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Food for the Hungry

Lifestyle of a relief exec

Lifestyle/Technology | Traveling through a broken world-and fighting back against the brokenness-is a big part of Ben Homan's calling

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

In 1987, when Ben Homan was courting his future wife Annette, she told him, "I have a sense you're going to be doing a lot of traveling and I'm OK with that."

It was a generous thing to say because Annette had been diagnosed with MS the year before at the age of 22-and neither of them knew the course the disease would take.

They also didn't know how prescient her prediction would be: For the past seven years, since becoming president of Food for the Hungry, Homan has logged about 100 days a year on the road, traveling for the relief organization to Iraq, tsunami-ravaged Indonesia, and many other trouble spots. While he logs frequent-flyer miles, Annette tends to their three children-Tess, 15; Ethan, 13; and Carter, 7. Until recently she homeschooled all of them in their one-story house on a dirt road about a 30-minute commute from downtown Phoenix.

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Not all of Homan's travel is rough. Two or three times a year he travels with the HELP Commission-the U. S. Commission on Helping to Enhance the Livelihood of People Around the Globe, to which President Bush appointed him in 2004. He's traveled to London, Egypt, Jordan, Honduras, and Colombia on HELP trips, meeting under high security with ambassadors, USAID leaders, and local dignitaries.

When Homan travels for Food for the Hungry, he may be attending a regional conference for the organization's international staff in Africa, Asia, or Latin America-but he may also be walking among the dead piled high after the 2005 tsunami, smelling the stench of decay. Two other trips have left indelible images: one to the mountains of northern Afghanistan where he saw children barefoot in the deep snow, and one to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where "systems had melted down. No banking, no schools."

How does he cope with that ugliness without growing numb? "I deal with it by reminding myself that we are fighting back. It is unacceptable to do nothing. I have a connection to doing something." He's learned to affirm the good things he sees, even while recognizing "how broken the world is . . . and in the midst of the brokenness you do what you can."

Each year Homan takes his older children to the field so "they get time with dad and see what I'm involved with." When he took his daughter to Bangladesh last year, he arranged for her to spend the night in a local home with a traditional family while he was at meetings across town. She played with the two daughters, ate traditional food, wore the traditional salwar kameez, and traveled with them by public transportation. Since they spoke little English, "it was throwing her in the deep end" for 24 hours. "She was blown away by their hospitality" and afterwards said two things: "Dad, I liked it, and it was hard."

Three years ago he took Ethan, then 10, to Central Asian countries on the State Department warning list. Annette didn't question the decision to take him: "If it was OK for me to go, it was OK for him to go-the call was on our family." Hosts in Kyrgyzstan prepared a feast in their honor and carried in on a platter the head of a sheep. The custom is to slice off an ear and give it to the youngest person at the table to eat-a visual reminder that the young are to listen to their elders. The youngest was Ethan, who gamely nibbled at it: "He knew there would be adventurous eating."

Annette doesn't travel with Ben because of her MS, which is of the relapsing-remitting kind. That means she can have acute flare-ups followed by periods of remission as the nerves find alternate ways around the damage. She's been on a "downwardly sloped plateau," Homan says: "Travel takes a toll. She needs rest, the consequences could be grave."

Despite the disease, Annette plays a crucial role in Ben's work. When first diagnosed, "she had to go through a questioning process: 'What makes me valuable? Is it in what I do and produce, or is it in being a daughter of the King?'" Ben admits that he "struggles with the productivity things. I want the output. She has blessed me with understanding more of God's unconditional acceptance and grace. . . . She creates a space for me to relax and rely on the grace of God."

It's a vital lesson, Homan concludes: "Our vision is impossible if it's simply to be implemented by human beings. You can't alleviate material and spiritual hunger if you leave it to human beings to do. We can't do this unless God is in it."

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