Mar'ia Rodr'iguez, a widow, had little cause for hope. Her rural life in the Dominican Republic was a persistent struggle to find enough food to feed 10 children. But she did have one significant asset -- a strength of character that never failed to impress her local pastor. It was through the efforts of that pastor that Mar'ia was given a $400 loan by a relief organization, Aspir'e. That humble sum allowed her to buy a freezer, chickens she could raise as a business, and a three-wheel bicycle with which to deliver her goods.
She now makes $600 a month, her children are in school, she's able to support her church -- and the $400, now paid off, is at work helping another poor family.
Robert Hancock, executive director of the Institute for International Development in Vienna, Va., makes a point of telling Mar'ia Rodr'iguez's story, since to him it illustrates the direction that help for the world's hungry has to take.
``For that woman,'' he says, ``$400 made all the difference. . . . Now she provides, and will continue to.'' He emphasizes, too, the role of her pastor, who could direct the aid to her, knowing that she would build on it.
Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor and director of the Center for Religion and Society here, vigorously concurs. He, Mr. Hancock, and others with long experience in the world relief effort pooled their thoughts during a recent forum in New York sponsored by Christian Herald magazine. Discussion focused on the question ``Who is responsible for feeding the hungry?''
The experience of Mar'ia Rodr'iguez ought to be multiplied, in Pastor Neuhaus's view. To him, it illustrates the ideal involvement of people in churches with people in need. ``Have we reached a time in which we have to ask ourselves whether . . . less is not more?'' he asks. Churches only have a ``little bit'' of money relative to the need, ``but our $100,000 may do more than a government's $10 million,'' he says.
The importance of development over the ``band-aid'' of relief is underscored by Dr. Larry Ward. Dr. Ward has been active in the field for 25 years and is founder and president-emeritus of Food for the Hungry, a private agency with US headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz.
But emphasizing development shouldn't mean downgrading the work of simply feeding hungry people, says Ward. ``We won't apologize for keeping our brothers alive,'' he says succinctly.
Ward is acutely aware of the ``gargantuan'' problem of world hunger, since he spends much of his time visiting Africa, Latin America, and other places where food supplies are short. He's also sharply aware of the political and logistical hurdles that so often impede effective aid.
``Relief properly done leads to development,'' says Ward, voicing a tenet of his organization. ``We look at the computerized technology of agribusiness that suits us -- but in many areas they just need a little better plow, a little better hoe.'' He recalls a Canadian volunteer in Kenya who rigged up a simple, solar-powered electric fence that kept elephants from trampling the grain fields. A simple idea, but ``inside that fence it was Shangri-La,'' says Ward. Best of all, he adds, the local farmers were able to repair it themselves.
But even simple help can have its dysfunction, cautions the Rev. Boyd Lowry, head of Coordination in Development Inc. (Codel). The Rev. Mr. Lowry mentions a project in India where one drilling rig helped bring crucial irrigation, but the hundreds that followed it dangerously lowered the water table.
An important part of caring, he concludes, is to strive to understand what the ultimate results of a relief effort might be.
Finally, Pastor Neuhaus says people in this country should never despair, never let ``What can I do?'' become a dead end. ``Simply caring and praying is very important,'' he says. ``We can't be apologetic about this most obvious response.''