World poverty, US shame
August 17, 2009
by Jim O'Leary

When it comes to world poverty, the United States of America should be ashamed of itself. The statistics are stark. We are the stingiest nation on earth. This is not my opinion. This is a fact. I like very much the politician who said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but nobody is entitled to his own facts.”

Here are some facts.

About 25,000 people die every day of hunger, or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations, yet there is plenty of food in the world for everyone. Being malnourished makes people increasingly unable to work, which then makes them even poorer and hungrier. This downward spiral often continues until death for them and their families.

There are effective programs to break this spiral. For adults, there are “food for work” programs where the adults are paid with food to build schools, dig wells, make roads and so on. This both nourishes them and builds infrastructure to end the poverty. For children, there are “food for education” programs where the children are provided with food when they attend school. Their education will help them to escape from hunger and global poverty.

Other facts: Of the 22 wealthiest nations on earth, the United States is the wealthiest, and yet when it comes to the amount of international aid donated to end hunger and extreme poverty in the world, the United States comes in last, 22nd, with only 0.18 percent of its income donated to international aid.

The United Nations agreement from 2002 was that when all 22 wealthy countries achieved the concrete goal of dedicating 0.7 percent of their national income in aid to poor countries, it would amount to $195 billion each year, enough to end hunger and extreme poverty in the world.

Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have already surpassed the goal. Ireland will surpass it next year. The United States hasn’t even started on a schedule; this in a world where more than a billion people try to survive on less than a dollar a day. The United States, as of now, dedicates only 0.18 of its national income to world poverty.

It leads one to wonder how much impact religion has had on this; the so-called most religious nation in the world where people go to church every Sunday by the millions. Is “church” just a fun place to go? A good place to bring the kids? Are there never any challenges as to how to be Christian?

If there ever was one main theme of the Bible, it was “Woe to you rich!” The Good News for the poor was bad news for the rich. And we are rich. We Americans are less than 6 percent of the world population and consume 30 percent of its natural resources.

But, the militant atheist, Ayn Rand, a mediocre novelist who promoted the ideals of individualism and greed is the most popular American writer among teenagers. And the answer to the question of how our kids are doing, even among the best of Christian parents, is about how much money they are making.

Try this as an experiment: the next time there is talk of adult children or grandchildren, listen to see how often money-making or house size is the main theme of their offspring’s success. When one eavesdrops on American conversations in general, more often than not, the talk is money talk. Two thousand years of Christianity and Mammon still rules.

I have no explanation for this. “The American Dream” is still always one of material success. No politician dares to talk about economic justice or call for higher taxes for the common good, especially for people beyond our borders.

No politician dares to question the obscene billions wasted on our national defense by the Pentagon, even though the United States spends more money on its military budget than all of the rest of the world combined. Only religion seems able to call out the best in us so I, a big fan of religion, have tried to keep score and count conversions.

The conversions I have seen have come about when Americans traveled overseas to Third World countries and gotten to know and love the wretched of the earth. They are often sent by their churches. Look at the churches around here, and how often they have reached out to the rest of the world. It’s been pretty often. My editor, Lynda Jensen, doesn’t blow her horn about it, but at her church, she collects medicine for the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti, and her church actually sends people down to Haiti.

What would the world be like without our churches? Pretty awful. When Christians go to other lands and find out they are meeting brothers and sisters they never knew they had, they are never the same afterwards. People like this come back with their lives transformed. The Jesuit Volunteers, mostly from Catholic Jesuit colleges, have a saying, “We will ruin your life.” When their lives are “ruined,” then it is that they, like the saints before them, really are willing to give the shirt off their backs. They went overseas and fell in love.

I am proudly related to the best example I know. My brother, Paul, married Betty Bergquist from Dassel. She had a niece named Marvel and a nephew named Dennis Bergquist, who now lives in Hutchinson. They are part of Bergquist and Associates/Global, a humanitarian effort through agriculture and ministries providing technical skills and practical management to developing countries.

Marvel Bergquist Erickson and Dennis Bergquist have traveled many times to Guatemala, where they worked on several projects to help village people live more productive and healthy lives through things like providing solar ovens and through arranging, through Rotary International, more than 400 pairs of glasses.

Marvel and Dennis were transformed from the wonderful little kids I knew into adult, caring Christians who no longer see foreigners as “foreign,” but as our own brothers and sisters. Dennis and Marvel have been all over the world. For only $94, the Bergquists can provide a cow, and a barn to house it. Microloans like this are changing the world. Look at our own Minnesota Lutheran, Greg Mortenson, who builds schools in Afghanistan, as noted in his book “Three Cups of Tea.”

When there are more Bergquists and Mortensons in the world, it will be a better place. If the day ever comes for all of us, when we see there is no longer “them” and “us” in the world, but only “us,” then, on that day, there will be world peace. Justice will roll down like water. Swords will be turned into plowshares. Lions will lie down with lambs. The hungry will be fed and the sick will be healed. The lame shall walk, and the blind will see.

When we, ourselves, start seeing, we shouldn’t be embarrassed to be Americans.

The contact address for the Bergquist effort is: 2925 Professional Place, Suite 201, Colorado Springs, CO 80904-8105