One week after tsunamis swamped the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and other South Asian countries on December 26, 2004 wreaking havoc and devastation in many of these nations, the Christian international relief organization World Vision hit the ground running. On their website they put out an appeal for generous donations, and to the press promised to raise $50 million for victims of the tsunamis—an amount that dwarfs the annual budgets of nearly every other Christian relief agency. If any Christian group has the economic muscle to follow through on such a grand promise, World Vision does.
World Vision has substantial political clout. Its international director Dean Hirsch collaborates with the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. It’s a major player in its field, commanding the respect of secular and Christian agencies alike. World Vision has offices in 100 countries and employs 22,000 workers, most of whom are native to the countries they work in.
The success of World Vision hasn’t come without its growing pain and a good deal of conflict. Really understanding what World Vision is today is not possible unless we become acquainted with the man who envisioned the organization and gave it the compassionate mission it carries out. It is the “broken heart” of Bob Pierce that ties together an increasingly diverse and complex body of people working on behalf of the most desperate and needy in nearly every part of the globe.
In 1947, Robert Pierce was working for a religious non-profit organization called Youth for Christ, whose mission was to evangelize the world with the gospel of Christ. The young evangelist started on his trip to China with only enough money to buy a ticket to Honolulu. In Honolulu, Pierce, at a missionary’s invitation, agreed to speak to the children of a mission school about the love of Jesus. After the meeting was over, a little girl named White Jade had rushed home to tell her family about her new-found faith in Jesus. Her father responded by disowning her and throwing her out of his house. Disoriented and desperate, the girl turned to the missionary, Tena Hoelkeboer, who had invited her to the meeting. But the woman was already housing six children. Hoelkeboer told Pierce that if she could be given $5 a year, she would add a seventh child to her growing brood. Pierce took her up on the challenge, even though finances were already tight back home. The plight of a little White Jade had captured Pierce’s attention.
Pierce eventually made it to China, where he preached at various prestigious churches, including the Moore Memorial Methodist Church in Shanghai. He met with great success as thousands made public commitments as followers of Christ during four months of evangelistic rallies. While in China Pierce saw widespread hunger.
Filled with compassion, Pierce took his promise much further—White Jade was the catalyst that drove Pierce to launch World Vision in 1950. Following his trip to China, Pierce hauled a movie camera across South Korea, where the storm clouds of war were gathering. There he encountered desolate mothers and children wandering the highways in bitter cold as their husbands went off to war. And he found Korean Christians housing women and children far beyond their capacity, much as Hoelkeboer had in China. Overcome by the suffering he witnessed around him, Pierce wrote a line on the fly-leaf of his Bible: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” It would become his life’s theme and his passion.
Upon his return to North America, Pierce showed harrowing pictures to church audiences, asking for money to help the children. He showed their faces and begged Christians to “adopt” one.
Pierce recognized the need for someone to manage the growing enterprise. His choice of Ted Engstrom, a friend from his early days with Youth for Christ, would prove to be providential, for reasons as yet unanticipated by Pierce.
There’s a flip side to the success story of Bob Pierce. Having an impetuous nature, Pierce rubbed people the wrong way. When World Vision’s board of directors proposed organizational changes that would make Pierce more financially accountable, he lost his cool and tendered his resignation. The next day—to the Pierce family’s astonishment—the board accepted his offer, replacing him with Engstrom as World Vision’s new chief.
Even sadder was the strain Pierce’s long tours away from home placed on his family. Following his resignation from World Vision, Pierce and Lorraine took a “goodbye tour” of Asia, and one of his daughters, Sharon, pled with him over the phone to come home early as she missed him desperately. Characteristically, he refused. Desperate, Sharon slashed her wrists. Though unsuccessful at first, she eventually succeeded in committing suicide while Pierce was away in Switzerland being diagnosed with exhaustion.
Sharon’s death devastated everyone, with Pierce losing himself in his prescription drugs. Though the family relocated to Switzerland for a time to be with him during his treatments, Pierce distanced himself from them. It was several years before Pierce and Lorraine would regain some of the intimacy they had shared before Sharon’s death. The brokenness Pierce had witnessed in his overseas travel had finally come home. Even he needed God’s healing and forgiveness.
Following Pierce’s departure, World Vision underwent significant growth over the next couple decades. In 1969, the agency had offices in nine countries and supported roughly 32,000 children. Ten years later, it had offices in 40 countries and supported more than 214,000 children. By 1989, that number had grown to 55 countries, and the organization supported over 830,000 children. And on and on it went, with the numbers of children passing a million in the 1990s.
When World Vision began entering countries with tiny Christian populations, the decision was made to employ non-Christians, provided that Christians remain in leadership. This provoked the ire of some evangelicals who were worried that the organization was “selling out.”
But World Vision continues to hold to a mission statement clearly Christian in commitment. It reads: “World Vision is an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.”
At the age of 64, Pierce was diagnosed with leukemia. In September 1978 the family was able to gather together. Four days later the founder of World Vision was called home by the Lord.
For 60 years, World Vision has lived by this risky, costly, and even reckless faith, believing that if they dared to follow Christ by going to the darkest and most dangerous places on earth, God would go before them and be a lamp unto their feet as they served the poorest of the poor in His name.
That unwavering conviction has led successive generations at World Vision into the pain of the world. The courageous staff of World Vision has faced earthquakes, famines, riots, cyclones, military coups, floods, pandemic diseases, and wars. They have lived among the broken, walked among the homeless, and given comfort to the widow, the orphan, the least, and the lost.
And they have done these things knowing the risk and paying the price but believing that God had called them for the great privilege of serving. Rarely does a year go by that doesn’t cost one or two of World Vision staff their lives.
That audacious faith of Bob Pierce has always characterized World Vision, and it has changed the world for millions of children over the past six decades. That tiny seed planted in Asia in 1950 by one man has now grown into an organization of more than 40,000 men and women on six continents in 97 countries.
More than 3 million children are now assisted by sponsors worldwide, and 100 million people receive help of one kind or another — all because one man had the audacity to believe God and because millions more were willing to join him.
World Vision…it still makes God smile.