I’ll never forget the day hunger became real to me.
I was with Food for the Hungry colleagues in rural Bolivia, visiting a rustic mountain community. FH had constructed a water system here and had taught mothers about health and hygiene. There was a one-room schoolhouse that went through second grade, and a dilapidated and largely unused Catholic church.
It was quiet here. Too quiet. On the wide church steps, my colleagues gently quizzed the moms to see what they remembered about the health training. It was not going well. The mothers rarely answered. Clearly, they weren’t putting the training into practice. The women’s home-woven wool dresses were caked with mud, and the rank odor of layered dirt and sweat permeated the gathering.
Meanwhile, their pre-school children should have been playing. It was 10 o’clock in the morning on a fine sunny day. But instead the children slept or sat listlessly on the steps. They too wore pants, shirts and dresses caked with dirt, and their skin bore the angry, scaly rash that comes when kids don’t bathe. The rash and their wispy, orange-tinged hair told me they weren’t getting enough protein and vitamins. This was malnutrition, in your face.
As I watched the mothers and the children, my heart went to ice. I’ve never seen people before or since who looked so….empty. There was absolutely nothing behind their eyes. I’d seen the fear of people who haven’t seen a white person before, and I’d seen people putting up emotional walls because they were angry. But this was huge, overwhelming nothingness in their souls.
Where are the men?
There were no men to be seen. I asked a colleague, an agronomist named Jorge, where they were. Working in their fields, perhaps? “No,” he answered, “unfortunately they’ve refused our help with agriculture programs. They’re probably working in one of the quarries near here. They can work fewer hours, and work when they want. Farming means you have to be much more disciplined.” But, I countered, their children were dangerously malnourished. Wouldn’t they want to provide their children with food? Jorge smiled gently at my naiveté and explained that most of their income went to liquor and cigarettes. I could see, despite his polite reserve that highland Bolivians value, that he was deeply angered by what we saw.
Walking uphill a ways, I saw the pipes carrying water downhill from a natural spring. FH had built a cistern high on the hill to capture the spring water. Somewhere in the middle of the village, someone had completely diverted the water so that it served only a few homes on the upper edge of the community. It looked like someone had taken a rock and smashed apart the PVC pipe headed downhill, then plugged the hole in the pipe so three or four homes got all of the water. Most of the lovely new washtubs we’d installed in each home, and the showers with solar water heaters, went dry. No wonder they weren’t bathing or washing clothes.
I was fuming at this point, so angry I started to cry. I never cry on field visits, not in the villages anyway. It seems unprofessional to lose my objectivity. But I’ll cry when I leave. This time I couldn’t stop the tears. I decide to hide out and weep at the back wall of the church. When I arrived there some of my colleagues where there too, doing exactly the same thing. We were frustrated, dejected and defeated at that moment.
Talking in the car on the way home, we realized we’d seen a textbook case for why we’ve got to reach people on the spiritual level, if we’re going to win the war against hunger. Obviously, we hadn’t done that in this village. Only through spiritual change could we convince moms that they need to keep clean, and keep their kids free of disease. Only through spiritual change would we convince fathers to take their rightful role of providing food for their families. Only through spiritual change could a neighbor stop stealing water from the others.
We all felt God had given us powerful marching orders. In addition to working with the adults to fix what was broken, we decided to work directly with the children. Believers with FH’s Japanese sister organization prayed this community back to life; their sponsorship support helped send Christian workers into this community who walked alongside the families. I can’t say that every family changed, and it wasn’t immediate; it probably took 7-10 years for healing to come to this community. To a degree the change would come as children we reached as preschoolers grew into the mid-teen years, when people take on adult roles in communities like this.
Today is World Hunger Day. As you pray for those around the world who don’t have enough to eat, take a moment to get beyond the meal and pray for spiritual sustenance for them as well, the kind of sustenance that produces all kinds of healthy fruit.