Arbiter for the Poor: Rich Stearns and World Vision

After 25 years as a top executive in the corporate world, in 1998 Rich Stearns traded business trips to Milan and $1,000 dinners for a life of fundraising campaigns and long, difficult mission trips sans private jet as the president of World Vision. Despite his simpler lifestyle, Stearns could not be happier knowing that the $2.1 billion World Vision raised globally in 2006 is helping millions worldwide receive emergency and hunger relief, community and agricultural development assistance and leadership training in Jesus’ name. Stearns spoke with Outreach about how World Vision is working to stem the global AIDS crisis and end poverty once and for all, and how local churches can join the effort. 

Q: Rich, why did you take this position at World Vision back in 1998?

A: Well, I first became a Christian in 1974. When my wife and I got engaged six months later, she told me we needed to register for fine china and crystal for our wedding. I got very worked up and said, “As long as there are children starving in the world, we’re not going to have china and crystal in our household.” Ironically, I was later made CEO of the largest china, crystal and silver company in America[Lenox]. I spent 25 years in the corporate world and was a CEO at a couple of different companies, but as an idealistic Christian, I always had a real heart for the poor. My wife and I had been World Vision donors since 1984. In 1998, World Vision contacted me about taking the position, and I couldn’t turn it down. It felt like the Lord was saying to me, “Do you remember that idealistic young man who cared so much about those starving kids? If you still care, I have a job for you.”

Q: What does World Vision hope to teach U.S. churches about helping those suffering in developing nations?

A: We as Americans love Band-Aids because it’s very satisfying to cover a sore, but World Vision’s whole approach to poverty is to commit 20 years or more to a community and work with them, side-by-side, to really get at the root causes of their poverty. And so, we encourage churches to pick one community and work an inch wide but a mile deep to really make a difference in that village or city. Build relationships with the people and discover what they need and how your church can help.

Q: What is the best way for churches to forge these relationships with people abroad? 

A: Churches must either hire experts in the field or partner with nongovernmental organizations like World Vision. If you were going to build a new sanctuary for your 2,000-member church, you wouldn’t just post a notice in the bulletin asking volunteers to show up on a Saturday morning. You’d hire an architect, a general contractor, an engineer and an acoustics expert. Likewise, churches need to be respectful of the technical knowledge that larger organizations have acquired through their years of experience around the world.

At the same time, even though World Vision is a big organization, issues like poverty, AIDS, genocide, ethnic hatred and the abuse of women and children are so widespread and enormous that it’s going to require a movement of people and a movement of God to change the world. So, we have an abiding belief that the Church has to be a part of the solution.

Q: What kind of partnership exists between World Vision and the Church? 

A: I think World Vision relates to the Church on three levels. First, we act as a prophetic voice. Just like Isaiah used to shake his fist at the people of God, we have the ability to speak to the Church and tell folks that we must go into the world with a Gospel of words and action. Too often, the Church goes into a town and shares a Gospel of words and then leaves. But true evangelism is so much more than that! So, we are that prophetic voice trying to exhort the Church to not just go to church, but be the church.

Also, we can be a partner to the Church. We can be that expert consulting firm that a Church turns to and says, “We want to work with somebody because we don’t know how to do it on our own.” World Vision is willing to work out partnership relationships, and these partnerships can be as little as a 30-hour famine done by a youth group or a 20-year engagement with a church to build a farm in Ethiopia.

And then, the third way World Vision works with the Church is through helping develop international programs. We work with churches, and the work we do to curb the AIDS pandemic is a good example of how we do that. World Vision is currently trying to mobilize African churches to start caring for their own widows and orphans. We are working with local African pastors to break the stigma on HIV and AIDS in Africa. So we work to bridge the domestic and international Church, and that costly bridge was built with hydrogeologists, evangelists, agricultural experts and even the blood of martyrs.

Q: You mentioned the AIDS pandemic, which has received a great deal of attention from the church community this past year. Do you think the Church has responded adequately to the challenge of AIDS?

A: The Church has picked up the challenge to a much greater degree. In a 1999 survey, we asked evangelical Christians if they’d be willing to give money to a reputable organization that was helping children who had lost their parents to AIDS in Africa, and only 5% said they would be willing to help these children! We were stunned! These are not people suffering from AIDS. They’re children whose parents died and left them alone, and yet only 5% would help.

But today, that percentage has gone up. In 2005, 17% of people surveyed said they’d be willing to help AIDS orphans. So, what I learned is that ignorance is a terrible thing, but once Christians understood the reality of HIV and AIDS—that it affects men, women, children and the elderly—they made AIDS relief a top priority.

Q: What has World Vision done to change prejudices about AIDS victims in the Christians they come in contact with?

A: What I’ve learned is that American Christians are well-meaning and simply uninformed. I’ve spoken all over the country on AIDS and almost every time I speak, people come up to me and say, “I had no idea. I need to repent. How can I help?” These reactions prompted World Vision to start a campaign called The Hidden Faces of AIDS, in which we showed that the real faces of AIDS victims were women, children and grandmothers who are now caring for 17 orphans at a time. So it really was simply a matter of educating people to the truth.

Q: How much of World Vision’s efforts to fight the global AIDS crisis involve bringing public awareness to the truth about AIDS?

A: Stigma plays a huge role in countries dealing with AIDS. Nobody wants to talk about it. People who have the disease won’t talk about it. Governments are embarrassed by it. So, on top of educating people about how AIDS is contracted and spread, World Vision also asks prominent leaders in these countries to become examples for their community members. Often, the president and his wife will go in front of local media to have an AIDS test. Leaders will talk about being with one partner or about waiting until marriage to have sex. These kinds of public awareness campaigns with leaders, educators and pastors help turn the tide in these countries.

Q: How have local churches in developing nations responded to the fight against AIDS?

A: The local Church plays a major role. Some churches in Africa are still excommunicating people who are HIV-positive because they’re seen as “sinners.” So pastors there must come out and declare that we must love people who are afflicted with this disease and care for the orphans who are left behind. The Church’s message must include both compassion for those who are suffering and also a call to morality. Who better to deliver this message than the local church?

Q: Often, religiously affiliated nongovernmental organizations receive criticism for proselytism. What is World Vision’s stance on this issue?

A: Proselytism occurs when a person or an organization offers an inducement for someone to change their religion, or takes advantage of them by using undue power or influence. In the case of a humanitarian organization, making assistance conditional upon a person listening to a religious message or attending an outreach meeting would be considered proselytism and would be highly unethical.

Imagine our outrage if an Islamic charity responding after Hurricane Katrina   took advantage of traumatized people by trying to convert them to Islam. I think we would find that unacceptable.

World Vision does not proselytize and provides assistance to all people without regard to race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Our assistance is given unconditionally.

However, I would also defend the right of religious organizations to share their beliefs in appropriate ways while working in other contexts. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are basic human rights whether in America or in Afghanistan. I support the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses or other religious groups to knock on my door and talk to me about their beliefs. There is a difference between proselytism, which is manipulative and coercive, and freedom of expression, which holds that all people should be free to discuss religious ideas and to choose their own religious beliefs.

Q: What are the next steps for World Vision in combating the AIDS crisis?

A: Mobilizing every individual to make a difference is very important to us because we can all become advocates for the poor. Your voice, your influence may be more important than your donations. Also, Americans can send a message to Washington through their votes. Politicians pay a lot of attention to the way people vote.

As a country, we’ve spent around $300 billion on the war in Iraq, and we’ve spent about $15 billion on AIDS relief. There are only 25 million people in Iraq, but there are 40 million people who are HIV positive in the world today and 8,000 AIDS-related deaths each day. Africa has a population of roughly 800 million people being ravaged by AIDS. India has the most cases of AIDS of any country in the world, and AIDS is growing in China and Russia as well. So, it’s clear that we need to let our politicians and policy makers know that stemming the global AIDS crisis and ending poverty are important issues to us.

I also hope for deeper unity within the Church. AIDS and social justice are opportunities for theAmerican Church to unite around something we stand for. The Church is constantly saying what we are against—we’re against abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. Instead, we have an opportunity to say that we’re in favor of justice, economic equality and humanitarian causes. And that can be attractive to non-Christians as well, who would look at us and admire that we are in the homeless shelters and on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic, rescuing kids from sex-trafficking and helping women go to school in Afghanistan—this is the kind of work I hope the Church will one day be known for.   

by Jeannie Choi
Outreach Magazine

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