A Key Note Address By
Bishop Dr Chibuzo Raphael Opoko, TFG, JP, DOB
Secretary Of Conference, Methodist Church Nigeria
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN FIGHTING HUNGER AND POVERTY: BEING THE TEXT OF A KEYNOTE ADDRESS PRESENTED AT THE OPENING SESSION OF THE 29TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE LIBERIAN COUNCIL OF CHURCHES (LCC) HOLDING TODAY 13TH DAY OF MARCH 2014 AT THE NEW WATER IN THE DESERT ASSEMBLY APOSTOLIC PENTECOSTAL CHURCH INTERNATIONAL, BREWERVILLE, LIBERIA BY BISHOP DR CHIBUZO RAPHAEL OPOKO, TFG, JP, DOB, SECRETARY OF CONFERENCE, METHODIST CHURCH NIGERIA AND WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES (WCC) EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEMBER.
Her Excellency, Mrs Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
President of the Republic of Liberia
Rt. Rev. Dr. Jonathan B.B. Hart,
President, Liberian council of Churches (LCC)
Rev. Dr. Kortu K. Brown,
1st Vice President, LCC
Archbishop John Kroma,
2nd Vice President, LCC
Attorney James Y. Gayflor,
General Secretary, LCC
Bishop Duncan Williams,
Action Chapel Int.l, Accra, Ghana
Revered Fathers in the Faith, Heads of denominations and Ecumenical Representatives,
Beloved children of God,
All other protocols fully observed,
Let me begin by expressing my profound gratitude to the leaders of the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC) especially the Rev Dr. Kortu Brown for asking me to stand at the gap and give a keynote address on the Role of the Church in fighting Hunger and Poverty at this 29th General Assembly of the LCC.
I was indeed requested to stand in and step into the large shoes of a great father – our indefatigable former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a great respectable African Statesman - General Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR, who retired into active farming and a very passionate man of agriculture. I think he was best suited to give this keynote address being himself a foremost farmer and former president of a great Nation, Nigeria. He could not be here today for some reasons, hence the privilege given to me to stand in the gap.
Let me humbly state here that the task has been enormous given the time frame within an already crowded schedule. This task was given to me less than 36 hours to this time of the delivery of this paper. I had left my office by 11 pm and got to my house about 12 midnight. I worked so late to tidy and clear my table since I was going to be away for some days. Consequently, I had no time at to prepare for this keynote address.
I had contemplated declining this request which undoubtedly will put me under enormous pressure but the resonance of the awesome and enabling words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, “I can do all things through HIM that strengthens me” and “with HIM all things are possible” made me to accept and gave my affirmation that I shall deliver the address God being my helper.
I am therefore not claiming any authority on the subject matter nor great knowledge of the topic, but accept the fact that whatever good that comes out of this interactive transaction, the glory goes to the Almighty God who has given me the enabling grace to come out with this keynote address.
The topic is the role of the church in fighting hunger and poverty. What is hunger? What is poverty? What and who is the Church? To enable us understand and appreciate the subject matter, a definition of the operative words or terms is inevitable.
3.2 What is poverty? According to internet accessed WordIQ.com, Poverty describes a wide range of circumstances associated with need, hardship and lack of resources. For some, poverty is a subjective and comparative term; for others, it is moral and evaluative; and for others, scientifically established. The principal uses of the term include: -
In the context of this paper, I will adopt the World Poverty Copenhagen Declaration that describes absolute poverty as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information." The World Bank identifies "extreme poverty" as being people who live on less than $1 a day, and "poverty" as less than $2 a day.
The role of the church in fighting hunger and poverty is the fight against the severe deprivation of basic human needs and the passionate effort to eradicate the weakness or pain occasioned by a prolonged lack of food by ensuring the provision of food and the empowerment of people with sustainable livelihood ventures.
In internet accessed information on know your facts about hunger and poverty, it is recorded that the world population is 7 billion people. It is reported that the world produces enough food to feed all the seven billion people who dwell in it but that “those who go hungry either do not have land to grow food or money to purchase the food”. Even today in reality there are people who have land but they cannot grow food as the soil fertility had been eroded or even polluted by oil spillage.
It is delightful and pertinent to know that the problem and challenge of hunger and poverty is not above solution, where there is a concerted and purposeful effort by all stakeholders with an integrated approach to wage war against hunger and poverty.
It was also reported that “poverty is the main cause of hunger, and hunger is a cause of poverty”. A friend of mine once said that ‘Poverty is sin’. That saying is subject to further analytical research.
It has been reported that there exist 842 million people of the world who are undernourished. These people are no doubt those who ought to benefit from the enough and adequate food the world produces but unfortunately, they are denied by factors of unjust economic structures and distributions and gross imbalance in levels of income opportunities to access some of the available foods.
The implication is recorded as such that “one in eight people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life”. Hunger and malnutrition are reported to be in fact the number one risk to health worldwide – greater than AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
No doubt the naked realities of the crises of hunger and food have made hunger a serious subject matter that occupies a central focus in the agenda of today’s world. Issues and photographs of starving children, displaced persons, refugees cuing all daylong to get handouts of food are constantly relayed to us in the sitting and living rooms of our homes via televisions and cable networks. Non-governmental organizations, international agencies and many more are all engaged in robust discussions on food security strategies with a view to combating and eradicating hunger and poverty from the land.
The state of the food security in the world 2013 reports that 98% of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries. It shows that Asia accounts for 552 million people; Sub-Saharan Africa 223 million and Latin America and the Caribbean 47 million people. It stated also that 60% of the world’s hungry are women. The implication is that hunger is often passed to children from their mothers. A healthy mother – a well fed mother will give birth to a well fed and healthy child. It was also reported that 17 million children are born underweight because their mothers are malnourished.
Facts about global hunger reported that in 2010, an estimated 7.6 million children – more than 20,000 a day – died from hunger. Children as you can see are the most visible victims of under nutrition. It has been reported that children who had poor nutrition suffer up to 160 days – 5 months plus illness each year.
You will agree with me that such a situation whereby a given child within a family space will suffer sickness for 5 months plus in a year will further impoverish the said family as scarce resources will be employed for seeking medical attention. No doubt such a situation will further promote poverty in the same family.
Poor nutrition is said to have accounted for half of the 10.9 million child mortality each year – that is about 5 million deaths per year. Is this not a catastrophic situation? Undernutrition is reported to magnify the effect of every disease, including measles and malaria. The lack of essential nutrients and other minerals is a direct and open invitation to assorted and varying diseases and sickness.
According to Black 2003 and Bryce 2005, the estimated proportions of deaths in which undernutrition is said to be the underlying cause is reported to be ‘roughly similar to diarrhea (61%), malaria (57%), pneumonia (52%), and measles (45%). Malnutrition is reported to be capable of reducing the body’s ability to convert food into usable nutrients through such diseases that cause diarrhea.
It has also been reported that undernutrition among pregnant women in developing countries leads to 1 out of 6 infants born with low birth weight. The implication is that it is not only a risk factor for neonatal deaths but also causes learning disabilities, mental retardation, poor health, blindness and premature death.
Poverty with hunger or hunger with poverty is a vicious circle. It leads to undernutrition and malnutrition as a result of lack of resources to get food and the lack of food itself. This in turn hinders access to micronutrients that are very essential to being in health and healthy living. The Apostle John wrote that we should prosper in all things and be in health as our soul prospers.
Hunger and poverty exacerbate micronutrients deficiency which in turn causes a myriad of health challenges that hinder our prospering in everything and being in health. It also robs victims off productivity.
The following are the challenges to health and healthy living occasioned by micronutrients deficiencies brought about by the lack of food: -
Deficiency of this vitamin can cause night blindness and reduce the body’s resistance to disease. This predicts weak body immunity which could occasion open and unrestricted invitation to diseases and subsequently sickness. It is reported that the lack of this vitamin in children could cause growth retardation. World health Organisation (WHO) reports that between 100 and 140 million children are vitamin A deficient. Also an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A deficient children become blind every year, and half of them dying within 12 calendar months of losing their sight. When some of these occur, we blame the works of darkness while the actual remote cause is hunger and poverty. The bible says that my people perish for lack of knowledge.
Iron deficiency is reported to be the principal cause of anemia. WHO, records that over 30% of the world’s population – two billion people are anemic largely due to iron deficiency, and in developing countries, frequently exacerbated by malaria and worm infections. It is recorded that in children, health consequences include premature birth, low birth weight, infections, and elevated risk of death. Later physical and cognitive development is impaired, resulting in lowered school performance. For pregnant women, anemia is reported to contribute to 20% of all maternal deaths (WHO).
According to WHO, iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) jeopardize children’s mental health and often their lives.
WHO also noted that serious iodine deficiency during pregnancy may result in still births, abortions and congenital abnormalities such as cretinism, a grave and irreversible form of mental retardation that affects people living in iodine deficient areas of Africa and Asia. WHO also observed that IDD causes mental impairment that lowers intellectual prowess at home, at school, and at work. WHO also noted that, IDD affects over 740 million people; 13% of the world’s population. WHO again observed that 50 million people have some degree of mental impairment caused by IDD. This no doubt is a crises situation. Yet the church appears to be silent at such a grave crises situation.
My dear people of God, sometimes when mothers within our given family and neighborhood spaces have still birth, or give birth to children who go blind after a short time, the tendency in this our African setting is to blame witches and wizards and try to locate the source of the problem or challenge sometimes to our relations or perceived enemies, when the actual cause of the challenge is lack of food.
The issues of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, gay and lesbian relationships, sexuality and more have occupied centre stage discussions in our churches and in the larger societies today, but the church appears complacent and has somewhat remained seemingly silent and unresponsive in the core issues of hunger and poverty that is ravaging millions of people in the world especially in the Sub-Sahara Africa, Asia and Latin America.
I must commend the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC) for coming up with this robust programme at the national level and also utilizing the opportunity of the 29th General Assembly to focus on the fight against hunger and poverty in the land. The LCC President and all the organizers are here well appreciated for this outstanding contribution to human and national development.
Let me inform us that hunger and poverty are part of justice and peace issues. The WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea 2013 adopted a theme, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace”.
There can be no peace when we are not prospering and being in health as our soul prospers. There is no justice when people are starving in the face of abundance food in the world. How can the world produce enough food that will cater for the world’s seven billion people and yet millions not only go hungry but also die of hunger? Where is the justice? How can there be peace?
We are all in the pilgrimage of justice and peace. By addressing the issues of hunger and poverty, the LCC are also addressing in line with WCC justice and peace issues. This means that we are all in the journey of pilgrimage of justice and peace.
The text given to me 3 John 2 says, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers”. The Apostle John knew the need for caring, hospitality and accommodation of strangers and the needy when he wrote to Gaius an outstanding Christian leader who had the mind of Christ and was practicing care, hospitality and support for the needy programme. The text calls for the holistic care of the body and soul; prosper in all things and also be in health with the prosperity of souls
He commended Gaius who had a ‘habit of hospitality with a great reputation for friendship and generosity’ to all who came across him, whether teachers, missionaries, strangers or slaves. He took a swipe on Diotrephes who was a self proclaimed Christian leader without the mind of Christ and who never reflected God’s values (see verses 9 – 11).We must emulate as church leaders the spirit and attitude of Gaius in today’s church.
We have leaders in our churches today who are only concerned about their personal and family welfare and wellbeing; Leaders, who careless about the poor and needy in their space corners; Leaders who are unable to accommodate strangers, the needy and the hungry within their comfort zones. The church must promote and encourage more Gaius in our assemblies.
Some of our churches today have engaged herself in public ceremonies, open celebrations, construction massive edifices and palatial mansions without recourse to caring for her members who are dwelling in the margins of the society suffering hunger and poverty. Some are just doing little about the issues of hunger and poverty. The Prophet Isaiah condemns the hypocrisy associated with the attitude of church leaders and informs us that the Lord is in solidarity with the poor and needy. We cannot continue to fast when the silence of wickedness is maintained at the face of people dying due to hunger and poverty.
The kind of fasting that the Lord requires of us is encapsulated in Isaiah 58: (6-12), 6.“Is this not the fast that I have chosen; To loose the bonds of wickedness. To undo heavy burdens. To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? 7. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? 8. Then your light shall break forth like the morning. Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am, If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10. If you extend your soul to the hungry, And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. 11. The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12. Those from among you shall build the old waste places, You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the breach, The Restorer of streets to dwell in’.
In this passage, God’s concern for the poor and hungry is visibly shown by Prophet Isaiah. It implies that the Church as a visible presence and representative of God, should also be in solidarity with the poor and needy demonstrating in no small measure their commitment to the welfare and wellbeing of the poor, the hungry and the needy. It is not just part of the role of the church but more so part of the core business of the church – caring for the dying and the perishing.
How are the churches responding to the crises situation of hunger and poverty? It was Edmund Burke who was quoted as saying, “For evil to triumph in a society is for good people to remain silent”. The church can no longer remain silent and unresponsive in the face of the devastating effects and impact of hunger and poverty. Silent no more is a wakeup call for and on the church occasioned by this all important subject – the role of the church in fighting hunger and poverty.
The facts of hunger and poverty referred all along above calls for a robust proactive course of action by the church. Archbishop Camara of Brazil was quoted to have said once, “When I give the poor food, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.
It remains a fact in our world today given the magnitude of the challenge of hunger and poverty that there is no saintliness in the continuous charity handouts of the church’s welfare programmes without engaging in human empowerment, capacity building and development. Silent no more!
A famous Chinese proverb says, ‘Give a man a fish, he will hunger again but teach him how to fish, he will never go hungry again’
I challenge the church to be silent no more. The church must awake. The Church must rise up in solidarity with the poor. The church must become responsive to the issues of hunger and poverty in every given space. Issues of justice must not be unattended by the church.
The gulf between the haves and have not’s is increasingly growing in significant proportion. Do we need research from the Food and Agricultural Organization before we see the grave impact of hunger and poverty in the land? Poverty not addressed begets more poverty.
The church must become a caring community of believers where members share with other members and other people in the village what they lack. The poor must be given access to food, clothing, shelter and job as well as given a voice in the church.
When the church keeps silent to the issues of hunger and poverty, they become partners in crime and demonstrate solidarity with the oppressors and oppressive system and structures. It is pertinent to state that when church members refuse to see the problems and pains of the poor, it then means they are blind; when the church and her members refuses to stand up against unjust structures and policies in whatever guise that exacerbate hunger and poverty, it means they are lame; when the church and her members refuses to speak out against issues of injustice, unjust economic policies and structures that perpetuate hunger and poverty, it means they are dumb. The church must never be silent again.
Your Excellency, the President of the Republic of Liberia, the church indeed has roles to play in the fight against hunger and poverty. Some of the outlined roles are not exhaustible. The church is at liberty to partner and associate with government and other well meaning stakeholders in the just fight against hunger and poverty.
The lord Jesus Christ needs us to prosper in all things and be in health as our souls prosper. The Lord will judge us at the last day in accordance with Mathew 25: 35 – 40, “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me a drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36. I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you visited Me”. 37. Then the righteous will answer Him saying, Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give you drink? 38. When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39.Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? 40. And the king will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me”. We will never be judged as failures in the name of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Your Excellency, Mr LCC President, fathers in the Lord and Ecumenical friends, children of God, ladies and gentlemen, that was my keynote address to the 29th general assembly of the Liberian council of Churches.
Thank you and God bless.