Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Letter From a Small Island in A Scary World

The world has been a fearsome place this summer. There’s no escaping the haunting horrors from Syria and Iraq, Israel and Gaza, Ferguson, Ebola plagued West Africa and Central America’s child refugees.  We’re safe at our parks, beaches, restaurants and pools, yet unable to feel safe in the world.  A senior Pentagon official says ISIS has an “apocalyptic end of days” strategy “unlike anything we’ve seen before.”  How does one make sense of it? How is what we do at Share Our Strength relevant, if at all?

            I’m looking for answers here on Monhegan Island, ten miles off the coast of Maine. A mile long by a mile wide, two inns and a handful of artists’ cottages, Monhegan gives new meaning to peaceful.  The summer population swells to several hundred but in winter it’s only about 40, mostly lobstermen. This is the 7th straight year our family has visited. Monhegan is about as far from the troubles of the world as one can get, yet three things here evoke how we must go about our work together.

First, Monhegan sits amidst a harsh, inhospitable environment, surrounded by often stormy seas. Islanders confront adversity with unity.  Lobstering season begins October 1, known as Trap Day. Notwithstanding their competitiveness and the race to drop traps in prime spots, no one goes until everyone goes. Everyone leaves the harbor together at an appointed time and has an equal chance for the most desirable places. If any boat is not ready, or a crew member is sick, all other boats wait, even if it means a day or more. 

Second, like Share Our Strength, their year depends heavily on this last quarter.  Unlike most Maine lobstermen who fish all summer, Monhegan’s lobstermen fish primarily in winter because in summer the lobsters migrate inland to warmer waters. They have to make the most of every day, and within each day the most of every hour. As we head into the all-important last quarter of the calendar year, responsible for so much of our revenue that funds our No Kid Hungry campaign, there’s not a moment to lose.

Third, in winter and summer, whether lobstermen or visiting artists, there is pride in craft and attention to detail. I’ve been thinking of something our colleague Dan Roge shared with me as he reflected on a recent visit he and his wife had with novelist, poet, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry.  He learned that they “never set out to make some kind of impact. They have tried to do things right”  It reminded me of Viktor Frankl the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who in his book Man’s Search For Meaning writes: “Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself...”

As we head in to the crucial last few months of 2014, Monhegan’s lessons boil down to these three:

n  Stick together no matter what

n  Make every moment count

n  Do what’s right, the rest takes care of itself

I wish I had more wisdom about the convergence of so many complex and frightening problems around the globe.  The lessons above, and our work even at its best, can’t solve all of them. But, in the long run, what we stand for can: lifting up the dignity of every human being, investing in the next generation so that every child has an equal chance, demonstrating that we all have strengths to share.  There’s no shortcut to ameliorating the ignorance and hatred that cause so much suffering. In fact there is only the opposite: doubling down on strategy to make real the values we represent, recommitting for the long haul, and bringing to each and every action the faith that our own small acts done well inexorably yield transformational global impact.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Shaming Our Nation into Caring About Hunger

Last night NBC Nightly News used a newly released Feeding America report on hunger in America in 2014 as a jumping off point to report on the need of many military families to subsidize their income through visits to food banks.   See the story here @

The Feeding America report covered a lot of additional ground, showing that Feeding America’s network of emergency food assistance providers serves 5.4 million Americans each week and a total of 46.5 million over a year. It describes the choices that many have to make between food and medical, rent, utilities and transportation costs.

But NBC focused on one of the more surprising aspects of hunger in America which is the number of enlisted military families, defending our freedom, who are not free themselves from hunger and want.  You can’t watch the NBC report without feeling that something has gone terribly wrong not only for the families involved but for our entire society if we are not able to provide a basic level of support for even the soldiers who have volunteered to protect and defend us.

The NBC report reminded me of the way Martin Luther King advanced the struggle for civil rights by highlighting the gap between our ideals and our reality, by shaming once indifferent Americans for not living up to their own ideals.   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the 50th anniversary of LBJ's "war on poverty" bill

This week makes the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing the legislation that enacted his “war on poverty” into law.  During his remarks in the Rose Garden on that morning of August 20, 1964, LBJ said: “we will reach into all the pockets of poverty and help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  That climb has turned out to be steeper than LBJ or anyone else might have imagined.  Today 46 million Americans live below the poverty line compared to 30 million Americans when Johnson was in office. Renewed presidential leadership is needed and awaited to complete the journey.