In one of those scheduling train wrecks that often happen in the short, frenetic Seattle summers, I found myself sitting in a small bistro in Normandy tucked inside a 700-year old medieval building just days after returning from a week in the mud and rain in rural Nicaragua. My son and I were discussing world poverty, admittedly an out of place topic on a family vacation. Our friction point was whether one person should even try to make a difference when the problem was so overwhelming. On the verge of becoming the quintessential obnoxious American tourists, we agreed to a détente and ordered another pint.
Despite ending the evening pleasantly, the conversation returned to me around 4:00 a.m. in a half-asleep recollection of my trip to Nicaragua. I recalled vividly walking up the steep, muddy path from Narcisso’s five-acre farm in the village of San Benito to the community house. The walk took us twenty minutes and I was breathing hard when we crested the hill. During the harvest season, Narcisso will make this same trek dozens of times daily with 100 pound sacks of yucca, cacao, corn, beans or coffee on his back. The weight of each sack translates into cash for his family of four and moves Narcisso closer to his goal of paying off his land. He doesn’t complain as he describes his labors. Yet, he tells me he hopes Agros will build a road to replace the path so that he can get his crops to market quicker.
Narcisso is probably in his late thirties or early forties although his eyes hold more years than his hardened physique would suggest. His face is not menacing, but it is not lively either. Rather, he looks at me with a quiet gaze as if measuring my stature. I know nothing about his childhood, but his face tells me he has seen suffering and is well acquainted with hardship. Our life experiences could not be more disparate. Finally, he asks me, “What do you do?”
I was wearing an Agros hat and Narcisso had never seen me with the other Agros staff. No doubt, he simply wanted to know who I was. Yet, his question brought me back to my dinner conversation with my son Nick. How could an innocent question from a hard-working farmer thousands of miles removed from my neighborhood pack such a punch? What was I doing as the president of Agros? I’m 54 years old. I’ll never see an end to hunger in my lifetime.
When we reached the community center, about a dozen children were waiting on us. Arnoldo, the Agros health promoter, was starting a demonstration on hand washing, sprinkling paprika on the children’s hands to simulate the spread of germs. I looked around at the hundreds of people gathered outside this simple cinderblock structure on a dirt road lined with houses each with a meticulously kept garden of fresh flowers. A few women stood on the stoop of their doors smiling at the goings on. In a shelter next to us I saw supplies that would be used to install ventilated stoves in the houses, a big step in reducing respiratory illnesses. None of this existed five years ago.
I know there are billions of children living in poverty. I know that hundreds die every day from starvation. But today, in this village, none of these children will die.
As several young girls giggled at the two boys who volunteered to demonstrate proper hand-washing, I found my answer to Narcisso’s question and to my son’s dilemma. I am not here to eradicate poverty from the planet. Those thoughts and that approach to the problem are misguided. That way of thinking is all about my need, my desire to make an impact. It is rooted in my unquenchable search for meaning, for something bigger than my life as it currently is. If I am brutally honest, it exposes a lack of faith. In a sense, it is like saying that I will believe in God only if I can feel God working through me. My faith is conditional unlike God’s love for me.
The question is not how can one person solve such a huge problem. The question is what does God ask of us? God asks only that we love mercy, practice justice and walk humbly with Him. Sometimes, the humble walking part is the hardest.
Please consider giving to Agros as we launch our first regional project designed to reach 5,000 people. We can’t promise that we will solve world hunger. But we can promise that we will keep trying, and along the way we will create hope and opportunity for hard-working people like Narcisso, his family and their community.