By William Wan
Among the 25 members of the President Obama’s Faith Council in town this week to pass on the council’s recommendations to the White House, Richard Stearns occupies an interesting spot in the political spectrum. As president of World Vision, he heads one of the largest Christian relief organizations in the world. His group has also been at the forefront of recent fights over the right of religions organizations to hire employees based on their beliefs. His background is also unusual in the faith-based, nonprofit, world. He came to World Vision after decades in a lucrative career as a corporate CEO- a journey chronicled in his book last year “The Hole in Our Gospel.” We caught up with him at World Vision’s Washington offices near Union Station.
What has your experience been like on Obama’s faith council?
There was a lot of esprit de corps among council members. I think it’s an achievement that people with such diverse views politically and religiously have been able to work together so positively to produce a report with so many recommendations. Whether it was time well-spent depends on where this report goes and what’s done with it. If it gets filed in the same warehouse as the ark of covenant from the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we won’t be happy. But if president Obama gives it to key administration officials and asks them to respond and to consider the recommendations, we would consider that time well spent.
Obama has dealt with the controversy over religious hiring by saying it will be dealt with by the Justice Department on a case by case basis. To your mind, what does that mean? What’s now the status of the religious hiring?
Our right to hire people who share our faith has been articulated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a 1972 amendment to that act and there have been several cases that uphold that right. We feel the law is on our side. President Obama has essentially upheld that status quo, and we applaud him for not trying to change or tinkering with the law.
Why is religious hiring so important for groups like yours?
Just to maintain our identity and community as Christian organization, we feel have to hire those who share those values. You can’t remain a Christian organization if you don’t hire Christians. You can’t remain a Jewish organization if you don’t hire Jewish people. We are motivated at World Vision by our faith. From Genesis to Revelation there are exhortations to care for the poor, the downtrodden and brokenhearted. It is part of our DNA as a religious community. That motivation is very, very strong. And we want to be a witness to God’s love to the people we serve. We want people to look at us and to know we serve a loving God. That’s why it’s critical to our identity.
I understand about 25 percent of your funding comes from federal grants. If it came down to a decision between that funding and keeping those core values, what would you choose?
We’re optimistic that won’t happen, but if it came down to that choice, my board of directors has made it clear our faith is not for sale and we would walk away from our government grants than compromise our values.
For those who would like to exclude faith-based organizations from receiving grants, I’d like to know what they’d tell the people of Haiti and other areas who would be far worse off if groups like us weren’t there doing what we’re doing. In Haiti, for example, we believe about 65% of food distribution is being run by faith-based organizations. So there’s more at stake than some abstract point of the law…If tomorrow you excluded all faith-based orgs from undertaking social services on behalf of the government. There would be a lot of people who would be hurt by that because it isn’t clear there are ready secular partners who could just step in and do this.
Some like Jim Wallis are talking about a new movement among evangelicals beyond standard conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage toward poverty as a central issue. Are you seeing that in your work?
First of all, evangelicals give more and do more for the poor than any other group. But my contention in my book is that we could do so much more. We need to lead with love, lead with compassion, show the world what we stand for before you show them what you stand against.
In my 12 years at World Vision, I’ve seen pretty much a sea change in awareness and embracing that broader social agenda. Partially, it’s because of the faithful advocacy of orgs like world vision people like Jim Wallis, Rick Warren, Franklin Graham and others. I don’t know if it’s too extreme to say, but I think we’re in a new era of concern about social justice in the evangelical church. That doesn’t mean the other issues aren’t important, but there needs to be a balance to our advocacy.
You came to World Vision from the corporate world and increased that organization’s funding and streamlined that operation dramatically. What other kind of changes or innovations do you see in the the future of non-profits?
We always get asked question by funders, “Are you making a difference?” That is the holy grail for nonprofit organizations to come up with metrics and measurement techniques that say, “Yes we did make a difference and here’s the proof.” The other thing we’re doing is more advocacy. We’re just a drop in the bucket compared to the size of global poverty. So we’re doing more in terms of challenging governments, institutions, policies, practices toward a more just world.
Does that carry any dangers in terms of wading into more political waters?
It does, and yet at some point, you’ve done all you can for the poor. And unless you challenge the powers that be, you’re not going to get any more traction against poverty. For example, if young girls are trapped in brothels in Cambodia, and police are looking the other way, at some point you have to challenge the police and say you have laws that need to be enforced and we’re going to hold you accountable for this.
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