What earns humanitarian aid workers the right to speak into the lives of others? Simple: love! Crazy love.
This #WorldHumanitarianDay, hear from our president Richard Stearns about how the example of our staff provokes the question that only the gospel can answer.
Night had fallen in Juba, South Sudan as we pulled out of World Vision’s office after a long briefing. It was risky to drive in the dark in this conflict-prone country, so we—my World Vision colleagues, The Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, and I—hurried to get back to the hotel. Suddenly, out of nowhere, six men in camouflage fatigues surrounded the vehicle, AK-47s drawn, shouting and gesturing in a language we didn’t understand.
We were panicked and flustered. We didn’t know who the gunmen were or what they wanted.
Turns out the confusion was mutual. We waved our government-issued visitor badges and stammered that we were with a nongovernmental organization: “NGO, NGO, World Vison.”
And they let us go.
This hair-raising moment last year was just a small taste of what humanitarian workers face every day while working in places like South Sudan, one of the three most violent settings for aid workers.
Humanitarian workers, numbering about 450,000 worldwide, risk injury, kidnapping, and death every day. Even when they’re not being shot at, they’re surrounded by human suffering, inequality, and deprivation … every day. The hours are lousy, the commute exhausting, living conditions are basic at best, and getting sick is nearly guaranteed.
Why do this? Are humanitarians crazy?
I can’t speak for all aid workers, but I know what’s at the heart of it for Christians serving in a dangerous world: love. God’s love for us, God’s love for the poor, and the need to love our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus commands.
It’s not crazy, but it is counter-cultural.
Love requires humility rather than heroics—Mother Teresa rather than Indiana Jones. Although we have an urgent message to convey of God’s love for the people we serve, at World Vision we have learned that the gospel is best demonstrated before it’s spoken.
This happens when our staff go into a community and show that they care about the children—about their education, their water supply, what diseases are afflicting them, and whether their parents have economic opportunities. Our staff roll up their sleeves and get dirty, and they stay for the long haul.
That’s how they earn the right to speak into people’s lives. My former colleague and Fuller Theological Seminary professor Bryant Myers called it “provoking the question.” The people we serve, when we serve them with integrity and compassion, will eventually ask, “Why are you here?” And the answer to that question is the gospel.
The answer is, we are here because of Jesus.
And that’s why you’ll find Christians in villages where water wells have been built, where grain silos have replaced feeding centers, where schools are full of healthy children.
Even in places where we can’t openly proclaim the gospel, that message of love comes through loud and clear. A powerful example was in the turbulent months after 9/11, when a gunman shot and wounded Ray Norman, the head of World Vision’s office in Mauritania, and his then 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, on a beach outside Nouakchott. (Ray tells this story in his compelling book, Dangerous Love: A True Story of Tragedy, Faith, and Forgiveness in the Muslim World.)
After the attack, common sense dictated that Ray and his family leave the country and World Vision shut the office down. But an appeal to the contrary came from the unexpected source: a prominent Muslim cleric. He told Ray that his people knew World Vision worked with the poor because they loved them. And he said, “If for no other reason, I encourage you to stay in this country and teach our people how to love their poor.”
World Vision’s founder Bob Pierce observed, “It has always cost something to take the gospel of Jesus Christ into an unfriendly world.” And the risks have only increased since the 1960s when he said it. But as long as the seemingly crazy, Christ-like love of our staff keeps provoking the question, the answer will keep changing the world.