Megachurch Feels Hunger Pangs, Ups Compassion

Members of Willow Creek Community Church have been challenged to join an unprecedented season of compassion by fighting the pervasive problem of hunger around the world.

Part of a campaign to up the notch of their compassion levels, the Chicago-area megachurch is caring for the hungry in a tangible way by limiting their own meals, purchasing Fair Trade goods, and packing meals for thousands of starving children.

"Compassion is a core value, as you know and that extends to everyone, whether it's the person sitting next to you at a service (including the people in your own family), those who are in our neighborhoods, or those who live half a world away," said Susan DeLay, spokesperson for Willow Creek. "As a congregation, we have been challenged to do a better job of extending compassion in our neighborhoods and that means getting to know our neighbors better."

Willow Creek launched the Celebration of Hope campaign in 2006 to provide congregants the opportunity to help a broken world by putting faith into action. This year, the three-week campaign began in April.

Last week, the mega congregation took part in a Five-Day Solidarity Challenge, limiting their food consumption to eat as half the world's population does every day of the year. Meals mainly consisted of rice and beans or plain oatmeal during those five days.

"I have been hearing from tons of members of the congregation that this experience has sensitized them to the plight of the poor like nothing else they have ever participated in," said Founding Pastor Bill Hybels in an e-mail sent out to church members.

Approximately 1 billion people live on $1 per day, which is even less than the significantly smaller portion sizes Willow Creek members consumed last week.

"My own hunger pangs have made me mindful of the millions of children around our world who do not understand why the growl in their stomach never goes away," said Hybels, who also participated in the Five-Day challenge while training church leaders in Singapore. "I can only imagine my 18 month old grandchild looking up at Lynne or me and asking for a few more spoonfuls of rice, only to be told that we have run out of today's supply."

Hybels had announced last year a churchwide vision to unleash unprecedented levels of compassion to the world, strengthening an area that has already become one of the driving forces of the megachurch. The compassion effort is being developed over the next few years as part of their threefold Vision 2010.

Although the distribution of global wealth is in Americans' favor, Americans themselves have a deep hunger inside, the church notes on its Celebration of Hope Web site.

"More Americans than ever describe an ache, a loss of meaning, an emptiness inside. A hunger, if you will. Could it be that, as we overeat, overwork, overspend, and overstimulate ourselves with entertainment, we are simultaneously starving ourselves spiritually? Have we so oversaturated our every physical sense, that we have dulled our spiritual senses?"

Willow Creek members were encouraged to not only downsize their meals but to also limit their spending during the three weeks and donate the saved money to feed children in Zimbabwe and in other parts of the world.

But beyond sending money, thousands of church members have found more meaning in putting on plastic hairnets and packing meals for the starving children. Willow Creek is working with the Christian nonprofit Feed My Starving Children to help pack 3.5 million meals - a mixture that contains rice, soy nuggets, vitamins, minerals and vegetables - that will feed 10,000 children in Zimbabwe for one year.

"The 10,000 children that we as a church are going to feed for one year are probably never going to know who provided the food that is going to save their lives," said Hybels. "I actually like that part of this deal. Hidden acts of kindness were often cited by Jesus as being the purest form of love."

A third challenge Willow Creek has presented is supporting the Fair Trade Certified businesses. "Willow's World Market" has been set up at the church to assist workers from overseas who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty through microenterprise and Fair Trade businesses.

When Celebration of Hope isn't in season, Willow Creek engages in compassion works year-round by building homes and community centers, providing meals through a food pantry, and holding workshops and support communities to assist those going through a divorce, unemployment, addiction or abuse.

"This is barely scratching the surface," said Willow's DeLay, indicating the wider range of services Willow engages in.

The Celebration of Hope ends Mother's Day weekend.

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