Larry Jones is the kind of fundamentalist preacher who could help us all forget what's-their-names. He is a television evangelist based in Oklahoma City who uses the airwaves to raise money to feed hungry people, not to line his own pockets. And he knows a sin when he sees one: like having huge government food surpluses when there are hungry people all around.
Jones has a couple of other things going for him. He gets things done, and he is smart enough to hire Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm, to help him distance himself from the PTL scandals. At a meeting with reporters and several Washington ministers last week, he was refreshingly blunt. Fund raising was off 25 percent. "When the PTL thing happened, I looked at positioning and image harder than I ever had in my life. With the kind of budget we have, in a three-month period we were down $1 million. We knew we were going to need some help."
Jones is heading a project to bring a million pounds of food to Washington to be distributed through the churches to food centers and needy families. About 600 Washington area churches, of various denominations, are involved in the effort that will include a three-day event on the Mall during the Labor Day weekend, with the actual distribution of the food taking place on Sept. 8.
Jones found a special calling in feeding the hungry when he was in Haiti in 1979 and was profoundly affected by the plight of a hungry child. "It is a crime for us to have all this surplus grain and children 650 miles from here are starving," he says. He founded Feed the Children, and got grain from farmers in Oklahoma to ship overseas. Since then, however, farmers in the Midwest have been hit with bankruptcies and Feed the Children has developed assistance programs for needy families here as well. "The Larry Jones Ministries" has its own trucking line and since last August it has delivered 215 truckloads of food to 95 distribution centers in 40 states, according to Jones. That includes delivering three truckloads of food to churches in this area, which inspired Jones to develop the Labor Day event in conjunction with local ministers who have been active in feeding the hungry here.
"We have 13 billion bushels of surplus grain and people are going hungry," Jones said. "The Bible tells the church to feed the hungry. Food wasn't made to be stored. We should take the surplus and the hunger problem and put them together and the one to do that is the church." Jones says it is costing the American taxpayers $9.6 million a day to store surplus grain.
"My concern is to help the hungry and the farmer and get rid of the surplus," he says. "Until you get rid of the surplus you're never going to get a fair price" for farm products. "The government would be much better off to get rid of the food and save on this enormous cost of storing it."
Jones has raised $100,000 to buy and transport surplus food for distribution in Washington. Six truckloads of canned goods have been donated. In the past, Continental Can has donated 91 truckloads of Progresso soups to his ministry and Heinz has donated baby food. Zayre has given the ministry $2 million worth of new clothing. This spring, the ministry arranged for 10 truckloads of free seed corn to be delivered to North Carolina farmers who were affected by last summer's drought.
The ministry is audited by Coopers & Lybrand, which found that more than 89 cents of every dollar raised through the airwaves is spent on relief programs, with the rest spent on administration and fund raising.
"It's difficult to understand what's going on" in the farm states, Jones says. But he tells of meeting a man whose wife had committed suicide because her third-generation farm was facing foreclosure, and of meeting another man who was worth $3 million one year and looking for an apartment the next. He told of a farm family that sorted through garbage for food and shared what they found with six other families.
The Labor Day effort is the first to target an American city. Phoenix is next. Jones wants the government to cut the red tape so that surplus food can be distributed to those who need it and he wants the churches to get more involved with helping get food to the nation's hungry and malnourished. He's trying to help the hungry and the farmers and is quite passionate in his condemnation of policies that have us storing surplus food while people are going hungry.
We've spent much of the spring and summer seeing the worst of televangelism. Jones is an example of what it can be at its best.