.