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Hunger banquet gives students taste of reality

Guests from United Methodist churches in Oklahoma eat a small meal during a hunger banquet sponsored by Denver Urban Ministries.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
Aug. 6, 2008 | DENVER (UMNS)

As high school students on a mission trip enter a church dining hall, they soon discover that what they eat depends on their presumed lot in life.

Devon Hein, an intern at Denver Urban Ministries, packs groceries for the organization's food bank.

"There wasn’t enough," complains one student who received a small bowl of macaroni and cheese, representing what might be a typical meal for a working-class person.

Organized by Denver Urban Ministries, the hunger banquet was designed to show the daily challenges faced by many families. A drawing determined what meal each student would eat, with working-class people making up the largest group.

"We don't always realize that we don't all eat the same," explains Carolyne Schultz, urban education coordinator for the United Methodist-related Denver Urban Ministries.

"The youth come knowing that they’re going to do volunteer work and that they’re going to meet some neat people and do some great work. But what they don’t always know … is they’re not just coming to help others, that they’re coming to learn about themselves, too."

This summer, nearly 40 students from United Methodist churches in rural Oklahoma were among those who came to Denver to spend a week with the ministry and work on community projects.

‘My heart broke’

For the banquet, students chosen to represent the middle class eat a better meal than those in the working class—spaghetti with meat sauce and salad. Another group, representing the top 10 percent of wage earners, is served the best meal, including a chicken breast and strawberry shortcake for dessert.

In the corner, Jessica Grace, representing the homeless, receives only a bowl of soup.

"It’s definitely canned soup, and it’s not that great," says Grace, 15, a member of Ringling (Okla.) United Methodist Church.

Soon, several students begin to see what their friends are eating and say the meal is "unfair." Some consider sharing part of their meal with others, but believe there is a rule against sharing.

Allison Bevers represents the “upper class” during the hunger banquet.

Finally, Allison Bevers, 17, a member of Lindsay (Okla.) United Methodist Church, shares her strawberry shortcake with someone from another group.

"My heart pretty much broke tonight when they talked about just the kids being homeless," says Bevers. "It was very life-changing."

Bevers says the banquet encouraged her to consider new ways to help the needy.

"If you hang out with people that are just like yourself, whether it’s how much money they make or their character, you never grow," she says. "You have to put yourself out there with people that you aren’t comfortable with because then you become comfortable."

Grace, representing the homeless at the banquet, says the experience encouraged her to do more for others as well.

"I think this experience has helped me to maybe even step out more of my comfort zone than I already have," she says, "and maybe, you know, do something for other people."

Miya Stevens, 18, a member of the Lindsay church, says the banquet gave her insights into the plight of the homeless.

"In Denver, I didn’t know that there were 60 percent homeless that were families; they’re people that have kids," she says. "I would have never known that."

Perceived barriers

Doug Coker, 17, a member of First United Methodist Church of Davis, Okla., says the banquet helped him question perceived rules about helping others.

Executive Director Tammy Mulligan says Denver Urban Ministries has seen requests for food increase by more than one-third this year.

"I guess in real life, people think there are rules," Coker says. "But, you know, you can help out as much as you can."

Denver Urban Ministries has seen a 34 percent increase in the number of families requesting food assistance in the first four months of this year. The ministry was founded by The United Methodist Church in 1981and receives support from area churches.

During the weeklong mission trip, the Oklahoma students planted vegetables in a community garden, packed supplies for a medical warehouse and helped at an adult day-care center.

Schultz, the coordinator of the banquet for Denver Urban Ministries, says she hopes the lessons will be lasting.

"I’m really glad that they had that opportunity to take a step outside of who they are at home and to see the world from someone else’s perspective," she says. "I think that’s really powerful."

Denver Urban Ministries was established by United Methodist clergy and laity in 1981 as a 501(c)(3) human service agency to provide emergency and stabilization services in Denver’s most impoverished neighborhoods. More information is available at its Web site, http://www.denum.org/ or by calling (303) 355-4896.

*Gordon is a freelance producer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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