A remarkable life that began inconspicuously is how one might characterize the story of Arthur Simon, The Rising of Bread for the World. The initially shy son of a Lutheran pastor in Oregon who went on to become a pastor himself, Simon (or simply Art, as many refer to him) is the founder of the citizen-based organization Bread for the World, which has been lobbying for 35 years to eliminate domestic and global hunger. The brother of the late Senator Paul Simon, he has in an indirect sense been a co-worker with him in their battle for justice on behalf of the world’s neediest.
Art Simon describes himself early on as “an ordinary pot put to unexpected use.” What caused this “ordinary pot” to become a powerhouse of focused energy in combating hunger? It all started when, as a seminarian, he spent time at a Lutheran parish in New York City. That parish was middle class, but Art found time while there to visit one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the Lower East Side. The visit included a stop at the Catholic Worker, where Dorothy Day was working full tilt on behalf of the destitute. After his ordination in 1959, he eventually became pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in that same neighborhood of crowded tenements, with all the marks of entrenched poverty—including hunger. “I frequently visited families who ran out of food before the end of the month,” he writes. Although his parishioners helped meet the immediate food needs of many, the larger solutions went unachieved.
A breakthrough came one year during Lent. A parish mother suggested “an offering of letters” to their congressman asking for help in meeting the problem of local hunger. The concept of an offering of letters eventually became a key component in the work of Bread for the World. According to its Web site, this can take various forms, from simple letters deposited in church collection plates, to letters written in college dining halls after hunger awareness events, to more sophisticated communications to members of Congress. But they all serve the same purpose: urging those in positions of power to take steps to eradicate hunger. Simon had come to realize that the well-intentioned people in church pews were “largely clueless about the use of citizenship to reduce hunger.” In other words, they did not know how to press their Congressional representatives to enact policies benefitting the world’s poorest people. For the latter, hunger is a major scourge.
In a sense, the first large-scale “offering of letters” campaign in 1973 marked the real beginning of Bread for the World. As the author puts it, “I wanted to launch Bread for the World not because I was especially well prepared...but because the need was so great.” He has done his homework, in researching and writing half a dozen books on various aspects of hunger. Early on, for instance, realizing that he had little understanding of rural hunger in the United States, he spent five weeks visiting Appalachia and southern states, “driving down back roads, knocking on rickety doors and asking people what they faced” as they tried to put food on their often bare tables. The citizens lobby he created stemmed from Christian motivation, and both Catholics as well as Protestants have been involved from the start. Among them have been highly committed religious women, like Mary Luke Tobin, of the Sisters of Loretto. While Bread for the World has maintained its basic Christian identity, the organization has, in Art’s words, welcomed into its membership “people of any faith or no faith.”
Bread for the World’s efforts have met with both hard-won successes and failures. The latter were particularly evident during the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, when Reagan’s policies were “exceptionally hard on poor people.” In President Reagan’s first year in office alone, a million people were removed from the food stamp program, one of the most important domestic anti-hunger initiatives. The agriculture secretary at the time, Earl Butz, commented: “Hunger is relative—if your larder is empty, you cut back some.” “Cut back on empty?” the author wryly asks.
Art Simon stayed at the helm of Bread for the World until 1991, when David Beckmann, a fellow Lutheran whom he describes as “a missionary economist,” succeeded him as president. Art himself remains as president emeritus. The pun in the book’s title, “The Rising of Bread for the World,” may be lost on a few readers, but those lucky enough to have grown up in households in which the aroma of homemade bread was a reality will understand why the title is appropriate. Lumps of inert dough rise over a number of hours, and once in the oven, emerge as beautifully browned rolls and loaves. The word “rising” thus serves as a reminder that—thanks to Arthur Simon and his collaborators— the work of Bread for the World continues to “rise” in the consciousness of more and more people who realize that hunger is unconscionable in a world with resources sufficient to feed all.