Televangelist Larry Jones poses a troubling question for Americans: If the United States has so much surplus grain, why are so many people hungry? But the Rev. Mr. Jones is not just mulling the hunger question - he's doing something about it. His Oklahoma-based ministry, Feed the Children, started shipping food overseas a decade ago. Now it is focusing increasingly on hunger in the United States. ``Right now, we are not addressing the problem that the Bible called us to address,'' Jones says. ``Christ said: `I was hungry.' He did not say: `The government fed me.' He said: `You fed me.' And this is what we have got to get back to.''
Jones seeks to link private and public sector efforts to combat hunger. Corporations and individuals are already doing much, he says. But government needs to make more of its surplus grain available, he adds. And churches, in particular, have to take a more active role.
``We have 339,000 churches, temples, and synagogues in America. If they ever wake up to their power, we can wipe out hunger in America overnight.''
In Chicago this week, Jones delivered 200,000 pounds of potatoes, pinto beans, flour, rice, corn meal, beverage mix, and soup to needy families. The food was brought in by his ministry's own trucking line. A West Side food distribution center took the shipment, and 50 Chicago-area churches picked it up for their own feeding programs.
At any one time, Feed the Children has some 15 trucks on the road delivering food, he says. The ministry acts as a conduit for donations, picking up wheat from Kansas or ravioli from Puerto Rico. Since its founding in 1979, the organization has shipped food and other supplies to 34 countries and, within the US, 44 states.
Jones, an evangelical minister since 1964, started Feed the Children after an encounter with a Haitian boy who hadn't eaten all day.
``Coming from Oklahoma, where we have millions of bushels of surplus grain, I was personally embarrassed that a child would go hungry 600 miles from mainland US.''
Back in the US, Jones says, ``I got on TV and I said: `We have got to take this grain ... and we need to feed hungry children.' And people said: `You are right. We will help you.'''
Jones's weekly show appears on some 100 television stations around the country. In 1987 the ministry received nearly $41 million in contributions of money and gifts-in-kind.
Recent scandals surrounding television evangelists have cut into the response to fund-raising efforts of TV ministers, including Jones.
According to several people who have worked with him, Jones is honest and frugal. ``Larry Jones is a straight arrow,''says Jack Sims, a former marketing consultant for the minister.
Some of Jones's tactics have been criticized. Last October, he detailed on television the controversial shooting of an indebted Nebraska farmer by a SWAT team in 1984. In another program, Jones attacked the US Federal Reserve System. ``To keep the money flowing in, you look for something,'' says one Oklahoma friend and supporter. ``I am not saying the projects are bad, but the motivation is different from what he started out with.''
Jones says the recent scandals involving televangelists kept his organization on the defensive but that it is refocusing itself. ``I've learned a lot in the past year,'' he says.