Larry Jones can't say exactly how many times he has visited the world's most impoverished slums. Since co-founding Feed the Children with his wife, Frances in 1979, he has directly overseen the distribution of food to hundreds of thousands of people in more than 180 countries.
But every time he escorts someone new to these places, Jones sees the devastation of poverty and hunger through a fresh set of eyes. Take for instance his trip with actress Melanie Griffith to Nashville. Yes, that Nashville—the one in Tennessee known for country music, Southern hospitality and a church on every corner.
Since its inception, Feed the Children has become known for its massive international relief efforts. Yet right there, in the middle of an American city known for its economic stability and significant contributions to culture, Jones showed Griffith some of the worst examples of social destitution and human despair.
"I took her to a duplex," Jones recalls. "A woman who lived there had cut a hole in the wall because they had cut her electricity off and the people who lived next door let her borrow electricity from them because she had a small baby and it was cold."
"Then we took her to a trailer. These two women only had half of a trailer. One was a waitress at White Castle, and she worked nights. The other was a maid. They had six children between them. The mattress was propped up against the wall because they didn't have room. At night, they would lay the mattress down to sleep. They both cared for the other's children as they took turns working.
"When you see this right in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee, you're going, 'I don't believe it!' Melanie was crying."
For Griffith, it was a defining moment—one that left a deep impression on her and also influenced her husband, actor Antonio Banderas. The two have since used their collective voices to raise awareness about hunger in America and have personally funded and privately hosted food drops in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
"You think that it's not in your neighborhood—you don't see it in your neighborhood," Griffith said shortly following her experience. "But just hear the statistics—one in every four children in America is starving. That's scary. And this is America. It's not supposed to be here."
"It is atrocious," Jones adds. "Most people do not realize you've got 12 million [American] children who sometime during the month go hungry. That's [the government's] best guesstimation. I don't know how they came to that conclusion. I like to put a face to the statistic and tell you a story about a hungry child as opposed to giving you some enormous number. As the saying goes, 'Statistics have no tears.'"
A 20-Cent Investment
To understand Larry Jones' passion for feeding America's hungry, one must first vicariously experience his 68-year journey. Jones was born in Scottsville, Kentucky, and grew up in Bowling Green. His mother was a Methodist. His father was a Baptist. The family spent equal time supporting both denominations, and his mother was especially active as a church planter and director of her own prison ministry.
Jones was involved as well. He spoke to prisoners and visited nursing homes with his pastor's wife. Still, Jones admits that basketball was his god, and until he broke his wrist in a game during his senior year, he had only hoop dreams on his mind.
The injury sent Jones to his knees, where he rededicated his life to Christ. He also gave up an opportunity to enter the Air Force Academy and instead became a starter for legendary coach Abe Lemons at Oklahoma City University, where he played basketball for three years. Jones also met his wife, Frances, there; the two celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in March of this year.
When Jones graduated in 1962, he became a pastor while simultaneously attending Phillips Theological Seminary in Enid, Oklahoma, where he earned a bachelor's degree in divinity. In 1967, he became a full-time evangelist. That role allowed him to visit Haiti in the late 1970s for a ministry conference.
As he returned to his hotel one evening, a young boy stopped him and asked him for a nickel to buy a piece of bread. After Jones gave him the nickel, the boy then asked for three pennies to get butter for the bread. Jones complied and then gave the boy an additional 12 cents for a Coke. The grand sum for this "meal" was a whopping 20 cents.
At the time, Jones had no idea that God was setting him up for his future work. Self-described as "clueless," Jones says it never occurred to him how great a return that 20-cent investment into the kingdom would bring. The revelation was anything but immediate, and it took Jones a full year of Bible study to truly understand his newly discovered purpose in life.
"When I reread the whole Bible, it jumped off the page about feeding the hungry, caring for the widow and taking care of the fatherless—the orphan," Jones says. "You find all through the Scriptures that this is there, but there's seemingly been a separation within the church world between what you call the social gospel versus the evangelical gospel. There's no separation in the Bible. Man has made that separation."
Jones also began to realize that traditional evangelism was not nearly as effective as the Western church once believed. Having held international crusades, he learned the hard way that the massive numbers of salvation experiences were being tainted by an unforeseen dynamic.
"When the Muslims get ready to go into a community, they don't have the big crusade," Jones says. "They go into a poor area, and usually the first thing they'll open is a medical clinic. Then they'll open the school. Then they'll open the mosque. Well, who's gonna go [to the mosque]? So it's back to, 'We don't care what you know until we know that you care.'
"That's when I discovered that we as Christians were going to have to do more than just preach. I was blind to this portion of the gospel, and now I see."
Throughout the process, Jones made a very practical discovery. Oklahoma farmers were storing tons of surplus grain every year, and in many cases the unused grain was rotting. While making a television appearance, Jones suggested that the U.S. should export its surplus wheat in an effort to assist both needy countries and the American farming community.
The Oklahoma farmers immediately picked up on the concept and according to Jones, "the phones rang off the wall."
"Within two months, I had 50 truckloads of wheat," he says.
When Jones and his wife officially co-founded Feed the Children, they set up the organization's first office in their kitchen. Neither was prepared for the madness that was about to ensue. "We couldn't keep up," Jones says.
"We were hiring people. Phones were going off the wall. After about 10 years of this, my wife and I sat down and said, 'Why would God choose us?' And then we figured it out. He chose us because, No. 1, we really didn't know what we were doing. When you don't know what you're doing, you've got to walk on your knees. You have to depend on Him."
In the last 28 years, Feed the Children has grown exponentially and is now the nation's sixth-largest feeding ministry, not to mention one of the most efficiently run charities. In 2006 alone, the organization distributed 183 million pounds of food and other essentials to children and families accounting for more than 1.4 million meals every day.
Feed the Children has influenced lives in more than 118 countries and turned around more than $746 million worth of charitable donations in the form of food, clothing, hygiene products, educational materials, medical supplies, toys, blankets and infant care items. Jones' work has rallied an eclectic mix of support. Feed the Children has been backed by some of the nation's largest ministries, including those led by Bishop T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Kenneth C. Ulmer and Benny Hinn.
Feed the Children has also inspired involvement from a wide array of entertainers from both the mainstream and Christian industries, as well as politicians from both sides of the aisle. Tim McGraw, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Jars of Clay, J.C. Watts, Naomi Judd and the late President Ronald Reagan are just a few notable names that can be found on Feed the Children's growing list of backers.
A few of Jones' affiliations have raised some eyebrows, including his recent partnerships with a few "bad boy" athletes, such as Ron Artest of the NBA and Chad Johnson of the NFL. But by virtue of their time spent with Jones, these men and many others have not only added significant amounts of cash to the cause but also have been influenced by a firsthand display of the gospel in action.
Just as Jones was unaware of the global hunger problem before his first visit to Haiti, he was equally oblivious to the growing hunger problem here at home. "I would like to say that I was brilliant and said: 'Oh, we've got a hunger problem in America. Let's address it,'" Jones candidly says. "I wasn't. The people who organized Hands Across America came and knocked on my door in 1986.
"That's when people came to us and said, 'OK, you're going to Africa, you're going to Central America, you're going to the Philippines, you're going all over the world, but you're not doing anything here in America.' Now we take food to all 50 states."
In fact, more than half of Feed the Children's funding is now used to feed people in the United States. This is not due to a philosophical shift, but to the high cost of shipping food and care items from one international location to another. Jones says, for instance, that it costs roughly $4 million to send 10,000 tons of rice from Taiwan to Kenya.
It's not exactly cheap to transport food across the continental U.S. these days either. Rising gas prices alone caused a $665,000 increase in fuel expenses from 2005 to 2006. But Jones understands better than anyone the importance of keeping up the fight no matter what challenges might arise. He has seen too much to turn back now.
And the battle he wages isn't just against hunger. Jones says he also finds himself daily in an all-out war against complacency in the church. Even though some of his greatest allies are from the Christian community, he says most believers fall short in their outreach efforts.
"If the church was doing its job, there would be no Feed the Children," Jones says. "Why are we here? It's sure not for two hymns, a choir special, three points, a poem and a prayer. There's got to be more to it.
"When you see [the poverty and hunger], you're going: 'This is America! I can't believe it!' But see, it's hidden. Why? I call it rabid Christianity.
"We get in the car, get on the freeway, run to church, run to Ryan's or Golden Corral and have dinner and then run back home and watch an NFL game. I'm not against Golden Corral or a football game. I'm just saying we live too fast today." Though Jones spends much of his time in the field, domestically and internationally, he does take the opportunity to speak in churches, and when he does he often quotes Proverbs 19:17: "He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will pay back what he has given" (NKJV).
"You can make a loan to God, and He's going to pay you back—not so you can have more but so you can do more," Jones says. "That is the principle of this ministry. That's it. I make loans to God. I loaned God 20 cents—20 cents! Now you look at our annual report. You see how God pays back."
Jones believes that every church should be involved in meeting the physical needs of its local community. If a church is located in an affluent neighborhood, he suggests looking elsewhere for opportunities to serve. Jones says being confronted with the reality of hunger changed his life, so he encourages fellow Christians to escape the confines of the church walls and start living life in the real world.
"Do more than just write a check," Jones implores. "Get involved somewhere. We should be about ministry regardless of who you are. I was touched when I was in Haiti by a 9-year-old boy. You could have told me a story, and it wouldn't have done anything to me. I was there. So the Word has to become flesh and blood among the people. You have to be there to rub elbows with them."
'Fingerprint Somebody for Jesus'
In 2002 Jones wrote Life's Interruptions, God's Opportunities, a book of short inspirational stories that describe personal experiences he has had during his 28 years with Feed the Children. But behind each narrative is a running theme that ties into Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, a passage that has profoundly affected him in recent years.
"You'll notice the Good Samaritan never called 911," Jones says. "Thank God he didn't have a cell phone, or he would have called somebody else. He just did it. At the end of the day, the Good Samaritan had helped one."
And in the process, the man whose life he saved that day was forever changed. That's the message that Larry Jones wants the church to understand. It's a message that he considers to be the single best reflection of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"I like to say that every Christian is fingerprinted," Jones says. "On this boy right here is a mom and dad that loved God and tithed and believed the Word and taught me the Word.
"Their fingerprints are on me. There's a Sunday school teacher that had a tremendous impression on me.
"There's a pastor's wife that took me to sing at the nursing home and the hospital. All we did was stuff for others. Her fingerprint's on me.
"When the Good Samaritan went to sleep that night, his fingerprint was on a man who was in a ditch. When I give out a food box, the fingerprint of a volunteer is on it.
"Fingerprint somebody for Jesus," Jones concludes. "That is so, so important."
Chad Bonham is a journalist based in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where he produces The ProFILES, a sports TV show.
The Tragic Reality of Poverty in America
Millions of families live in a state of insecurity about how they will get their next meal.
The figures may vary from one study to the next, but the consensus remains the same: Hunger in America is a nagging problem that refuses to go away.
According to the Department of Agriculture's 2005 report on Household Food Security in the United States, 11 percent of households (12.6 million families) were "food insecure" at least some time during the year and 3.9 percent of American households (4.4 million households) had "very low food security" at least some time during the year.
The report defines "food security" as "access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life."
On the flip side, being "food insecure" means the household was "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all household members." Having "very low food security" means the household was "food insecure to the extent that eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and their food intake was reduced, at least some time during the year, because they couldn't afford enough food."
The Household Food Security report was co-authored by Mark Nord, a sociologist in the Food Economics Division of the agriculture department's Economic Research Service. Nord has little problem identifying the primary causes of food insecurity.
"It's kind of the usual suspects," he says. "Of course low income is a problem. Low education plays into it. Household structure matters a lot. Single mothers with children have unusually high rates of food insecurity. Disability is a much larger factor than I think anybody knew before we had the capability to do this research."
In fact, Nord says that roughly 25 percent of households described as food insecure have no adult in the labor force and at least one person not employed because of disability. He also says state-level factors such as high housing costs, high unemployment rates, low average wages and high tax burdens also affect food security.
Nord's assessment lines up with the belief of Feed the Children founder Larry Jones, who contends that Americans generally have a negative view of low-income families. "Many people think that the hunger in America is because people won't work," he says.
"They don't realize that you can have a two-income family today making minimum wage, and they're working less than 30 hours [a week], and they have no benefits. There's no way you can make it. The working poor is growing, and they're falling through the middle-class cracks."
Although Nord's research backs up the fact that 12 million children live in food insecure homes, he estimates a little more than 600,000 children are high-risk cases. "Children are affected [by hunger], but they're ... largely protected from the more severe manifestations of food insecurity," he says.
Nord and Jones agree that government and private organizations working together can help combat the problem. And Jones believes a solution will be found much faster when the church reclaims its rightful responsibility as the nation's primary source of charitable outreach.
"What did Jesus do? He met people at the point of their need. He entered that circle of suffering," Jones says. "This is what we've got to do. We have to do it because while there's television preaching and a church on every corner, you've still got to go and knock on that door."
Hope for the Holidays
How you can help a hungry family this Christmas
Although the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, there are millions of needy families in cities across the country. To respond to the poverty right here at home, Charisma magazine is partnering with Feed the Children this holiday season to raise money to help feed hungry families.
As part of its Hope for the Holidays campaign, Charisma is encouraging readers to donate $40, which is roughly the cost of a Christmas meal for a family of four. One hundred percent of the contributions will be sent to Feed the Children through Charisma's nonprofit partner, Christian Life Missions, in time for their Christmas outreach.
"In the past, Charisma readers have given generously to help victims of war in Sudan and the tsunami in Asia," says J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma. "This year we felt we needed to focus on poverty right here at home. I know many needy families are going to experience God's love in a tangible way because of our partnership with Feed the Children."
Since it was founded in 1979, Feed the Children has delivered food, medicine, clothes and other items to children and families around the world. Last year alone, the Oklahoma City-based ministry shipped 129 million pounds of food to more than 40 nations and all 50 states. This year its goal is to send 175 trucks across the U.S. before Christmas to provide 70,000 families with food, toys and personal supplies.
To help Charisma and Feed the Children bring hope to U.S. families this Christmas season, send a tax-deductible gift to Christian Life Missions. Contributions can be made online at christianlifemissions.org or mailed to P.O. Box 952248, Lake Mary, FL 32795-2248.