Two months ago I had the privilege of visiting our Lakota and Dakota brothers and sisters at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Reservations are among the hungriest places to live in the United States. Twenty-three percent of the Native Americans in the U.S. have terrible access to “adequate food” – almost twice the national average. A Lakota elder named Terrance told me of the seventy-nine percent unemployment rate at Standing Rock.
Hunger can be hard to see. Even when it is noticed, it can be so easy to look away. Hunger isn’t just on reservations. It exists in my neighborhood in the District of Columbia. Rural, urban, local or global -- hunger doesn’t discriminate. Today’s reading from Isaiah talks about hunger and foreshadows Jesus’ teaching on mercy. Isaiah predicts a chasm between what God intends for us and our tendency for human sinfulness – notably this absence of mercy. Isaiah condemns false fasting. . . religious observances that show no mercy. Isaiah says we will know this “false fasting” because it results in exploitation and oppression. . . not reforms of the heart and actions that restore.
When I was in Kenya last month, a promising middle-income country in East Africa, the minister of health told us that one in four kids in the country is stunted -- so chronically undernourished that the brain stops fully developing -- dramatically weakening a child’s ability to learn and thrive. As a mom of three, this literally took my breath away.
Images from Standing Rock and Kenya rushed to my mind when I read Isaiah. He says “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and clothe the naked.” These words ring familiar because 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus taught these same words. In the church we refer to these as corporal works of mercy.
My visits to Standing Rock and Kenya occurred as Pope Francis’s Jubilee Year of Mercy was coming to a close. The Pope opened the Year of Mercy in Advent 2015 to promote a culture of mercy.
He calls Mercy “the beating heart of the Gospel.”
And so it is that the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus and Pope Francis each observe in their time a similar lack of mercy. And in response, they beckon God’s people to be merciful. To live mercifully.
But what does living mercifully look like? How shall we cry out that the Lord responds: Here I am!? Mercy requires a change in heart and a transformation at our core. Living mercifully means giving from my whole heart so that my hands, my feet, my voice, my actions mimic God’s reconciling and restorative work in the world.
Pope Francis says “True mercy-- the mercy God gives to us and teaches us--demands justice. He poses these questions:
In your life, and in your faith community, how do you work for justice?
Do you seek to address the root causes of problems that affect those who are vulnerable?
Hungry people are often vulnerable and oppressed. So what does hunger look like in our time?
One in five Latino households struggles to put food on the table – almost double the rate for white households. And nearly half of all African-American children younger than six live in poverty.
“Removing from our midst oppression” as Isaiah says, means we need to address the systems that make it hard for hungry people to feed themselves and flourish to their full potential.
Today in the United States hunger has the face of a 5th grade child named Rosie in Collbran, Colorado, struggling to get through the morning’s lesson on an empty stomach.
Around the globe today, nearly 800 million people will experience hunger.
Hunger has the face of a Syrian mother named Myriam who fled to Turkey along with her four children.
Hunger has the face of a South Sudanese teenage girl named Esther who fled violence in her village and now lives in a crowded refugee camp in Northern Kenya.
Sharing bread with the hungry is living mercifully. And our response to hunger must be the kind of mercy that demands justice and action.
In Matthew’s gospel reading, Jesus offers some helpful guidance on how to live mercifully. He challenges us to be “light that breaks forth” and calls us to be “salt of the earth.” That’s a tall order!
What a humbling idea for Christ followers of any time!
In our time there are people named Rosie, Myriam and Esther.
My brothers and sisters, we are characters in God’s amazing story of life. To partake in God’s work in the world, we must first see God’s light in order to be God’s light.
As believers we know God’s light is among us. But so is oppression. Isaiah, Jesus, Pope Francis each say that to see God’s light, we have to recognize oppression and sin. First we have to look inward. . . to discern oppression’s many forms like unchecked materialism, privilege, and greed that lead to human and structural sin.
By beginning to remove the blinding, stifling oppression within us, we can more readily recognize oppression around us. We can see hunger and not look away. With God’s grace we can stare down and confront the oppression that nearly blinds us from God’s saving light.
God’s wants our fast to be mercy-led with transformed hearts. Then we can share God’s mercy and be disciples of salt and light. Brothers and sisters, Mercy opens our eyes to see God’s light and opens our ears to hear God’s unmistakable response: Here I Am.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy
Krisanne is the Senior Associate for National Catholic Engagement at Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. Krisanne is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures published by Baker Books in June 2016. She is also adjunct teaching faculty at Eastern University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Development in St. David’s, Pennsylvania. Krisanne’s writing often appears on Bread for the World’s blog, ToGoForth, a blog from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development and CatholicMom. Krisanne is invited to speak regularly, including at Krakow in the Capitol, a 2016 World Youth Day event in hosted in the nation’s capital, Theology on Tap and for Love is Our Mission: Poverty, produced by Catholic Apostolate Center, September 2015. Krisanne and her husband continue to touch hundreds of engaged couples each year through their marriage preparation ministry at St. Peter’s Catholic Parish, Washington, DC.
Over the last decade her work has included directing evangelical relations and serving as Interim Director of Church Relations at Bread for the World. From 2003 to 2005, Krisanne served as the Executive Director of Witness for Peace, a politically independent, faith-based national grassroots organization committed to promoting peace, justice, and non-violence in U.S. foreign policy.
In the late 90’s Krisanne was an associate with the Latin America Working Group, one of the nation's longest standing religious coalitions dedicated to a just foreign policy in the region. She had a special focus on labor rights and corporate responsibility. In 1994, Krisanne served for a year in a faith-based domestic service program working alongside migrant farmworkers in Woodburn, Oregon.
She has a Master in Theology degree from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Krisanne and her husband Jay reside in Washington, DC with their three children.