Why Christian Groups Lead the Biggest Relief Efforts in the World

Organizations like World Vision give the lie to negative stereotypes about Christian work in the world.

As the Philippines marks the one-year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, the country’s recovery is in full force. Leading the work on the ground is the biggest recovery and human development group in the world: the worldwide Christian community.

Pope Francis — who will visit the region in January — has said that the Christian community is called to be “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church, which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” This community, Francis says, will heal wounds and warm hearts.

The ecumenical humanitarian group World Vision has clearly gotten the memo. Founded by evangelical pastor Robert Pierce in 1950, the group has grown into one of the largest development organizations in the world. Deeply rooted in a faith experience of Jesus Christ, the organization’s work is an attempt to manifest God’s redeeming love without exception.

Its success has largely been rooted in two organizational practices. First, it doesn’t easily get caught up in the internal political and theological battles of various ecclesial communities. Independent of any particular denomination, World Vision attempts to continue the historical social mission of Jesus of Nazareth. To the poor, Jesus proclaimed salvation; to prisoners, freedom; and to those in sorrow, joy. World Vision realizes that this mission goes beyond the theological and social practice nuances that distinguish and — at times — divide Christians.

Secondly, World Vision fulfills the Pauline dictum to become all things to all people. Armed with a $2.5 billion dollar annual budget, the organization is able to respond quickly and effectively to humanitarian crises all around the world. Following last year’s November 8 typhoon, World Vision immediately dispatched its worldwide emergency response team. Within hours, the response team and the World Vision staff already on the ground began the region’s relief, recovery and development process.

With human talent and strategic planning that would give any Wall Street corporation a fight, World Vision is able to cut through complex problems and find appropriate and effective responses. How do they do this? For one, they realize that realities are greater than ideas. The organization knows that each disaster requires a unique response. A one size fits all solution is a recipe for disaster.

For the Filipino response to Typhoon Haiyan, the organization turned to the community that could best provide the way forward: the Filipino people themselves. World Vision has been a leader in the humanitarian community’s paradigmatic shift from transactional to transformational recoveries. In the old paradigm, outsiders came into hurting communities to provide answers and solve problems. This benign practice of cultural imperialism created short-term change, but always shortchanged long-term progress.

The newer paradigm is based on what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter.” In practice, this means that humanitarian groups come in seeking to help communities build on the assets that are already present in each community. This turns mere service into community development, mere charity into true justice.

Of course, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, USAID and other development groups have brought financial, human and capital resources into the Philippines, but make no mistake: credit for the Filipino recovery belongs to the Filipino people themselves. The community is marked by the national spirit of “bayanihan” — a local word that connotes the country’s dedication to working together to overcome difficulties.

Monetary and capital resources help, but they do not redeem a community. People do. And a year after one of the worst storms in world history killed 6,300 of their own citizens, the Filipino people are proving that joy, resilience and communal solidarity is the way forward from this catastrophe. And with the help of Christian and other humanitarian groups on the ground, they’re making of their blessed but hurting country something all the more blessed still.

Christopher Hale
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