The Common Good
July-August 2000

Jubilee Begins With Me

by David Beckmann | July-August 2000

Can one person make a difference?

Pat Pelham lives in Birmingham, Alabama. About four years ago, she felt called to help people in need. Her pastor at Independent Presbyterian Church suggested she get their church involved in Bread for the World.

Pat and her friend Elaine Van Cleave came to hear me talk about Bread for the World at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. After that event, Pat and Elaine started to organize. They got their church's hunger committee involved in Bread for the World.

Three years ago, they invited their member of Congress, Rep. Spencer Bachus, to a Bread for the World dinner at Independent Presbyterian. I sat on his left, and the Presbyterian Hunger Action Enabler for Birmingham - a Republican Party activist - sat on his right. We urged Bachus to cosponsor the anti-hunger legislation that Bread for the World was pushing that year. Rep. Bachus had never before sponsored such legislation. But he called Pat the next evening and said, "I doubt that this will win me many votes, but I don't want to be responsible for even one child going hungry."

At the beginning of 1999, the Jubilee 2000 network was getting organized. Rep. Bachus had become chair of the international committee of the House Banking Committee, where any congressional action on debt relief would have to start. Pat, Elaine, and two friends from Independent Presbyterian flew up to Washington, D.C., at their own expense to bring Bachus a debt relief petition with 400 signatures.

"I don't know much about economics or international finance," Elaine explained. "But I do know that about 30,000 children die every day from hunger and other preventable causes, and, as a mother, that really bothers me....it would help a lot if you would sponsor this Jubilee legislation."

"What's the connection between so many children dying of hunger and debt relief?" Bachus asked. "All I know," Elaine said, "is that if I had to choose between paying a debt that I had inherited from my parents and buying food for my children, the choice would be clear." Bachus agreed to be an original sponsor of our bill and became its most passionate advocate.

Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers told me that testifying before Bachus' subcommittee convinced him to change U.S. policy toward poor-country debt. If this conservative Republican urged cancellation of debts for the poorest countries, it was time for a change.

SPENCER BACHUS, a Southern Baptist, is a straightforward Christian. When the Banking Committee held its hearing on poor-country debt, Bachus said, "If we don't write off some of this debt, poor people in these countries will be suffering for the rest of their lives. And we'll be suffering a lot longer than that."

He held up a statement from Pope John Paul II and said, "I haven't read much by Catholics before, but I don't know how any Christian could read what the pope is saying here and not agree that we need to do something about the debt of these countries."

Bachus lobbied his conservative colleagues, including the Republican leadership of the House, for U.S. participation in international debt relief. Bachus says that he had come to see the world differently because of the church people back home who had approached him about Jubilee.

"I really hadn't thought much about places like Africa before," Bachus said. "Now, when Congress debates whether U.S. health care is too expensive at $2,200 per capita per year, I'm struck that a country like Ethiopia spends $10 on health care per capita per year."

Pat Pelham didn't do this by herself, of course, even in Birmingham. Across the country, several thousand people have been just as active as Pat on the Jubilee legislation. But there is a very clear line of causation between the grassroots activism of Pat and her friends in Birmingham and a significant breakthrough for justice in the world.

Spencer Bachus isn't yet a cosponsor of the Hunger Relief Act, and it will probably take some convincing to get him to support an increase in the minimum wage. But you can be sure that Pat Pelham and her church friends in Birmingham are doing what they can to urge his support.

When this article appeared, David Beckmann was president of Bread for the World, a nationwide Christian citizens movement against hunger; www.bread.org; 1-800-82BREAD.

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