March 28th, 2011
01:47 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Amid a delicate dance to cut the budget in Congress, agitated religious leaders in Washington said Monday that the cuts being proposed are too deep.
Food aid for people at home and abroad, mosquito nets, and Head Start preschool programs are all on the chopping block. That, many religious leaders say, has crossed a moral line. In response, they have begun a fast - a hunger strike.
"We've talked and talked and talked. And we've lobbied and we've reasoned and we've sent letters and we've admonished. That's why we're having the fast. It's time to call in God. It's time to unleash God," Tony Hall said.
A former U.S. ambassador to the World Food Programme and a former U.S. congressmen, Hall has gone on a hunger strike before. He fasted for 22 days as a congressman in 1993 to protest what he said was the lack of conscience in Congress toward hungry people.
"Today things are nearly worse," he said. "We do need to cut the deficit and get our fiscal house in order, but not on the backs of the poor and hungry. They didn't get us into this current mess and hurting them is not the way out of it."
Hall and a host of religious leaders announced that their fast started immediately.
Joining him at the announcement of the fast at the National Press Club in Washington was Jim Wallis of Sojourners; the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World; and Ritu Sharma, co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide. They said 38 organizations and 4,000 more individuals had signed on, too.
You couldn’t hear their stomachs rumbling yet, but their voices shook with anger.
"What our Congress is doing is hurting poor people who have no voice to stand in front of you at the National Press Club and say, 'Don't do this. Don't hurt us or our children,'" Sharma said.
"I'm praying that our nation's leaders can indeed reach a compromise, and bipartisan agreement that we won't hurt hungry and poor people," Beckmann said.
He argued Congress should look at closing tax loopholes, cutting military spending, and working to bring back the economy.
"The first bill Congress passed this year, HR-1, is really rough on hungry and poor people," he said. "It would throw 200,000 children off Head Start. This doesn't make any sense for us in the long haul, to deprive low-income kids the chance to go to preschool. This is not the way to reduce our deficit."
The current proposals, he added, "would cut food aid in half this year. ... A sudden cut in food aid that would throw 18 million of the hungriest people in the world off a stream of food on which they rely."
The groups said the cuts in the House of Representative would represent a 2.6% reduction in overall spending but hit overseas poverty aid hard by reducing it 26%. Also of great concern to the religious leaders is a potential reduction in the Women, Infants and Children program of $7.6 billion.
"There are cuts that kill and cuts that don't," Sharma said. "Children are depending on malaria bed nets," she said referring to the mosquito netting the US government provides to some developing countries to help stave off malaria.
The group includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim aid groups, as well as clergy. They hope people will join in with prayer, fasting, and advocacy. Wallis, Beckmann, and Sharma urged people to call and write their representatives, urging them not to cut funding for the poor and hungry.
"This fast is what I call a spiritual escalation, a spiritual escalation to bring these critical moral choices to the attention of the nation," Wallis said.
This week will be water only for many of those fasting, but Wallis said they may start adding in some juices next week.
"How long?" Wallis asked. "I don't know. We're looking for something to happen."
He added, "We're doing this for breakthroughs. We're praying and fasting, hoping for some breakthroughs"
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.