David Hoekema, The Christian Century, December 26, 1979

While not wishing to draw out beyond readers' patience a disagreement that is probably irreconcilable, nevertheless I believe Mary Earle's Reader's Response (''Collective Commitment to End Hunger,'' Aug. 29-Sept. 5) calls for further comment.

To amplify my original Speaking Out piece, to which Ms. Earle responded (''The Hunger Project: You Can't Eat Words,'' May 2), it is true that the two young men who visited the St. Olaf campus to publicize the Hunger Project and solicit contributions were not ''representatives'' of the organization in any official sense. As Ms. Earle points out, they are individuals who have donated their time to travel and promote the Hunger Project. I was moved by their sincerity and commitment, as I originally stated, chiefly because they were also involved in other organizations which, unlike the Project, are carrying out concrete programs to increase food production in underdeveloped areas of the world.

The two men were graduates of the est training program. So is everyone else with whom I have ever spoken who has had anything to do with the Hunger Project. Now it may well be true, as Ms. Earle asserts, that ''only a small percentage of the 496,000 enrolled are est graduates.'' But this vast number includes anyone who has ever put his or her name to what appears to be a simple postcard expressing support for the cause of alleviating world hunger, presented in the form of a rather enigmatic creed: ''Yes, I want to make the Hunger Project completely mine. I am willing to take personal responsibility for making the end of starvation an idea whose time has come.''

I am certain that many thousands of those who have signed this card know nothing about est. I suspect that many of them know little about the Hunger Project either, and have signed in the mistaken belief that it is an organization which is committed to action to alleviate hunger.

In building her case, Ms. Earle insists that ''the Hunger Project is a charitable corporation entirely separate from est, an educational corporation.'' Legally, the two are separate entities, to be sure. The ''educational corporation,'' est (whose insistence on the lower-case serves well to keep the name out of subject position in an English sentence), is a profit-making corporation based in California but owned by the Werner Erhard Charitable Settlement, based in Switzerland.

In 1971 Werner Erhard's ''body of knowledge'' was sold for $1 million to Presentaciones Musicales, S.A., a Panama-based corporation which promptly sold to Erhard Seminar Training, Inc. (est's predecessor), for the sum of $1.2 million, the license to use that knowledge. And then there is International Aesthetics Limited, a Nevada corporation from which Erhard Seminar Training borrowed $1 million to pay for its license; also Welbehagen, B.V., a Dutch corporation which now holds the rights to Erhard's knowledge and collects royalties for its use; and finally the Werner Erhard Foundation for est, headquartered in Switzerland, which receives the profits of Welbehagen.

Each of these entities is legally distinct from any of the others. And - although the secrecy in which foreign investments in Panama and Switzerland are shrouded makes it difficult to learn the details - each seems to have been created by Erhard and Harry Margolis, a lawyer friend. The continual flow of huge sums of money among these corporations and charitable foundations suggests not a remarkable experiment in international cooperation but a desire to avoid paying taxes on est income, which in 1978 was estimated to be greater than $16 million (Newsweek, Aug. 28, 1978, p. 78). Both Margolis and Erhard have been in trouble with the IRS; as of last year six tax cases against them were pending in court. (See ''Where Erhard Launders the Money,'' by Arnold Levinson, in Mother Jones magazine, December 1978.)

Now, if the Hunger Project were genuinely separate from est, all of this financial subterfuge would ne of no relevance. But the connections are close indeed - far closer than the mere coincidence that many of the same people enroll in both. The three initial directors of the Hunger Project (Michael Chatzky, Robert Dunnett and Mark Schiavenza) worked out of Margolis' office. The vice-president and the secretary-treasurer of the Project are both members of the est advisory board. Moreover, some who have volunteered to work for the Hunger Project have reported coming under unrelenting pressure to enroll in est training.

And money has flowed from the Hunger Project to est in both direct and indirect ways. Those who are successfully recruited for est must pay $300 for their training session. Moreover, about 4,200 people not long ago paid $30 each to participate in a seven-session ''Hunger Project Seminar Series,'' the proceeds of which went directly to est. (See ''Let them Eat est,'' by Suzanne Gordon, in Mother Jones, December 1978.)

More than 150,000 people have taken est training. If they have done so voluntarily, perhaps I should not complain. It is their money and not mine that they spend for the dubious privilege of putting in a grueling weekend being harangued to forget about everyone else and take responsibility for themselves alone. One who has spent ten years and large sums of money at college and graduate school acquiring a body of knowledge which has proved on the open market to be worth only slightly more than a subsistence wage is in no position to criticize a man who has discovered how to rake in millions for the use of his self-devised body of knowledge. But when the cause of world hunger is turned into a means for one man's self-aggrandizement, both in public image and in hard cash, I cannot look on tolerantly.

Partisans of the Hunger Project will object that I am relying in my assessment on sources highly unfavorable to the Project - chiefly on the articles in Mother Jones. It is difficult to find any information about the Hunger Project except what it chooses to promulgate. (To the best of my knowledge, the only notice of the Project in the New York Times has been a short article printed April 2, 1978, written by the Project's media director.)

However, it was not from disgruntled critics but from its own financial statements that I learned that, out of $800,000 spent by the Hunger Project in 1977, only $2,500 went to any organization engaged in concrete action to combat starvation. And it is the originator of both est and the Hunger Project, Werner Erhard, who insists: ''The point is, until its time comes, nothing you do will work. And when its time comes, what you do will work, and you will do what works'' (Newsweek, op. cit.).

This is nonsense, and it is dangerous nonsense. What we do to help underdeveloped countries obtain food and develop food resources will work - it will prevent people from starving and will reduce the likelihood of critical food shortages in the future. It will work regardless of whether it is an idea whose time has come, and regardless of how many people have signed cards saying that they take responsibility to create a context for that idea.

The Hunger Project has helped to bring the problems of world hunger to national attention, and for that I am grateful. But it is also collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from well-intentioned people and yet is not doing anything toward that goal. I therefore reiterate my plea that those who are concerned about the problem of world hunger devote their time and their money not to talk but to action.

Ms. Earle insists that I have ''misinterpreted and misrepresented'' the Hunger Project. I do not believe her charge of misrepresentation is well-founded. I wish that I could believe I have misinterpreted the underlying motive and purposes of the Hunger Project, but I fear I have not.

copyright 1979 The Christian Century

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