Hunger and poverty have been plaguing humanity since ancient times, and people of faith have been combating it just as long. But activists in that fight believe the world faces a unique opening to actually end extreme hunger--if world leaders get on board.

Faith leaders describing this opportunity are using phrases like "a confessional moment," "a new civil rights movement," and "new abolitionists" fighting "the new slavery" to describe this upsurge of interest in poverty.

"There's a kind of crescendo of concern building around this issue," said Jim McDonald, vice president of policy and programs at Bread for the World, a Christian anti-poverty organization.

That crescendo has built to a roar in recent days.

On July 3, in eight cities around the world, a dizzying array of pop and rock superstars performed in concerts aimed at raising awareness about poverty in Africa.

The event-dubbed Live 8-took place just days before the Group of Eight (G8) Summit meeting in Scotland, at which representatives from the world's wealthiest nations are discussing African aid and debt relief. Live 8 was the brainchild of Bob Geldof, formerly of the Boomtown Rats (and now Sir Bob Geldof). It comes almost 20 years after the 1985 Live Aid concert, also spearheaded by Geldof, which raised money for African famine relief.

Now, with the concerts over and the G8 Summit beginning, activists are keeping the pressure on.

Though "G8 Summit" and "debt relief" seem like rallying cries more fit for a political science conference than a pulpit or concert hall, religious leaders and celebrities are demanding that world leaders double aid to Africa and cancel all national debts for the poorest countries. The effect is that a coalition of the glamorous and the pious, including such figures as the conservative evangelical Rick Warren, the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis, the Dalai Lama, U2's Bono, and the former Beatle Paul McCartney, are turning the pressure on world leaders gathering in Gleneagles, Scotland--for decisions that will make good on their earlier pledges to permanently end hunger in Africa.

Underscoring the significance of the rock stars' involvement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared Wednesday with Geldof and Bono and pledged to oppose reported U.S.-backed attempts to scale back the G8's Africa aid. The rock and religion coalition may have scored at least one victory this month, when the wealthy nation' foreign ministers agreed to erase more than $40 billion of the debt that 18 countries owe to the World Bank and other international organizations. But they see that decision as only the beginning of what's needed to pull Africa out of its seemingly perennial poverty-and a fraction of what is realistically achievable by the developed world.

"More and more people are beginning to realize that with technology and other advances, this can be the generation that ends extreme poverty," said Scott Jackson of World Vision, a relief organization associated with evangelical churches.

Even before Live 8 heated up the G8 activism, efforts to combat hunger in Africa had been picking up steam in recent weeks.

In May, U2's Bono helped launch the ONE Campaign, which is calling on the U.S. government to raise by 1 percent the amount of aid to Africa.

The effort-supported by a diverse array of faith groups-is the U.S. arm of an England-based organization called Make Poverty History. That group similarly advocates for increased aid to Africa and is asking supporters to wear white wristbands, styled after the yellow ones that Lance Armstrong popularized to promote the fight against cancer.

Catholics for Faithful Citizenship, an Ohio-based advocacy group that lobbies for, among other things, trade agreements favorable to poorer countries, quotes the late Pope John Paul II as saying the poverty of billions of people worldwide is "the one issue that most challenges our human and Christian consciences."

In June, more than 1,000 representatives of more than 40 religious groups - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus-gathered in the National Cathedral in Washington to pray for an end to global poverty. "There's a moral convergence happening among religious leaders on the issue of poverty," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, author and founder of the organization Sojourners, a Christian group advocating peace and justice. Another of Mr. Wallis' faith-based groups, Call to Renewal, co-sponsored the interfaith gathering at the National Cathedral. Diversity is nothing new in anti-poverty work. What's different now, according to many, is the strong passion that many evangelicals are investing on issues like poverty, hunger, and AIDSlong considered priorities mainly for liberals.

How are evangelicals working to end poverty?
Read more on page 2 >>

  Related Features
  • Religious Leaders: Time to Act
  • What You Can Do to Help
  • Does the G8 Really Help Africa?