Remembering Joel Underwood, Bread’s first staff member

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By Marco Grimaldo

Rev. Joel Underwood, Bread for the World’s first staff member, and its director of organizing, church relations, and fundraising departments passed away in December.

He spent 27 years at Bread before retiring in 2001. Bread gives thanks to God for Joel’s life and ministry, as we honor his memory.

Barbara Howell, a longtime friend and colleague, recalls Joel as “such a joyous person, a good friend that wanted to share his joy and the work of Bread with everyone.” Howell is a former director of government relations at Bread.

Joel began working at Bread in 1974. He led Project 500 – an effort to recruit 500 local leaders for Bread and launched the organization’s first Offering of Letters campaign aimed at calling on Congress to pass the Right to Food resolution

“In each capacity he has held, Joel cut new ground,” said Rev. Art Simon, Bread’s founding president.

Steve Hitchcock, a former Bread staff member, said the work of the development team under Joel’s tenure was to increase the number of Bread members and help grow the movement.

“He was a constant cheerleader for members,” Hitchcock said. “Joel knew that the members’ actions and their gifts made everything possible.” 

During his tenure at Bread, Joel wrote and composed, “Lazarus,” a musical about hunger and poverty while on sabbatical. The musical was first performed in Washington, D.C., and it has since been produced an estimated 2,000 times in churches and community theatres across the nation and 15 times outside the U.S., raising more than a million dollars for hunger-related causes.

A Spanish version, “Lazaro,” was performed in El Salvador. Joel’s interests in music and the arts went beyond producing musicals. He also served as executive editor of “Banquet of Praise,” a hymnal published by Bread for the World.

Calling him a “true renaissance man,” Bishop Don DiXon Williams, who worked with Joel on outreach to African American churches, said: “His God-given talents were used in the service of God and God’s children and my life is better because I had the privilege of knowing him.”

Before coming to Bread, Joel served as a chaplain and then later as founding pastor, associate pastor, and pastor at several United Methodist congregations. From 1965-69, Joel and his wife, Helen, served as missionaries in Calcutta, India (now called Kolkata) where they worked with other religious leaders on hunger and poverty.

Joel’s family requested that his obituary be shared. It can be read here. We pray with thanksgiving for the life of our brother Joel Underwood, for his wife Helen, and for their family and all those that love them.

Clearly, through his faith, the joy he shared, his talent for music, his passion for justice, Joel lived into the Gospel call to love his neighbors. Bread for the World and those who advocate for an end to hunger have benefited as a result.

Well done – good and faithful servant.

A memorial service will take place on Saturday, April 2 at 2 p.m. (ET) at Charlottesville Friends Meeting House, 1104 Forest Street, Charlottesville, VA.

Marco Grimaldo is deputy director of faith engagement at Bread for the World.

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