Faiths find common ground in fighting hunger

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When she began planning the Interfaith Hunger Convocation six months ago, North Texas Food Bank CEO Jan Pruitt wondered whether it could even be organized without offending someone.

She soon discovered that Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims can agree on at least one thing: Fighting hunger is a holy undertaking.

“We’re more alike than we’re different,” Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of commonness in what each religion tries to do, especially around the poor.”

The result of their mutual work is a religious service unusual for its diverse roster of participants. Leaders from the four major faith groups will play prominent roles in Monday’s convocation, which is designed to illustrate that ignoring the needy is a sin by any measure.

“With 13 million hungry kids in America, if we can’t get together about that, there’s nothing we can get together about,” said Rabbi David Stern, whose Temple Emanu-El will host the event featuring music, dance and religious readings from all four traditions.

The service here, apparently the only one like it in Texas, coincides with a national interfaith service in Washington to raise American awareness of the issue of hunger.

The food bank will follow up Tuesday — National Hunger Awareness Day — with a Day of Service for about 200 corporate volunteers who will sort items for 400 recipient agencies. Similar Hunger Awareness Day events will be conducted across Texas.

“This is a wonderful idea, because giving and charity is the main part of every religion,” said Revathi Srinath, a Hindu who grew up in India and remembers her mom setting aside rice each day for the hungry.

“We all do charity in our little circles,” said Srinath, who will read from Hindu scripture during the convocation. “Now we can join these circles and make it a big circle.”

The Texas gathering will be heavy on symbolism, with a member from each religion placing bread in a large basket. During the service, which will also include an interfaith youth choir, the basket will be carried away by representatives of agencies that receive help from the food bank.

The North Texas Food Bank distributes nonperishable items in 13 counties and has experienced a 57 percent increase in demand at member food pantries since 2001. Though 73 percent of its agencies are faith-based, Pruitt said the convocation is the “first time we ever stepped out and have done anything like this.”

Coordinators focused on passages from sacred texts including the Bible and Koran that mandate feeding the hungry and caring for the needy.

“In Islam, we teach that if a neighbor goes to bed hungry, it becomes my obligation to take care of him. If not, I will be asked on the day of judgment,” said Saif Khan, a participant from Dallas’ largest mosque.

Affirming agreement on widespread issues such as feeding the hungry may provide the opportunity for future accords on thornier matters, Stern said.

“We don’t have to agree on everything; it’s not about becoming the same,” he said. “It’s about common cause and common commitment when we can make a difference.

“It is energizing to come together in a sacred space for a sacred purpose and do it in the disparate languages of faith,” he said. “Speaking in your own faith language lends an energy that I don’t think it would have if it were more homogenous.”

The process begins by leaving stereotypes at the door, said the Rev. Roy Harrell, a retired Baptist pastor and event co-chairman.

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