In 1974 a concern for food deficits and hunger swept through the church and the nation. Famine in the Sahel and the rediscovery of large pockets of hungry people in the United States moved many people to take part in study groups, organizing, advocacy, and simulations. Simulations? In order to identify with hungry people, those of us who were not usually hungry had to remind ourselves what hunger felt like.
I attended my first Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ Annual Meeting at Dekalb, Illinois, in June of 1974. I had attended many conferences, many annual conferences of the United Methodist Church, but this was my first UCC Annual Conference. I did not know what to expect. My ignorance went so far as to include what my registration fee covered. It seemed like a lot of money to me at the time. I assumed it covered the costs of the meeting itself, housing, and meals. It was the latter item that revealed that I had assumed too much. The cost of meals was not included.
I did not have much money in those days, living paycheck to paycheck and paying off education loans. I had a family of a wife and two small children who needed cash more than I did, so I had about five dollars in my pocket and a gas credit card for the travel. What else would I need?
The conference meeting lasted about four days, and my loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter had stretched about as far as I could make it stretch. I had access to plenty of water. I also had a conference dinner to look forward to, with a ticket that was prepaid in my registration fee. I felt very happy that the fee had at least covered that one meal. The dinner itself was elaborately set up in a grand ballroom with white tablecloths, napkins, glassware, and tableware, no plastic or paper in sight.
The servers had specific instructions that began with the serving of about ten people out of a hundred with hors d’oeurves. Then came the salads which were served randomly to about fifty out of a hundred, including of course those who had already been served. Meanwhile the grumbling had begun from those who had not yet been served. The servers just continued their quiet compliance with their directives. As a newcomer I did not yet have a voice, but I was in tune with the times and catching on to what was happening. When the main course arrived, about seventy people out of a hundred had full plates with meat, potatoes, vegetables, and bread rolls. The rest got small plates of rice. In front of me sat a small plate of rice.
The dessert that followed the main course came to about thirty out of a hundred. The grumbling increased in volume and anger, and the faces of those who had received and eaten the extra food looked appropriately humble. Everyone scarfed down what was set in front of them. No one within my view was sharing anything that they received, although I learned afterward that some tables had several sharers when the dessert arrived. By the next business session, facing an angry audience, the planners of the simulation extended their apologies and promised not to surprise the attendees with such an ill-conceived plan again.
The rice that I ate was probably the best rice I have ever eaten, and the portion, though small, satisfied my hunger. I could return home with a clear conscience to a place where I had enough to eat.