Seeds: catalyzing churches to halt hunger

From a musty upstairs Sunday school room of the Oakhurst Baptist Church here in Decatur, a small group of Christian seminary graduates are trying to spawn a revolution - against world hunger.

They're doing it quietly, with their pens, and so far they've received little notice. Their main vehicle is a series of magazines and newsletters that carry antihunger articles by such notables as Jimmy Carter, Barry Commoner, and Mother Teresa - all donated free of charge. The magazines also contain home-grown how-to pieces on starting soup kitchens and food cooperatives, organizing church committees to combat hunger, and getting local communities involved in projects to help stamp out starvation.

One magazine is called Seeds; its every-other-month offshoot is Sprouts. Tom Peterson, associate editor of both, explains the allusion: ''We are mobilizers, catalysts, inspirers. (We) throw out a lot of seeds and hope some will take root.''

''Seeds'' was planted inauspiciously six years ago in this Atlanta suburb by Mr. Peterson and a quartet of youthful cohorts who wanted to alert fellow Southern Baptists to problems of hunger in their own backyard. Seeds had no budget. Writers and editors donated their time.

The two publications have hardly caught fire, but now they are mailed out to 4,000 subscribers across the United States. And a $160,000 budget keeps the operation afloat, fueled mainly by private donations, foundation grants, and income from a typesetting business that Seeds operates from a room in the church basement.

''And we have broadened our base, from Southern Baptists to other (Protestant) groups,'' explains Andy Loving, administrative director of the program staff.

Messrs. Peterson and Loving further explain that Seeds is much more than a magazine. In addition to the monthly publications, it is also involved in educational programs and forging a network of Christians concerned about world hunger.

Program director Ken Sehestad travels the circuit of churches - mainly in the Southeast, but also elsewhere in the US - teaching ministers and lay people how to organize hunger committees and spurring community interest in local and national hunger projects. Seeds, although not an official lobby, works closely with ''Bread for the World,'' an ecumenical pressure group in Washington.

Basic to the whole idea is a scriptural mandate, Seeds sponsors insist. They point to references in both the Old Testament and the New Testament which urge reaching out to the poor, hungry, and unfortunate. Among them: ''He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him'' (Revised Standard Version, Proverbs 14:31) and ''If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?'' (James 2:15-16).

Loving says it is interesting that the home base of Seeds is among Southern Baptists, who are typically politically conservative and not prone toward social activism. But this group has particularly responded to the call to help the needy. The Southern Baptists' hunger offerings ''have increased 60-fold within the last decade,'' he says. ''Actually, theologically we're still very conservative,'' Mr. Loving explains, ''although some people see us as liberals.''

Unlike some other church-rooted social-action programs, Seeds organizers stress that they don't want to be encumbered by political labels. They shun partisan endorsements and try to attract support from both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

The organization's basic aim to feed a hungry world by first alerting the public to the root causes of starvation has earned them a ''radical'' label among some conservatives. But Seeds editor Gary Gunderson says it's often more difficult to motivate liberal churches to action than conservative congregations. The former, he says, ''love the seminars.'' The latter, when convinced of the worthiness of a cause, are ready to pitch in and work.

What about the Christian concept of people helping themselves? Loving says that the poor and hungry, particularly those in the third world, must first be afforded ''justice'' (which he defines in terms of jobs and land), and then they will be in a position to fend for themselves.

''Perhaps the real change won't come until the affluent middle class have more contact with the poor,'' he adds. ''Right now there's more economic segregation than there is racial segregation.''

Commenting on a recent visit to Central America, Tom Peterson describes, in the current edition of Seeds, conditions in camps for Salvadorean refugees in Honduras. He says he saw people ''work from sunrise to sunset.'' After this experience, ''I find it hard to listen to those who insist that people are poor because they are lazy,'' he says.

Each issue of Seeds contains references to books and articles on world hunger as well as responses from churches and antihunger groups around the US. These pages describe successful programs, ranging from those that provide food to people in high-unemployment areas to ''planting a row for the food bank.'' The latter project, based in Austin, Texas, asks home gardeners to plant a little more than they need for themselves and donate the surplus to the local food bank.

Seeds' work has not gone entirely without recognition. In 1982, the organization was awarded the first annual Hunger Media Award for its coverage of world food problems. A $10,000 prize was given by its sponsor, country singer Kenny Rogers, who stressed that this recognition ''brought attention to important work (by Seeds) that otherwise may have gone overlooked.''

Ken Sehested says it's the antihunger work and not the organization that needs broader exposure. But he adds that its main goal is to boost magazine subscriptions from 4,000 to 20,000 within two to three years. Seeds is also considering incorporating itself so it can seek public funding.

Meanwhile, the group will publish a ''how to cope with hunger'' book next summer, based on its magazine articles. And in January, it will co-publish (with Alternatives, another Christian antihunger group) a guide to world hunger organizations intended to aid would-be donors and volunteers.

Seeds workers no longer donate their time. Each earns a modest $14,500 a year. Loving says he and his colleagues live simply - in keeping with the nature of their commitment to the poor. He quotes Anglican churchman Colin Morris: ''The most that the average Christian can hope to do is to take hold of the near-edge of a great problem and to act at some cost to himself.''

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