Jenise Huffman, Bishop John
by Jenise Huffman
Recently I had the opportunity to introduce a dear friend of mine from Rwanda to my friends in Arkansas, where I live. Bishop John Rucyahana is leading the reconciliation efforts in Rwanda to rebuild the tiny country that was torn apart 15 years ago by a genocide that killed a million people in 100 days. Although Bishop John is an ethnic Tutsi, which is the minority group slaughtered by the Hutus, he teaches (and personally practices) forgiveness as the only way to heal and move forward. He says that if we don’t forgive, then “their” sin becomes OUR sin as we become bitter and want revenge and then repeat the violence that hurt us in the first place.
I go to Africa frequently because my company has an amazing program of technical philanthropy in which technical experts from Tyson teach extremely poor people (incomes of less than $1 per day for a family) how to start a poultry business. This technical philanthropy is the “teach a man to fish” principle in action (slightly revised to “teach a woman to grow a chicken”). Although I travel to Africa to teach, I find that I always learn more from Africans than they learn from me.
I met Bishop John on one of my trips to Rwanda, and my perspective on humanity was forever after altered. Africa is my personal passion – my place of meaning and purpose in life. In my search for significance, many of my strong friends in Africa have taught me just how significant we ALL are, every life in every country, regardless of ethnic group, religion, color or wealth. Unfortunately, a person’s significance in America is measured far too often on his wealth, not his wisdom; his fame, not his philanthropy; his power, not his presence. But what I’m learning from Bishop John and many others across his continent is that the poorest orphan child who lives and dies never leaving a small, remote village is a life just as significant as mine. If we all truly saw the significance of each life, genocide wouldn’t be in our vocabulary, and children wouldn’t starve to death every six seconds as they do today because we would care.
Bishop John is an Anglican Bishop. I’m not part of the Anglican Church, but I am part of humanity, and that gives me the same responsibility Bishop John feels called to act upon – the responsibility to care. Today more than any other time in our planet’s history, we have the financial ability, intellectual know-how and technology to end world hunger in a sustainable way; all we’re lacking is the political will. We don’t care. That sounds incredibly harsh, but it’s the truth I see when I visit Africa. If we cared, we would end world hunger. Hunger has a cure – it is food, and thanks to many scientists over several generations we now have the knowledge to grow food in most soil types and climates. There’s no excuse. We just don’t see the significance of “their” lives because they don’t have political importance to us.
Governments of the Western World have been saying for years that we can’t afford to build sustainable solutions to end world hunger (infrastructure to link smallholder farmers and artisans to markets, access to improved inputs such as fertilizer and seeds, education and technical training, etc.) because it would cost an estimated $195 billion USD per year, according to the United Nations. All the Western countries together couldn’t afford that we’ve told ourselves, but yet last year the US found a trillion dollars overnight to bail out companies that made some bad decisions. That’s not to say that it was a wise spending decision, but it proves that when we have the will to act, we CAN find a way to afford it. We cared about the financial meltdown. We defined significance in dollars, not in humanity.
What would it look like to care?—to really care about every human life and end the mass starvation that’s affecting more than one billion people today. It would look a lot like Bishop John. Caring would look like this small, gentle presence who puts aside his ego and reaches across the divide to touch the hand of the people who slaughtered his family and pull them up into a better life. Bishop John is creating “Reconciliation Villages” all across Rwanda with genocide perpetrators building homes for genocide survivors, and they live side-by-side again rebuilding trust and helping each other move forward. That’s what caring for humanity is – getting past ourselves so we can see others’ needs.
What does genocide reconciliation have to do with hunger? Well, a lot, actually, given Rwanda’s high malnutrition rates, but beyond that it’s the essence of the United Nations Convention on Genocide in 1948 that said our world would never again allow genocide to occur, and then less than 50 years later all the member nations of the UN stood by and watched the genocide rage in Rwanda. Whether the topic is genocide or hunger, Bishop John is correct that we must get past our beliefs and words and instead be moved to action to help mankind. We would care and want the world to care if WE were the ones who were hungry. Remember the poem by German intellectual Pastor Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Maybe you’re not hungry right now, but those who are hungry are relying on us to speak out. If your children were hungry, you would care. Someone’s children are hungry right now. I want to be like Bishop John; I want to care and act. I want to let go of my prejudices and excuses and stop blaming people for their misfortune. I want to care. I want to give every life significance and in the process bring dignity to my own existence. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “To know that one life breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded.” If only we all measured success by what we give rather than what we accumulate…the world wouldn’t be hungry.