30 Hour Famine Teaches Empathy



By Becky Gilbert

When I was a child—not sure of my exact age, but probably about 5 or 6—I remember my parents talking about having some friends come over for dinner and they were going to grill hot dogs. At some point during the day, I must have looked in the refrigerator, because in my 5 or 6-year-old brain, I had seen a partially opened package of hot dogs and I was afraid that our company would eat all the hot dogs and I would not get one. So I ran into the house and took a bite out of one of the hot dogs (this of course meant that this hot dog was mine) and put it back into the package.

After a while, my mother asked what happened to the hot dog, so I told her. I did not realize that taking a bite out of food and putting it back in the package was a problem. I remember being asked, “Why would you do that?” I am sure my answer must have been, “I didn’t want to not get a hot dog” or something equally ridiculous.  I have a vague recollection of a conversation about how rude it was for me to take a bite of the hot dog and put it back and that we had plenty of food for everyone. It was true. I did not grow up in a wealthy house, but we never went hungry and we always had everything we needed.

This event may not sound like much, but I do remember feeling very upset when I was asked about my actions. We didn’t miss meals when I was a child and I do remember feeling…I guess it was embarrassed…to take food away from our guests.  We cannot always pinpoint each place in our life where we learned lessons that would carry into adulthood; but as I think back, it might have been here when I began to understand how to empathize with others.

When Jesus heard of the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. When an angry crowd brought a woman to Jesus with the intention of killing her, Jesus protected her. When the woman at the well gave Jesus a drink, he talked to her about her life and made her feel known and accepted. Jesus was able to empathize with others and understand what they were feeling. Yes, He is God and we are not. However, that does not prevent us from trying to feel and/or understand what other people are going through.

This is why events like the 30 Hour Famine are important in youth ministry. The 30 Hour Famine and the work World Vision does to educate people and help end hunger has inspired me for many years. For those who may be new to the Famine: for 30 hours, youth go without.  Some groups choose to fast from food, others choose to fast from talking or from technology or social media. Whatever the groups picks, for those 30 hours, youth step out of their world and into another one.

When we step into an unknown situation we become uncomfortable, and that uncomfortable feeling helps us grow and develop. We can develop the ability to notice when people around us are in need. We can develop the empathy to care enough about the need we see to do something about it.  As people called to lead youth, we are given the unique opportunity to help teenagers and young adults develop into caring adults who look beyond a hungry person to the reason that hunger exists.

Hopefully, the experience of the 30 Hour Famine will lead both youth leaders and youth to think about others if they are presented with an opportunity to “take a bite out of something and put it back in the fridge,” like my 5 year old self, and empathize with the needs of others first and instead find a way to help.