One of the unsung heroes in the fight against global hunger was a woman who overcame incredible life challenges. Iris Gabriel was born in Georgia during the early 1900s, the daughter of a cotton plantation owner.
As her family struggled to get by, she worked her way through high school. The blonde-haired Gabriel also won two beauty pageants and soon set out for Hollywood in search of fame and success.
But stardom did not await; instead there was tragedy as she was struck by a car while in Hollywood. Her severe injuries landed her in a hospital for a long stay and yet another calamity: tuberculosis. She spent years in hospital wards recovering.
In a newspaper article Gabriel said, “By 1946 I was reduced to one big zero. I had lived too long looking for glamor.” Gabriel was moving away from the lure of Hollywood. She was greatly influenced by the atomic bomb development and the cause of world peace. That was the beginning of her new and true calling.
While attending a prayer retreat in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, she developed an idea for feeding the hungry. Keep in mind that at this point in history Europe and Asia were recovering from World War II and hunger and food shortages were prevalent. In June, 1947 Secretary of State George Marshall had put forth his European recovery program; but before that could get started, food aid was needed.
Gabriel’s inspiration evolved into the “Silent Guest” program. Governor Robert Bradford of Massachusetts helped lead the way for the idea to take hold. The plan was that everyone should make an extra place at their table at Thanksgiving for feeding a silent guest. A donation paying for the cost to feed this guest would be used to buy a CARE package for a needy person overseas. The Silent Guest program was based in Plymouth, Massachusetts and donations poured in at Thanksgiving time in 1947.
The Silent Guest program bought CARE packages of food for children in war-torn countries in 1947-1949. (National Archives photo)
The Silent Guest program was one of the means of tackling the hunger crisis at that time. When America continued to build its Food for Peace program in the 1950s, Gabriel was one of those called upon to lend her expertise.
In a letter submitted to Congress, Gabriel recounted the powerful impact of the Silent Guest program. She described, “through the simple technique of asking each American family to place an extra plate symbolically at their feast table on Thanksgiving Day for a hungry child – or to entertain a silent guest, many thousands of children were fed, housed, clothed after the war all over Europe, including Iron Curtain countries.”
Gabriel also told of the reaction of many in Europe who wrote letters of thanks; “we don’t know who the person is in America that sent us a silent guest CARE package, but if this is the spirit of America, God Bless America.”
It was the Cold War though, and the response was not always positive. In one of the Iron Curtain countries Gabriel recalled, “I was insulted by the top Communist official, who challenged me to go back to Georgia, U.S.A., where I was born and wash my own dirty linen. This device was used to avoid giving a press conference which would have informed the Polish people that an American woman was in their midst, who was responsible for helping feed their war orphans.”
But ignorant words were not going to stop Gabriel and the legacy she created with the Silent Guest. She reflected that “Many others, including the late Pope Pius, saw within the technique of the silent guest at feast days a catalyst which would bind all races, cultures, and religions in a common goal – peace. “
If anyone out there from Hollywood is reading, perhaps Iris Gabriel should finally get her Hollywood spotlight now in the form of a film on her achievement. With it could come the revival of the Silent Guest program. For today there are starving children in Afghanistan, Sudan and so many other countries around the world. The kind of spirit shown by Gabriel and others of the Greatest Generation in helping feed war victims is what the world wishes for in 2011.