No Turning Back

This August I had the great blessing of participating in World Vision’s Triennial Council held in Singapore. It drew together almost 500 people—World Vision’s country directors and many staff, board chairs, and members from every region of the world, as well as the international board of directors who will guide and govern what has become one of the largest relief and development organizations in the world. World Vision has grown enormously, especially in the last several years, and is seeking to determine its future direction. The organization serves 100 million people in almost 100 countries, with 23,000 staff members and an annual budget of $2 billion. It was indeed a privilege to deliver the opening and closing addresses and to have many opportunities to interact with this extraordinary group of people each day of the conference.

I saw an organization in the dynamic process of moving from alleviation to transformation. I felt the passion of an international community of humanitarian faith-based workers who care deeply about the poorest children of the world, and who clearly yearn to embrace a God of justice, not only a God of charity. That was the call they responded to in Singapore. The response was especially powerful from those who came from the global South, where the churches are growing dramatically and the conditions of life for so many have forced the people of God to address the issues of global justice.

The response of World Vision to the Asian tsunami was especially impressive, as it has been with so many other natural disasters and human conflicts that have caused much suffering over the last three years. But we talked about how the greatest “disaster” in the world today is the very structure of the global order itself, and how disasters such as the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina only serve to reveal these underlying injustices. If we are to be faithful to the biblical vision, we must judge those global structures to be unjust.

One of the high points of the Singapore meeting was a remarkable address by Jan Egeland, former U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. Egeland has been deeply involved in the resolution of intractable conflicts in places such as northern Uganda and the eastern Congo, and was one of the early voices to bring Darfur to the world’s attention. He reported progress in poverty reduction in many places but said we still need to convince the 2 billion richest people in the world that they have the responsibility to “lift up” the 1 billion still suffering from extreme poverty. And while we now have 50 percent fewer wars and conflicts than in 1989—when the Berlin Wall fell—the answer to the question of whether we are doing enough to resolve the toughest and most deadly conflicts “on our watch” is, “no, we’re not.”

EGELAND OFFERED several challenges for organizations like World Vision, and I believe they are helpful to any organization or group seeking to relieve human pain and suffering. Foremost among them was his reminder that we are not called merely to administer a crisis, or to manage it and enable people just to survive. He quoted a woman living in a Ugandan refugee camp who said, “You keep us alive, but you haven’t given us life.” We are there to change things, not just to keep people alive. Humanitarian aid cannot become an alibi or an excuse to avoid moral and political change. Our energy and advocacy must be focused on the most neglected and forgotten places of the world. We must offer special protection for women and children, who more than ever are the foremost victims of poverty and conflict.

Organizations such as World Vision have the choice of merely being the beneficiaries of the guilt of the developed world in serving the victims of an unjust global order, or they can serve the poor in a way that shines a spotlight on global injustice and the moral imperative for transformation. It is more and more clear that World Vision desires to make the second choice. Many from the global South told me they had never heard an American speak this way, but the Americans at Singapore were also clearly in sync with the need for World Vision’s prophetic vocation.

The World Vision delegates strongly affirmed that we must be Christians first and citizens of nations and members of tribes second. Today, globalization seems to have an inevitable logic, but no comparable ethic. But international bodies such as World Vision, which know no geopolitical boundaries, could help create the ethics and values that globalization now lacks.

WORLD VISION has three organizational pillars: relief, development, and advocacy. Advocacy is the newest and most controversial pillar, but the imperative to deal with the root causes of human suffering—with the injustice that leads to disaster for so many, and with the policies of nations and international organizations that obstruct real solutions to poverty—has developed a real momentum within the organization. And rather than just becoming another lobby group, their deepest response was to the vocation of “changing the wind” of international politics and priorities.

“World Vision changed this week,” many people said to me as I departed. We could all feel it. It seemed that what has been growing within the organization for some time took a great leap forward during those days in Singapore, and there is no turning back. World Vision will not just be a collector of a guilty, affluent world’s donations to sponsor poor children, but rather a catalyst to help build a global movement for spiritual and social transformation. World Vision’s size, influence, and credibility positions the organization very well to be a prophetic leader in that movement for justice on the global stage that speaks truth to power—not just as a service provider when disaster strikes.

On the last day we spoke about a biblical theology of hope in a world of pain, and how hope, backed by faith, was the key to bringing about the global sea changes we desperately need. The choice today is less between belief and secularism than between hope and cynicism. The theme of the final day was “A World of Hope,” and what I saw at World Vision’s Singapore Triennial Council made me very hopeful indeed.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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