- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2001

:00BodyText1 ="Lord, hear our prayers," intones my former professor, now president of the Inter-American

Development Bank, as we pray for the poor. President Bush boosts faith-based solutions and grass-roots development.

Despite decades of large infrastructure loans by development banks, the upper 10 percent still control most wealth in Latin America. According to World Bank Development Indicators, Brazil´s top 10 percent earn 52 times more than its bottom 10 percent; Mexico´s top 10 percent, 31 times more; in the United States 17 times more. Time to think outside the box?

Last year, the World Bank began showcasing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in grass-roots development. The InterAmerican Development Bank partners with private Latino foundations to reach the young, the homeless and the poor.

Faith-based NGOs are growing apace: Worldvision-America and Catholic Relief Services aid and relief budgets nearly doubled to $469 million and $400 million, respectively, from 1991 to 2000. Likewise, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritans Purse and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have a growing international presence.

Besides large NGOs, smaller faith-based projects are spawning at our grass-roots: on private university campuses, in churches, inside private foundations.

Universities: What makes our missions different is our faith in God, affirms Mary Romer Cline, director of campus ministries, Seattle University. Before 31 students and faculty travel to Brazil, our campus priest asks God to bless and safely guide us. Several attend Mass in Sao Paulo to meet our brothers and sisters in Christ. Many pray as we ride through an electrical storm high above the Amazon.

Besides tuition, each business student pays an additional $2,000 to travel on mission.Our aim is to compare 15 firms´ production and human resource practices to those of international standards. We gain real world experience, each firm gets an objective consulting report, saving $10,000 in fees. All of us make friends.

"Our study mission to Brazil," stated graduating senior Chris O´Claire, put our faith into action. This academic year, the small Jesuit university plans to complete eight missions internationally. With 325 Catholic and 600 other faith-denominated colleges and universities nationwide, thousands go abroad each year.

Churches: Of the more than 320,000 churches, synagogues and mosques in America, most have active missions department. Seattle´s largest church, University Presbyterian, plans 17 missions abroad many to Latin America. Its congregation supports 70 permanent overseas missionaries and five sister church relationships.

A mile away at Blessed Sacrament, a five-year relationship develops between its members and two orphanages in Baja California, when a university professor discovers that the children are barely getting by. Several missions later, volunteers have built fences, painted dormitories and dug wells. Many become contributing godparents to dozens of Mexican children.

To St. Bridgets church, a sister parish relationship transforms its congregation: "It has pushed us outside our comfort zone," says Deacon Denny Duffel as he jogs the 5K annual Elephant Stampede to raise funds. Donations nearing $100,000 help build schools, teacher housing, and the first youth center for its sister in Namitembo, Malawi.

Private foundation: Nineteen years ago, Skip Li, a prominent Seattle attorney heard an Argentine visitor say that if Americans wanted to stop communism, the surest way was to let the poor earn a stake in their country. With much prayer and private support, the Agros Foundation was born "to help poor farmers buy land, establish villages and cultivate farms."

Agros has since resettled more than 300 families from war-torn zones of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Through intense personal involvement in decision-making and long-term loans for land, "people share hope and purpose with their neighbors."

The governor of Chiapas has just invited them to find ways to reach the Mexican farmer at the grass roots. Agros´ approach also is heralded by the United Nations as an innovative way to break the cycle of poverty.

Sixteen of us visit a former battlefield to break ground at Agros´ first village in El Salvador.

The first day, we go two by two, gringos and Salvadorenos, and kneel on the soil where a new home is to be built. We pray, simultaneously in English and in Spanish, and ask Our Lord to bless this home. We feel the presence of God.

In cooperation with Habitat for Humanity, we toil a week with these pioneers and build 11 new foundations. We get beat in soccer. We laugh with barefoot children.

We all cry on return.

Yet I wonder what they must think of us, who come and go. "We appreciate your presence," says Orlando, the village leader. "We heard of you, but now we know you. We heard of Agros. Now we see its works. Come back soon."

As Isaiah prophecied: "No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people. My chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands." (Isaiah 65:22)

Stephen Murphy is a visiting professor at Seattle University´s Albers School of Business and Economics, and has been one of the leaders of recent missions to El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil and Malawi.

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