WASHINGTON – When it comes to the nasty tone of American politics these days, Tony Hall has a unique solution. Pray together.
Hall, whose name may not be a household word in America, none the less has had a large effect on the world around him, and on the plight of starving people in the Third World and in his home town of Dayton, Ohio.
He is in many ways an anomaly at a time when partisan identity and ideological purity are
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important to so many. Hall served for 24 years as a congressman from Dayton. He is both a liberal Democrat and a committed evangelical Christian, which means he parts ways with many of his fellow Democrats on the question of abortion rights. He also knows how to step across the political aisle, which these days seems to be a growing gulf. President George W. Bush, most decidedly a Republican, appointed him to be the ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, a post he held until 2006.
That across-the-aisle stuff comes easily to a man who says he met, for years, with a Republican colleague in the House once a week to share a scripture, a hymn and a prayer.
“By getting people together and praying together, it’s very hard to get up and go on the floor and get mad at each other,” he said, noting that some members of Congress (but obviously not enough) still do this. But they don’t want that publicized, “and they shouldn’t.”
I heard Hall speak here as part of the annual conference of Results International, a group that advocates on behalf of the poorest people in the world using mostly volunteers. Full disclosure: Results gave me an award five years ago for columns I wrote about these issues. That’s not why I continue to write them. The organization is aligned with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit system for empowering people to rise above poverty. It is, as its name implies, an organization that focuses on rational ways to get results, not only concerning poverty but also world health.
One such cause is preventable child deaths. Thanks to the efforts of GAVI, an international vaccine alliance funded in part by the U.S., such deaths have fallen from 12.6 million children in 1990 to about 4.2 million last year, despite an increase in the overall population.
While this is great news, Hall wants a greater focus on hunger. Early in his tenure in Congress, he traveled to Ethiopia during a time of civil war and famine. He stood with a doctor outside a clinic and watched at least 10,000 people beg for help. The doctor said he had enough supplies to save maybe five of them, and he was trying to choose.
Women were trying to hand Hall their babies. “I can’t get over that. I still think about it,” he said. But he has done more than think. After reading Isaiah 58, a chapter about the power of fasting, he went without food for 22 days to protest the elimination of the House Select Committee on Hunger in 1993. Later, he became director of the Alliance to End Hunger.
His hope is to force a planned presidential debate at Wright State near Dayton this fall to focus on this issue. World hunger likely isn’t a part of either Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s platform, but Hall sees it as a vital part of national security. “Do you want to recruit a terrorist? Go somewhere where people are hungry and put guns their hands,” he said.
Eliminate the kind of gnawing hunger that saps hope and you strengthen nations and make a strong case for freedom and liberty. You also strengthen this nation.
In a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post a few years ago, Hall invoked Abraham Lincoln who, at the height of the Civil War, called for a day of “national humiliation,” involving fasting and prayer. “God judges entire nations, not only individual citizens, according to their participation in God’s best hopes and dreams for the world,” he wrote.
If this all sounds too radical, maybe it’s time we asked ourselves why.