It’s hard to get a concrete image of global poverty, to put faces on, for instance, the 852 million people around the world who suffer from hunger. Even for seasoned politicians like Tony Hall, the devastation never seems real until it’s seen firsthand. Hall’s book, Changing the Face of Hunger, describes his humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia, where he saw world hunger up close, and his attempts to bring the problem to the attention of those in Washington, advocating for those who have no voice in global politics.
A Democratic congressional representative from Ohio for 24 years, Tony Hall continues to believe he has the power to change the world. That change might come, as Mother Teresa once reminded him, “just a drop at a time,” but Hall is willing to be patient, with a deeply-rooted devotion grounded in both liberal ideals and his strong Christian faith. Hall now works as a UN Ambassador for Food and Agriculture in Rome, where he attempts to bridge religious and partisan divides in order to make progress on world hunger.
Hall recently talked with Mother Jones about his fight against world hunger, the ongoing conflict in Darfur, and how it was possible to be both a devout Christian and a Democrat.
Mother Jones: In 1993, you fasted for twenty-two days in order to call attention to hunger issues. Can you explain why you decided to do this?
Tony Hall: The 22-day fast started when I was the Chairman of the Select Committee on Hunger. During that time Congress was running high budget deficits, and both parties felt they needed to start living within their means. That was smart and wise, but it meant that they had to cut several select committees, including mine. But I thought, “This is the smallest committee in the Congress, the most bipartisan, and the New York Times called us ‘the conscience of the Congress.’ Why would you start with us when we do good?” Regardless, they decided to cut the committee, and told the public the money would go back to them. But that never happened and the people never got their money back. Not to mention, the committee’s budget wasn’t very big, something around $287,000.
So I felt that Congress really had a lack of concern about what I thought were important issues. We were covering domestic and international hunger. It was the only committee of its kind in the country that was focusing on issues and passing legislation. I didn’t quite know what to do. I was so mad, so frustrated, I felt like quitting Congress right then and there. I thought, how can I bring attention to this issue, but at the same time make a difference?
My wife came up with the idea of doing a fast. She mentioned Isaiah 58, especially the second part of it, which focuses on what a fast should be about. I checked it out with a few friends and asked what they thought. They felt it was a good idea. I didn’t feel comfortable with it when I started because I felt that I wasn’t a very flashy kind of Congressman. I was stepping out of my comfort zone. But I went ahead and announced the fast. I was going to fast and not eat any food for twenty-two days.
MJ: Other than drawing the attention of Congress, what did the fast mean for you?
TH: Any fast should be about an issue that is important to you, but it shouldn’t be about you. For Isaiah, the fast had to be one of faith and unto God first. I started my fast thinking this was the end of my career. I thought nobody will ever understand this. I felt my constituents would think, “This guy has lost it.” So I went home, ready to face the music, and they practically had a parade for me. One of the Catholic high schools had a three day fast in solidarity, including the parents. One thing led to another and the press began to write about it in a very good way. Both on the left and the right. It was picked up and several thousands high school and universities became part of the fast. A couple movie stars picked it up. It began to gather momentum.
MJ: What was the reaction from other members of Congress? They must have thought you were crazy not to eat for 22 days.
TH: At first they didn’t understand it because no one had ever fasted in Congress. And many people thought, “Why would somebody fast for hunger?” What can you possibly prove by doing something like that? It wasn’t understood right away. But when I started to fast, it was right before Easter and we went on recess for about two weeks. During the time that we were out of session was when all the publicity started to hit. So when I came back to resume, I had been fasting at that time for about 15-17 days. By that time they were beginning to understand it and were interested.
MJ: After Congress was back in session, you continued to fast. Did you attend committee meetings having had nothing to eat for more than two weeks?
TH: I did. If you get over the initial seven days without food, and drink a lot of water, you get over the hunger. I just drank water, no supplements. I lost 22 lbs in 22 days. Once I got through the first week it was much easier. Then I began to understand what it really means to go hungry. Why, for instance, when people are really hungry in Africa and in the different famines I’ve seen, why don’t they rush to food right away when it becomes available? Well, you lose a lot of your hunger and lose the ability to eat. That’s why sometimes it’s necessary to force feed people because the body begins to turn against itself.
MJ: Did you experience any symptoms of malnutrition?
TH: No, I lost weight. I didn’t experience malnutrition. You need to go longer than I did to feel severe symptoms. I knew I would be able to eat again. But many people don’t. Actually, I was healthier after three weeks of fasting than I was before I started. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. My blood and everything was perfect.
MJ: You had a lot of international experience before becoming a UN Ambassador, but in your book you cite a trip to Ethiopia as a turning point. Why did that trip influence you so profoundly?
TH: Well, I had never in all my trips seen so many people die. I was taken aback. The reason I went over there was because I was constantly hearing that 7,000 people were dying per day. I said, “How can that be?” I needed to try to understand what that actually meant, what was going on, and why. I went over there and had never in my life seen people die like that. I never got over it. It stuck with me. Returning on the plane, I realized that this is something that I can do and make a difference on. We do a lot of things in Congress that don’t amount to much, and this can actually mean something.
MJ: Speaking to what the U.S. is doing now to fight poverty in Africa, are we taking an effective stance and will it make a long term difference?
TH: Actually, this administration oversees — and I know this surprises most people — more aid than any previous administrations. They’ve doubled aid to Africa and tripled support to fight HIV/AIDS since the Clinton administration. They’ve really done more. And a lot of people don’t know that.
I was just in Kenya the other day because they’re having a drought. I was in Nairobi at a major slum and they said if it wasn’t for AIDS/HIV drugs from the United States, things would be significantly worse. We’re doing more than we’ve ever done. And we’ve doubled development assistance. Undoubtedly, we’re saving a lot of lives. Can we do more? Yes, we can. And the world can absolutely do more. The world produces enough food right now to feed everybody, if only we had the correct infrastructure to deliver it. But corruption, civil war, terrible leaders, lack of political will and lack of spiritual will, they all stand as impediments. If just the faith-based people took it on, all the different faiths, they’d probably cut hunger in half in a year.
MJ: Is the African Union capable of doing peacekeeping on their own in Darfur?
TH: No, they’re not doing enough. They’re just getting started in Darfur and they don’t know quite what to do. The potential for them in the future is very important because Africans need to learn how to handle their own problems, especially in places like Darfur. Their leaders need to be more responsible to their people and leaders in surrounding countries need to play a role as well. But we need to be more aggressive in telling them that they’re starving their people, that their civil war is irresponsible.
MJ: When you’re speaking about Darfur, for example, the government corruption is very apparent. What type of intervention is necessary there?
TJ: Darfur is a tough one. It’s not just the leadership of the Khartoum government, it’s also the tribal leadership, it’s tribe against tribe, it’s pastoralist against farmers, it’s blacks against Arabs, it’s corruption, it’s people who want to stay in power, it’s a little bit of everything. It’s Christian versus Arabs, and the north versus the south. And you know what? There is blood on all sides there. I think what they did in bringing [former] Senator Danforth in there was a very good step and we need to go more in that direction. Intervention is needed by people who have a reputation of being able to handle difficult situations.
MJ: Is UN involvement absolutely necessary in Sudan?
TJ: Yes. The African Union is not ready for this. You get mixed reports depending on where you are though. If you’re down in Africa, you’ll hear a different story than you might here in the West. Something needs to be done for Sudan and they’re not doing it.
The number one issue is the complete lack of security among the 2 million people in the refugee camps in Darfur. Those people don’t feel comfortable to go home. That’s why we need to feed them. They can’t go home, they can’t plant, they can’t harvest, and they can’t take care of their animals. Once they feel that things are secure they can return home. They don’t want to be refugees, living transitorily in camps. Those camps are terrible. And the violence is penetrating the camps because they are not protected. Women cannot go out at night to gather firewood or they’ll get raped. All men that try to escape are murdered. Something needs to be done.
It is going to take attention from the top leaders of the world. President Bush, Tony Blair, they have to put their heads together and use the leadership in the Middle East to their advantage. You’ve got people like King Abdullah of Jordan and some of the more responsive leaders who could potentially go in there, take a stand and make a difference. It is going to take top leadership and responsibility.
MJ: Because poverty transcends partisan lines, do you employ certain tactics to navigate between the two political parties?
TH: I don’t have an answer for the world, but I do know things that work. And I know in my own life I’ve seen people from different political persuasions that do get together. And I think that the key is to find common ground and build relationships across political lines, tribal lines, economic lines, and that takes a while. One of the best ways for that to happen is for people of faith to come together and put aside issues for awhile. I’ve seen it happen. Some of my best friends in Congress are Republicans. And this only happened because we didn’t talk about issues until we already formed a friendship. If we did it the other way around, we’d be split, they’d go one way, and I’d go the other.
MJ: Why do you think people of faith are so often equated with conservative values?
TH I don’t know. I think people are going to be surprised when they get to heaven how many Democrats are up there. A lot of Democrats hold their faith inwardly because if they speak about it publicly they feel inhibited, they don’t want to wear their faith on their lapel, and they don’t want to be a hypocrite. So they don’t talk about it. And then they’re branded as being anti-God. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “How can you be a Christian and be a Democrat?” If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a hundred times.
MJ: Well, how can you be a Christian and a Democrat?
TH:You know, when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he didn’t come in on an elephant. He came in on a donkey.
MJ: What about the fact that so many conservatives cite the Bible in defense of their stances on political issues, like abortion and gay marriage?
TH: Those are important issues, but there are other ones as well. Like the poor, like the environment. Like security. Like getting people to work. These are all important issues. And we can’t just dwell on one or two issues. I think God cares about a lot of things.
MJ: What happens when your faith and political beliefs clash?
TH: It happens. And when it comes to principles you have to go with your principles. You must vote and speak your principles. But a lot of times these issues are gray. They have these voting records that sometimes conservatives publish, where if you don’t vote eight out of ten times for these so-called Christian bills you can’t be considered a Christian. Well, according to them I’m borderline. I’m not even fifty percent. But I’ve tried to figure out what God says about corporation franchise taxes and I can’t find it. It’s not covered!
I think one of the geniuses of the Constitution is the separation between church and state. It is very important to separate the two. Not to say you can’t bring your faith in to the workplace, that’s very important, but the last thing you want to do is push your faith down somebody’s throat. That turns people off. Not only that, it hurts the cause of God when you do that. People have to be very careful how they use their faith and their religion.
MJ: Do you think President Bush is guided too much by his faith?
TH: As far as the president is concerned, I’ve never seen him do anything that would drive it down people’s throats. That’s not to say I haven’t seen other politicians do it, and they’ve done it in a way that’s ugly and odious and hurts the cause of God.
MJ: You weren’t always a religious person. How did you come to realize the importance of faith?
TH: I came to my faith later in life. I wasn’t raised religiously at all. But when I became a Congressman, I felt there had to be more to life than the way it was going. There had to be more than just success and ambition, two things we greatly prioritize in America. Even being a Congressman, I needed something else. I began to look around, doing research, talking to people, attending different churches, studying a lot. I went on a search. And I found it. When I saw some people who took time to explain to me their walk in God, and I saw the sincerity of what they were talking about, I didn’t doubt it for a minute. And so I looked at it, thought about it and realized it was what I wanted and it was for me.
I wanted to leave people, after reading the book, with the idea that there is hope. That they can do the thing that’s in front of them and make a difference. Even Mother Teresa, the greatest saint of the last century, said what she’s doing is a drop in the ocean. But if she didn’t do it there would be one less drop.