WASHINGTON, D.C. — The incoming president of Bread for the World has personal knowledge about the kind of work it promotes.
The Rev. Eugene Cho, the pastor of a parish in the Evangelical Covenant Church in Seattle and co-founder with his wife, Minhee, of a nonprofit aid group, was not always so successful a man of the cloth.
“We experienced a personal hardship 25 years ago as we were planning our church. Things didn’t go quite right,” Cho told Catholic News Service during a March 18 phone interview from Seattle.
“We were on food stamps on the Washington state WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program,” Cho said. “These programs served as a safety net for me and my family and our two girls at the time.” The Chos now have three daughters.
Cho’s parents also are no strangers to deprivation. “My parents were born in what is now known as North Korea,” he said. “They knew incredible hunger and poverty. When I heard how Christians helped them, it has become part of my (own) story.”
The Chos also started a nonprofit, One Day’s Wages, to combat extreme global poverty. A decade ago, they donated $68,000 — a year’s salary — to get it started. On the organization’s website, Cho said they were able to do so by “three years of saving, simplifying our lives and selling off things we didn’t need.”
He acknowledged they got some criticism for the gesture but wanted to make the point that “we are not asking others to do something we aren’t willing to do ourselves.” The charity focuses on maternal health, clean water and sanitation, girls’ empowerment, children’s education and human trafficking.
Even though his church has participated in Bread for the World’s annual Lenten “Offering of Letters” campaign, when the organization’s leaders approached him about the possibility of leading the Christian citizens’ anti-hunger lobby, which is based in the nation’s capital, he told them up front that, despite his admiration for its work, his answer was “I’m pretty sure, 95 percent no.”
However, “the more we spoke to them, and speaking with my family, my wife and my three now almost grown kids, speaking to my parents,” Cho said, “I began to change my heart and my posture. … There were some very difficult decisions.”
He added, “The only home we’ve known is Seattle. We’re uprooting ourselves to find a new church, a new community. It’s one of the things we’re anxious about. Our community really matters. Our friendship really matters. I feels in many ways as if we’re starting all over again.”
Complicating matters is that his youngest daughter wants to finish her schooling in Seattle. In April, Cho said he will “shadow” the outgoing Bread for the World president, the Rev. David Beckmann, for three months before taking the reins in July. He’ll also commute for a year before trading one Washington for another.
“We don’t want this to be merely a job, something you clock in and clock out,” Cho told CNS. “It’s not just that I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m advocating for the vulnerable, speaking out for the vulnerable. We are followers of Jesus.”
Bread for the World has known only two presidents: the Rev. Arthur Simon, who founded the organization in 1974 and served 17 years as its head, and Beckmann, who at the time of his retirement will have been at the helm for nearly 29 years. Both are Lutheran ministers.
Cho called Beckmann’s tenure “pretty legendary, pretty amazing in its own right,” but quickly added, “I don’t have a 30-year plan. I simply have a commitment to be as faithful, as passionate and as committed to the team that’s already been assembled at Bread.”
He added, “What I love about Bread for the World is its power to equip the church to work with us, to speak to the halls of power to shape policy” and to “make sure our budgets are more compassionate, more fair.”
Cho called Bread for the World “a very prominent organization, well-respected, engaging not just the bipartisan commitment to policymaking, but also the capital ‘C’ church. I’ve always respected Pastor Beckmann for the work.”
When not working or ministering, Cho likes hiking and fishing. He said he has started scouting for good places to hike and fish in the Washington area.
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