A Founder's Heart: Larry Ward's Legacy

Dr. Ward, past FH executive

Dr. Larry Ward, Food for the Hungry founder, most probably multi-tasking (thinking or reading, while flying or driving)

I was sitting in the library of the Presbyterian church where I had my off-site Food for the Hungry (FH) office, in San Antonio, Texas. That’s where I went when I had serious research to do about some new disaster or war that I needed to write about, for the Food for the Hungry (FH) website.

Suddenly I was aware of footsteps on the creaky century-old floor just outside the library. I looked up to see the just the top half of a white-haired head, and two twinkling blue eyes, peering playfully along the doorjamb like a sideways “Kilroy was Here.”

“Are you Beth Allen? I’ve been looking for you.”

And with that, I met FH’s founder, Dr. Larry Ward.

Dr. Ward, past FH executive, participating in a relief effort in Guatemala.

Larry during a relief effort in Guatemala

The king of stories

Larry was in San Antonio to visit a friend (a mutual friend, it turned out), and he’d heard there was an FH staff person with office space at the church. So he sought me out.

Through spending time talking that day, and at several meals over the next few days, I was ushered into Larry’s complex and fascinating life via his first-hand stories. Remember how Forrest Gump just seems to show up at some of the biggest crux points in history? Larry was like that, when it came to the hardest places on the planet. Wherever people were suffering, Larry was there. (If you want to read some of the accounts, read Larry’s updated biography, One at a Time, available here for free download.)

We shared a deep love for Bolivia, where I’d served with FH in the late 1990s. He mentioned having met one of the country’s most impactful and controversial figures, a dictator named Hugo Banzer who was later elected president, and sharing Christ with him in word and deed while they discussed possible re-settlement of Vietnamese refugees in Bolivia’s Amazon basin.

I’d met some resettled Vietnamese refugees over the years. But I’d never talked with anyone like Larry, who had sailed an old Australian navy vessel into the South China Sea to rescue refugees risking death to escape. And he’d set up Hope Village, a special welcome center for Vietnamese refugees, where some of the women decided to start the very first Vietnamese-owned nail salons that now dot the US.

Dr. Ward, past FH executive, with Vietnamese boat people.

Larry in the South China Sea, during the Vietnamese boat people rescue efforts

A heart for the next generation

But it wasn’t a one-sided conversation. Larry buttonholed me about my work with FH, at the time with our emergency relief unit. And in this I saw another important part of Larry’s heart — his desire that young adults become passionate about helping the least of these.

When I told him I was Hunger Corps — an FH program designed to help young adults enter into Christian humanitarian work while raising their own salaries — tears glistened in his eyes. He’d started FH with scads of young college students among the volunteers. It was a big dream of his, to leave behind an army of next-generation Christians to carry on Christ’s work.

FH has titled his updated biography One at a Time from one of Larry’s favorite sayings: They die one at a time, so we can help them one at a time. It’s how Larry was able to deal with the overwhelming poverty and suffering he encountered all of his life. That day, I could see that focus on the precious individual. For a short time, he totally focused his ministry and attention on me — he invested in me.

Victory in Jesus

Some time later, I read a short article in a newspaper that Bolivia’s President Banzer was reportedly dying in a U.S. hospital in Washington, D.C. I called Larry to shoot the breeze about the article, as he was one of the few Americans I knew who would recognize Banzer’s name.

And typical of Larry, he sprang into action. The ill health that dogged him at the end of his life couldn’t quench his enthusiasm for meeting needs one at a time. He called an old friend in Washington, a retired Bolivian missionary, to see if the friend could possibly get into the hospital to minister to Banzer in his last days. And Larry wanted to know the condition of Banzer’s relationship with Jesus, too. Unfortunately, security was too tight for a visit; former dictators, even those who embrace the democratic process later in life, have many enemies.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In the Gospel of John (verse 16:33, NIV), those are Jesus’s final words spoken to his disciples as a group, before the long night of his arrest unfolded. Larry held onto that same vision, that Christ could overcome any trouble. With Jesus, his effort with each individual was sufficient for the moment and all God required. He knew that work alongside the body of Christ could go far beyond his own meager abilities.

Partnering with FH in our work carries on the tradition that Larry Ward established. Together it is indeed possible to end poverty. Explore ways to help here.