A Discussion with David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World
April 4, 2007
Background: This conversation between David Beckmann and Katherine Marshall took place in the context of preparatory work for an April 16, 2007 conference at Georgetown University on the role of faith-based organizations in development. In the following discussion, Mr. Beckmann shares how his personal faith has shaped his work in both secular and faith-based institutions. He also outlines the work of Bread for the World, a Christian organization aimed at mobilizing citizens and the U.S. government to end hunger. Mr. Beckmann describes how the organization, while a Christian movement, also works with other faith traditions and secular organizations to eradicate hunger. The Alliance to End Hunger, its secular affiliate, provides the organization with some flexibility to work even where religious association can impede partnerships for action. According to Mr. Beckmann, however, ending hunger and poverty is a common goal across religions that can be worked for together.
What path has brought you to your current job? How has it involved working with faith-based organizations and international development?
When I was ordained, I was called by my church to be a missionary economist. The church sent me to graduate school in economics. I then worked for a time for the Lutheran World Federation. I was in Bangladesh working for the LWF when I received an offer to work for the World Bank. I thought it would be a good place to learn about the macroeconomic issues that affect poor people. While I was at the World Bank, I worked as an economist, but I also was responsible ecclesiastically to the church that had called me, and I maintained those links. I worked to make the World Bank a more poverty focused institution. I spoke and wrote about Christian economics, and helped to start a group that has lasted to the present and which served to stimulate a conversation about values and religion, functioning as an interfaith group within the World Bank (the Friday Morning Group). I served on the board of Bread for the World during this period and when the Presidency became vacant with the retirement of its founder, I left the World Bank (15 years ago) and joined the Bread for the World. I have been there ever since.
I have never heard of a missionary economist. Are there many?
I know only one, myself! What it means is that I aim to bring the Christian faith and its moral teachings to bear on economic issues, especially those that involve poverty.
What would you describe as the "faith element" in the work of Bread for the World?
Bread for the World is a Christian citizens' movement against hunger. The function of Bread for the World is to help concerned citizens of all stripes speak to Congress and the President to urge and influence them to provide things to hungry and poor people. There are tens of thousands of organizations that are helping people directly. Bread for the World, in contrast, is helping diverse Christian people all over the country to use the power they have as citizens in a democracy to get a powerful government to give a damn about hunger. It looks both to our own country and to the issues for the world.
What does it entail to be a movement and are there many in the same vein?
There are some that are similar but smaller. Examples include the Micah Challenge, which brings together evangelical Protestants, and Sojourners/Call to Renewal. What the term “movement” says is that Bread for the World engages people in their role as part of the body politic.
How does Bread for the World work as a Christian movement?
Bread for the World has deep relations with an extraordinary range of Christian organizations and churches. We work closely with the Catholic Bishops' Conference and with the leadership of 50 protestant denominations, representing all theologies. US Christianity is remarkably diverse, and we have strong ties into all families: African American, different ethnic churches, mainline protestant, Catholic, and evangelical and Pentecostal. There is thus a wide and diverse array of churches that are supportive of Bread for the World because all these churches say, each day, “Give us this day our daily bread.” They see that the call to end hunger has deep roots in the Bible and that working for social justice responds to the cry of the poor.
Bread for the World also works in partnership with many non-Christian organizations. We work with Jewish organizations from all four of the movements within U.S. Judaism. We work particularly closely with MAZON: A Jewish response to Hunger. We have growing links with Muslim organizations which also seek active partnerships to fight hunger.
We work with many secular organizations. To facilitate this, we have established a secular affiliate, the Alliance to End Hunger. While Bread for the World works with many very different organizations, some organizations, for example public corporations and some Jewish groups are more comfortable working with the Alliance. There are in practice some limitations in how far and willingly they will support a Christian group. The Alliance allows us to develop a deeper partnership. I also serve as President of the Alliance but it has a quite separate board from that of Bread for the World.
Has the faith character of Bread for the World changed over time?
Bread for the World's grounding in Christian faith is deep but not strident. From its very beginnings Bread for the World has been a civil organization. But its grounding in the Christian faith is real. For 95 percent of our members, the love of God that they know in Jesus is what has drawn them into caring for the poor. The Bible calls for justice, that is clear, but for many Christians the next steps are not easy. What can someone sitting in South Dakota do to help the poor in Africa? How do you move your government? Bread for the World gives people handles. Bread for the World underlines that our God is the God of history, and that through the organization we can be part of what God is doing to overthrow oppression. It gives religious people handles to be part of history and to act. For members of Bread for the World, their engagement is an important part of their religious life.
As Bread for the World has become bigger, we have felt more pressure to be more inclusive and bring in a larger group of members and allies. Jewish, Muslim, and secular groups are ready to engage also. Bread for the World's Christian character is sometimes a limitation as well as a very powerful strength. What we have done is to find ways to work in partnership. We helped to found the ONE Campaign. We are today reaching out far beyond churches. Through the Alliance to End Hunger, we engage directly with universities and public corporations like Cargill.
It is feasible to end hunger and poverty in our time, but we, at Bread for the World, know that by ourselves we cannot make that happen. Even all the people who belong to churches are not enough. We need to move whole societies. Thus we are giving grants to Jewish and Muslim groups who work with us so that they can develop their own structures and their own way of talking so that they can develop their own structures of advocacy.
Bread for the World has been remarkably consistent over its 33 year life. When we talk of our Christian faith, we tend to talk straight from the Bible, focusing on this text which is shared by all parts of the Christian family. We avoid language that is peculiar to one tradition or another. We also talk from the contemporary experience of people who are working for justice. In this way, we reach every corner of Christian people working for justice in America. We do not just say that God requires us to do the right thing. The experience of being embraced by God and by Jesus motivates us to go beyond our comfort zone. And that motivation is real; it is not just a symbol or on the surface; it is real and powerful. If I had to choose, I would rather have the energy that comes from the links to Jesus than the energy that comes from rock stars. I thank God for them and what they do is just wonderful and important. But if I were forced to choose between Brad Pitt and Jesus, I would stick with Jesus.
What are issues that arise as Bread for the World works with people and organizations from other faiths?
There is a great potential for interfaith work on poverty and other issues. Our goal as an organization, however, is to change Congress, not to promote interfaith relations or harmony. So our involvement is directly tied to our work on hunger and poverty. There, we see great energy and common purpose. We have Muslims knocking down our doors to get into our work and movement. The Jewish organization, MAZOM, has made important contributions to our recent mobilizations. The common thread is that we all see these interfaith efforts as part of their role in this democracy.
Once we started work on building broader alliances, we found that the US Muslim community was eager to be part of it. You can't read the Bible or the Koran and miss the basic message about poverty. That is the God we know. We have one, common agenda that links the major faiths, and especially the Abrahamic faiths, bringing Muslims, Jews and Christians to work together to change the world. The challenge is to articulate the message. Another practical challenge is to find the parallel structures to mobilize the energies. We can, thus, turn a “clash of civilizations” into a common front. It is, however, a struggle to find resources to respond in a meaningful way. The Muslim groups particularly all are still scrambling to get Islamic centers set up, to teach their kids the faith, and to build structures to represent themselves. The structures are still small and the capacity to work together is small. But it is growing and it is important.
As you look at the Berkley Luce FBO project and April 16 conference, what are the issues you would most like to see addressed?
Working together to end poverty, that's the deal. Within United States Christianity, overcoming poverty is the highest priority policy issue in all families of faith. This is far more than a wish. Our movement brings all the Christian churches together, from all five of the major branches, in a common structure, for the first time in US history. Christian Churches Together now brings together the major branches of Christianity, the array of denominations, but also the Christian organizations. It brings together important structures of Christianity, although they are not church bodies. CCT has been able to get the people and leadership of diverse bodies to meet once a year, no easy feat.
This group met together for the first time formally a month ago, in Pasadena (they met last year in Atlanta to organize). In this new alliance, the first topic of conversation was poverty, poverty in America, yes, but also poverty everywhere. It was the white evangelicals and Pentecostal members who were the first to propose that.
The other topic of conversation will be evangelism. In the past, Christians were somewhat divided between those who were for evangelism and those who were for social justice. That divide applies no longer. In the recent conversations everyone agrees that having a lively experience of the love of Jesus Christ is fundamental, and doing something to overcome poverty is central to our Christian faith. The question is “evangelism for what?” And the answer is “to do the work of God, and end poverty.”
Bread for the World is now helping to organize a major interfaith convocation on ending poverty and hunger at the Washington National Cathedral on June 11. We have an extraordinary range of commitments from leaders right across the full spectrum of the Christian churches, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox, and so on. Three of the major branches of Jewish organizations will participate, as well as Muslims, Sikhs and other faiths. I have been stunned by how many have been eager to participate. The event is several months away and we already have over 50 leaders committed. There is a lot of energy in all the churches for this cause. This is the great Exodus of our time. When we are able to convey the message that people really are escaping poverty, the response is “Thanks be to God.” An underlying problem in this country is that people have not believed that it is possible to end poverty, which breeds cynicism and resignation. When they see the feasibility of real progress, they see the work of the God of Abraham.
What do you see as the main agenda issues ahead on poverty and hunger?
The most important priority is to increase and improve development assistance. That also includes working to advance the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative). Money is the main constraint, thus funding and making sure programs are of high quality. That is the main thing the US can do. And US funding has tripled since 1999, and we have been part of the effort that has led to that.
The second priority is changes in trade and agriculture policy, to make it easier for poor people to make a living.
Third, we need to work to change US foreign policy to give a much higher priority to peace making in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Darfur, northern Uganda, and other places. At present, advocacy for peace tends to be very case specific (like the Darfur mobilization today). We need more durable and broad structures.
And we need to focus on poverty and hunger in the United States. The fastest and most effective way to end hunger in this country would be to expand food stamps so that the 25 million people on food stamps at least have food for the whole month. We have the numbers today, and we can see clearly that all the food stamps are gone by the third week of the month. We could cut hunger by half, just by the simple act of covering that last week, and the cost is not prohibitive (about $17 billion a year).
Second, there is the broader poverty agenda—better education, health care, and other measures that allow people to provide for their families and to make enough money to lead decent lives.
How do funding issues affect Bread for the World's work?
Bread for the World is growing by leaps and bounds, and our budget is increasing by 25 percent this year. It reflects the broad-based interest in the issues. We have help from many sources, large foundations like Gates and Hewlett, but by far the largest and fastest growing source of funding is small contributions.
How does Bread for the World work at an international level? What are your global links?
We have many links, but they are not strong enough. Our main channels of coordination tend to be through the main Christian structures. We have a ready made network with Catholic and Protestant organizations; there are important channels of information through organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, and the US National Council of Churches. We get lots of feedback that way, as well as lots of support. We are part of an ongoing conversation on global issues with many organizations, but we are not a major player, for example in work on the MDGs. We are not a major player in international dialogue. We are most active in the International Alliance against Hunger, which has been promoted by the three Rome based United Nations organizations involved with food and agriculture issues. That is a helpful new alliance, that involves governments, civil society and corporations. We cooperate with the United Nations Millennium Campaign, which is doing a remarkable job all over the world, with quite limited resources. That is a testimony to the fact that the idea is so powerful.
Which emerging issues could really benefit from religious/secular partnership? ( i.e the "new" trafficking, Darfur, debt relief, etc.)
Bread for the World is better placed than any other organization in this country to move the Congress. And the U.S. Congress is the most powerful link in the global system. It is in many respects the most conservative link and the hardest to move. We are better positioned than anyone else to bring change and we are ruthlessly focused on that. We may share in some radical visions of what the future could be but our job now is to move Congress on specific issues. To do that we must talk to real people in power, about concrete issues, and not about big dreams.