Winthrop, Mass. — It has become an annual event at 152 Shirley Street - ``the house attached to the bookstore,'' as locals describe it. Each Friday before Thanksgiving, guests come and go throughout the evening to partake of a bowl of soup, talk about old times and current events, and finally to leave behind a check for Oxfam and the fight against world hunger. Simon and Lee Fish have been holding these open-house, break-the-fast soup suppers at their home for the past six years. But their personal commitment to the world's hungry goes back 12 years to when first they decided to fast for a day and give the money they saved on food to Oxfam America.
One family's fast will do little to help the hungry, the Winthrop, Mass., couple contend, but if they and the few thousands who make similar sacrifices across the land each year can grow to become hundreds of thousands and eventually millions, then the war on hunger might be won. Every little bit helps, they say, but the real strength of their actions lies in the example to others.
Some years back Oxfam America, a branch of the organization founded at Oxford University during the 1930s to tackle problems associated with famines around the world, looked at the feasting associated with Thanksgiving Day and suggested that in the United States, where every day is a feast day by most of the world's standards, some might be prepared to forgo their turkey dinner and give the savings to the hungry. That was too tough a sacrifice, however; more acceptable was the request the following year that people fast for hunger sometime during the week before Thanksgiving.
The Fishes were among the first to take up the challenge. After supper on Thursday evening of that week, Lee confines herself to a few cups of coffee before breaking her fast the following evening. Simon goes one better: Water is all he takes.
There are places in the world where a nightly bowl of watery gruel is the only meal of the day for even the more fortunate families. ``We just don't know what the hungry must endure,'' the Fishes say, ``and one day's fast won't help us find out.'' But it does heighten one's appreciation for one's own well-being and, they stress, ``it is one sacrifice people in the West can readily make.''
After several years of breaking the fast on their own, the Fishes felt that others might like to join them. Friends and acquaintances had begun to praise them for their efforts, which led the Fishes to believe others would enjoy taking part in the symbolic event and contributing a small sum to Oxfam. They were right.
From a handful of visitors the first year, the event has grown to include some 40 or so guests who take part in what has become an enjoyable celebration despite the humble nature of the meal.
This year a young couple, perennial guests at the pre-Thanksgiving event, declined the invitation because they had moved away from the area. But they wrote to say that they had started a break-the-fast supper for acquaintances in their new town.
Since the original organization's inception in the 1930s, Oxfams have been founded in several other countries. Each works independently, but they cooperate in regions where they overlap. Oxfam America currently places most of its emphasis on the Philippines, Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.
It focuses on helping small-scale farmers, village cooperatives and other operations that produce food for local consumption rather than for export. This is what the Fishes like about Oxfam. Much third-world hunger, Simon Fish contends, exists ``because landowners over there are too busy producing luxury crops on starvation wages for us over here.''
For more information, write Oxfam America, 115 Broadway, Boston, MA 02116.