Twenty-six members of South Koreas
parliament signed a letter nominating Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio) for
the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. The letter cited Halls efforts to
"address issues of hunger, human rights and peace," especially
in North Korea. Hall, a follower of Jesus Christ, has made the needs
of the impoverished and hungry his priority while in office. He spoke
recently with Hal Donaldson, editor in chief.
Evangel: When did you become
a believer in Jesus Christ?
Hall: About 21 years ago,
and I had been in Congress about a year.
Evangel: What were the circumstances?
About one to two years before that, I had heard Charles Colson talk
at a prayer breakfast in Dayton, Ohio. I was a state senator at the
time and went because it would be a good place to be seen. I was very
surprised by what he said. There was great sincerity there. About a
year later I was elected to Congress. For a year I would get up every
Sunday morning and go to a different church. My wife thought something
was wrong with this. "What are you doing?" shed ask.
"Im kind of searching for God but I dont know where
to go," Id say. A young freshman congressman befriended me
and helped lead me to the Lord.
Evangel: What birthed your passion
to help the poor?
Hall: It probably started
in the Peace Corps. I was in Thailand for two years in the late 60s.
When youre in the Peace Corps you have to live pretty much like
the people do. You begin to get the feel of what these people go through
on a daily basis. As a result of that experience, when I came to Congress
I was drawn to the issue of poverty. At first, I didnt have the
slightest idea what to do about it. Then I became a believer. Bill Bright
of Campus Crusade for Christ, a good friend, mentored me for about three
years. He said to me one day, "Do you think its time you
start to bring God into the workplace?" I agreed, but didnt
know how. I was uneasy in those days with people who spoke about God,
especially elected officials. I felt many used it for all the wrong
reasons. But as I began to read the Scriptures they started to come
alive in me. There are at least a couple thousand verses that deal with
the poor. In 1989, after the death of Congressman Mickey Leland, I took
over as chairman of the Select Committee on Hunger. We passed lots of
budgets that year: food aid, child survival activities, immunizing children,
development of systems and paved the way for laws today.
Evangel: You encountered some
Hall: Yes. Some in Congress
felt that, at a time of high deficits, they needed to start paring back,
which was great in principle. But some actions were only symbolic. The
first thing they did was cut the Hunger Committee. I said this was crazy;
my budget was only $600,000. I was mad. So I felt I should fast. I went
on a water-only fast for 22 days.
Evangel: Did you ever think your
political career might be over?
Hall: My staff thought this
was the end of my career. But I was going to fast until something major
happened. A whole lot started to happen. Students at thousands of high
schools around the country started to fast with me, and at a couple
of hundred universities. Newspapers began to take notice. A nonprofit
agency called The Congressional Hunger Center was formed. They have
a national conference on hunger based around the fast. Billions of dollars
over the years have been raised to fight hunger. It was a fast unto
the Lord to break the chains of injustice. I was so amazed by it.
Evangel: Would you ever do it
Hall: Id like to do
it again. Ive fasted on a couple of occasions but not for that
length of time. Fasting has to be about the Lord first.
Evangel: Some people realize
there are hunger problems around the world, but dont recognize
the problem in the United States. Talk about hunger here and abroad.
Hall: For somewhere between
22 and 25 million people in America, hunger is a way of life. Theyre
not starving to death, like in North Korea, but they are hungry. A lot
of these people are children and people on fixed incomes like senior
citizens and the working poor. By the time they pay their utility costs,
rent and gasoline, they are out of money with three or four days left
in the month. They end up going to food banks and soup kitchens. These
are, for the most part, innocent, hardworking people. They are not on
welfare. They dont qualify for government assistance or many other
Evangel: What about around the
Hall: An estimated 900 million
people are severely malnourished. Some 25,000-35,000 people die every
day from hunger in the world. The worst places are North Korea, Sudan,
Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and parts of the Congo. Across Africa drought
and civil war are causing hunger. In North Korea, people are surviving
on maybe 300 grams of food a day, and many are eating substitute food
such as bark, leaves or grass. They grind it up and make noodles out
of it. There is no nutrition in it; you cant digest it. Ive
been there six times and the malnutrition is tragic; even among the
soldiers, growth is stunted.
Evangel: The world hungerproblem is so large, what would you say to the average person who
really wants to make a difference?
Hall: Id say the same
things that Mother Teresa said to me. Do the things in front of you.
The first time I met her in Calcutta, I asked her the same question,
where do you start? In Calcutta, hundreds of thousands live on the street.
She started 50-60 years ago going to the person on the street she saw
first, picking him up, cleaning him off and taking him home. That was
the start. Her point was that if everyone would do what was in front
of them, wed probably solve about 75 percent of our problems.
You dont have to go to Calcutta; feed the people around you who
you know. If the churches did what they should do, there would not be
so many problems for the poor, who ought to be the top priority of believers.
Evangel: Elaborate on that.
Hall: There is this problem
of a church at every corner with its own constituents. They dont
share resources and they dont accomplish as much as they could.
There are great exceptions. I have a lot of churches in my district
that are doing very well and working hard, and I have lots of churches
that are poor and cant do much. But for many churches, there is
so much more they could do.
Evangel: When you travel overseas
one of your practices is to invite someone to come with you and pray.
Tell us about that.
Hall: I take very difficult
trips to places where I see a lot of people who are hurting, a lot of
children who are dying. I meet with some leaders who are scoundrels.
I have found over the years that if I go with people who are believers,
or at least one good friend who can pray with me at night, there is
a certain strength and power that God brings. In 1 Thessalonians 1:2,
Paul talks about always praying for the Thessalonians. In verse 5, he
says three things happen. Believers go with power, the Holy Spirit and
with true conviction. For the past two years, even when I go on official
trips, I take a believer with me. We are in situations where were
well over our heads. The people we meet are more shrewd than we are;
they know the local situation better than we do. They try to manipulate
the process, and a lot of times they are killers.
Evangel: If believers dont
pick up the ball and attempt to feed the hungry, whats the future?
Hall: Well stay right
where we are. The government will help, but well still have great
poverty and the problems that go with poverty.
Evangel: Anything else?
Hall: Americans are basically
good and decent people who give when they know about a problem. Weve
certainly seen that in our countrys response to the September
11 attacks on the U.S. I dont think Americans know about the hungry
in America. You dont see it; you have to hunt for it. You have
to talk to senior citizens to discover theyre making $800 a month
on Social Security but their medical bills are $750 a month. You have
to talk to the working poor to discover theyre making maybe $6
or $7 an hour and have a couple kids. These people are shy and embarrassed.
They dont want to be on welfare. If Americans ever found out about
this, I think they would change. They need to see the need around them
and around the world and recognize that whatever role they can play
as individuals is vital.