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Instead of feeling guilty about the hungry, Hall feels responsible.

Tony Hall doesn't have the gaunt look. Give him a few weeks. The eight-term Dayton, Ohio, Democrat is on an open-ended, water-only fast, an embracing of volunteer hunger that he believes will help Americans, including the 534 other members of Congress, face the realities of famine, starvation and food deprivation.

Washington has witnessed fasts before, including those of Mitch Snyder, Dick Gregory and Edward Guinan. But they were troublemakers to begin with. No one can recall a member of Congress pushing away from the table. It's usually the other way: feeding-frenzy perks at lobbyist-paid meals and fund-raising banquets.

A founding member of the House Select Committee on Hunger and its chair since 1989, Hall has regularly traveled to Somalia, Haiti, the Sudan, Ethiopia and other places where food is scarce, including the soup kitchens and food banks of America. He would return emotionally drained by the misery he witnessed but also morally energized. He used his committee to alert Congress that it had a responsibility to stop looking the other way.

On March 31, Congress gave Hall its definitive reply: It chose to look farther away. The hunger committee, funded for $661,000 -- about 1/9000th of what Americans spend annually on pet food -- was not reauthorized by the House. The closure was neither debated nor voted on; its plug was quitely pulled in the name of economizing. Three days later, Hall, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a man who speaks openly about the value of prayer and the need for religion-based social justice, announced his fast.

An empty stomach has already prompted a few lean comments from Hall: "Congress is afflicted with famine. We are hungry for heart -- heart for the needy, the powerless, the forgotten. ... It's time for all of us to reflect upon the real meaning of our work. How can we be genuine public servants if we do not put first the needs of the most vulnerable among us?"

By his fast, Hall is no longer a mere political dissenter. Congress has plenty of aplomb to accommodate the occasional rebels who blow off steam about their pet outrage. Hall is a moral dissenter. The fast represents new territory, for himself and the Congress that he charges, unmincingly, has "lost its conscience."

How to deal with somebody who means it? If earlier Washington fasts -- those by Snyder and others -- are a precedent, Hall can expect a number of predictable reactions.

Much of the media will make him the issue, not the world's hungry and the indifference of Congress to them. Is Hall losing it? Is he a publicity seeker? Whom is he mad at? Or maybe he just needed to diet anyway.

A nationally known politician voluntarily fasting is a story, for sure, but the compelling event is the involuntary fasting endured daily by the world's hungry. What causes 35,000 people to die daily of hunger-related disease, and why does the United States, where overeating is routine, remain unmoved? Hall's now-defunct committee, which had the smallest budget of any panel in Congress, was the only one to pursue answers to those questions and propose reforms.

Hall's break with convention -- the basic one of three meals a day -- is not a hunger strike, a tactic designed to win specific demands. A hunger fast is different. It seeks to share the lot with those whose suffering the faster is out to ease. Mohandas Gandhi, the 20th century's most committed faster, said the object was not to bring the other side to it knees was not to bring the other side to it knees but to its senses. In beginning what was to be the last fast of his life -- January 1948 -- Gandhi wrote, "My fast should not be considered a political move in any sense of the term. It is obedience to the peremptory call of conscience and duty. It comes out of felt agony."

Hall isn't asking for his committee back, nor is he trying to heap guilt on Congress. He's trying to tell his colleagues and the country about the agony of hunger. To willingly feel it himself is to give credibility to his argument, which is also the purpose of the fast: Instead of feeling guilty about the hungry, feel responsible.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Rep. Tony Hall's hunger strike
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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