Faith is as essential as food, said Sister Sharon Eubank at the G20 Interfaith Forum on Saturday, Oct. 17.
“Protecting the powerful and unique role of faith in society is one of the main achievable goals of the G20 Interfaith Forum,” she said during the final day of the five-day virtual conference, hosted by Saudi Arabia.
Participating remotely from Utah, Sister Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, spoke on the “commitment of faith networks to disaster risk reduction.”
His Holiness Catholicos Aram I Keshishian, Patriarch of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia in Lebanon, offered the keynote address. Dr. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, former United Nations Under-Secretary General, moderated the session in which Sister Eubank presented brief remarks and answered questions.
During the session, Sister Eubank said it is a mistake to leave disaster response and preparation solely to governments and NGO entities when faith communities — with their grassroots reach — can help.
Quoting Elder Bednar’s remarks, Sister Eubank said, “Respecting the dignity of religious people pays important dividends, but these powerful opportunities and benefits are possible only if officials acknowledge that for believers and their faith communities religion is essential to their identity and very being.”
Sister Eubank said 265 million people are now facing “acute food insecurity” — almost double the number from 2019, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. This follows the severe locust infestation at the end of 2019, the rapid onset of the COVID 19 global recession, and public safety measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID 19.
“Without being too alarmist, if we do not address this crisis in a coordinated manner, it is projected to grow to be among the worst famines in human history,” she said.
Latter-day Saint Charities mounted the largest response in its 35-year history to COVID-19 and the associated food crisis, Sister Eubank said.
Creative new partnerships
Projects undertaken Latter-day Saint Charities in response to the crisis draw on trusted relationships with governments, communities and other faiths, Sister Eubank said.
“Perhaps like me you were shocked to see earlier this year empty stores and supply chains disrupted by the coronavirus,” Sister Eubank said. “The New York Times reported dairy farmers dumping millions of gallons of milk each day because school programs were not buying milk. Potato and onion farmers were ploughing the crop into the ground because restaurants were not buying. And all during a time of exploding hunger. Supply chains were shriveling and traditional community networks were strained. However, those old networks found creative new combinations.”
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Grassroots citizens, college students and others, including Latter-day Saint Charities, did not have experience, but in the face of the crisis began purchasing milk, potatoes and other raw products, she said. Latter-day Saints Charities began buying potatoes and putting them in weekly food trucks and shipping them out to food pantries across the United States.
“Surplus potatoes and milk were dehydrated for transport to other places,” she said. “The old network was creative, the new partnerships were nimble and it worked.”
Fasting as solidarity
Speaking of the “deep faith tradition” of fasting for Latter-day Saints, Sister Eubank referenced President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to all people of faith to participate in a worldwide fast on April 10 to petition God for help and relief for those suffering in the pandemic.
“This invitation drew millions of people together in a unified cause. I received dozens of messages but here is one from my friends at Rahma Relief: ‘Thank you very much for … the invitation to fast. Fasting for us is a great experience and an exercise we observe throughout … an entire month of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, which will start 23rd April. My wife and I will observe the fast and pray for the safety of everyone regardless of location or faith.’”
The funds donated by people who fasted facilitated hundreds of thousands of meals for hungry people, said Sister Eubank. “It also brought a solidarity and social cohesion that seems to be unique when people voluntarily cooperate.”
Hundreds of the Latter-day Saint Charities projects were to bring immediate food to families. Typical of those in need was a family in Iran whose father and 8-year-old son collected scrap metal for a broker. “When the father died of COVID-19, the young boy and his 7-year-old sister could not collect enough metal to buy food. They were starving until Mothers Without Borders with funding from Latter-day Saint Charities brought a month’s supply of food and help for the family.”
Sister Eubank added that “as supply chains fall apart, as drought worsens, as remittances don’t show up, as the virus death toll takes parents,” this will be an ever growing problem.
“Faith communities can do more than identify people in greatest need but match their needs to local strengths and provide the ongoing support to families like this one.”
Sister Eubank said families can and should focus on longer-term preparedness. “I refuse to discount the impact of a family saving a simple tablespoon of rice poured every evening into a soda bottle to build a small reserve or an extra can of water stashed under the table,” she said. “I applaud the local communities who copy identity papers or secure a solar generator. I want every child to know the designated tree where the family is to meet if they get separated.
“The families and communities that do these small things build self-determination. They know if they can solve these problems, they can solve other problems, and they don’t have to necessarily wait for agencies. Will they need help? Of course. But they view themselves as actors and not victims.
“Better than any shiny national media campaign, more energetic than any United Nations development agenda, faith communities have the moral authority and grassroots reach to encourage these resilient preparedness habits that serve society on every level.”
What can policy makers do?
Sister Eubank offered two suggestions to policy makers and how they can help faith leaders act most effectively.
First, she said, they should “implement the Sendai Framework questions designed to help communities think through their preparation.
“Have we formed a council of local leaders that includes faith stakeholders to provide communication and coordination in a disaster? Do households have emergency food/water for at least 72 hours? Has the community been mapped? Back-up power, adjunct health facilities, alternate transportation/communication, designated command centers and shelters? Has the community tested its emergency plan? What could we do to minimize loss of life and damage that we aren’t doing now?”
Second, she said, they should invite religious actors into decision making. “Be as diverse and inclusive as we can in consultation. Take the time to get to know strengths and gaps. Develop personal relationship of trust and respect.”
For example, Sister Eubank praised the ongoing work of Baroness Emma Nicholson and the Windsor Dialogue “to bring Yezidi religious leaders for the first time into close contact with other faith leaders in Iraq, to explain their doctrine, to reduce fear about their worship, to heal old wounds. This is a clear-eyed effort to avert the next genocide in the ashes of the old one. When someone asked her ‘How did you get them to come?’ She said, ‘I asked them.’”
In the closing moments of the session, Sister Eubank spoke of a needed priority moving forward. “The pandemic has revealed to us something that’s scarier than a global health pandemic, and it is the weaknesses that we have in mistrust, in misinformation, in not being able to cooperate together, and I believe this is a warning for us.”