World Vision’s Rich Stearns
Self-Reliance Made Him Strong, But Surrendering Gave Him Significance
He grew up wanting to be the complete opposite of his father, he didn’t want to follow God, and certainly didn’t want to be the President of World Vision … but it’s not about what Rich Stearns wanted, and fortunately, he says, he figured that out. This Cornell-educated husband and father of five, is finding success in service. Risen sat down with a humble and warm Stearns to hear more about his heart for ministry, attacking global poverty, and how his formative years made him the man he is today.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Seattle, Washington
Risen Magazine: What traits of your upbringing did you either want to flee from or ensure was a mainstay in your life moving forward?
Rich Stearns: When I was about ten years old, my world kind of fell apart. My dad was an alcoholic and his drinking led to financial and marital problems. He filed for bankruptcy and the bank foreclosed on our house and evicted us.
I can still remember when I was in bed at night and my parents were screaming in the kitchen – my dad had come home drunk and they were having a big fight. I just realized that moment, that my parents couldn’t help me. That I was kind of on my own, and if I didn’t get ahold of my life and take it somewhere, then they wouldn’t be able to help me because they couldn’t get their own life sorted out. And from that day I remember just kind of having this sense of it’s all up to me; I have to make my own way. Literally calculating at ten years old, how when I turned 18, I could leave home and go to college, and that was my escape route.
It gave me a trait of self-reliance – which was good in some ways and bad in other ways. I wasn’t going to rely on anybody else because everybody else in my life was letting me down. And that actually became a bit of a problem in me coming to faith because I didn’t want to rely on Jesus; I wanted to rely on myself. I developed a sphere of self-reliance. I did go to Cornell University, then University of Pennsylvania for my MBA, so I kind of realized my dream.
The other thing I remember all the way through college was that a lot of men had issues with their dads. They were either living in the shadow of their dad, or they could never please their dad, or whatever it was, there is usually some kind of issue there that young men have to deal with. And for me, it was whatever my dad was; I wanted to be the opposite.
He was a role model; but he was a role model in showing me the perfect opposite of what to do. He dropped out of school in the 8th grade; I wanted to get a graduate degree. He had three wives and three divorces; I wanted to have one wife and the perfect family. He went bankrupt multiple times in business; I wanted to be a success. My dad was a negative role model. He was an alcoholic; I am now sixty-two years old and I have never been drunk in my life. I didn’t have my first beer until I was sixty. Don’t ask me why, it was a rough day. [Laughter]
Don’t get me wrong, I love my dad and until the day he died I would call him every week and help him out financially here and there. But he was just a person that was unable to manage his life. I came to not hold that against him, but to actually feel sorry for him. We had a great relationship after I became an adult.
The next day I went to the bookstore and bought a dozen books and I just started reading everything I could get my hands on about the Christian faith. Over the next three or four months I think I read fifty or sixty books.
Risen Magazine: With this trait of self-reliance, how and when did you become a Christian? What did faith look like in your life?
Rich Stearns: On April 6, 1973, I got hooked up on a blind date with my (now) wife by her roommate. And all the roommate told me was, “My roommate is this terrible Jesus freak, and she broke up with her boyfriend from high school a couple of months ago and I think it would be great if she went out with a guy like you.”
I was a senior, a fraternity guy, a big man on campus and she was a freshman. So anyway this roommate devilishly hooked us up just to see what might happen – you know, this Jesus-freak and fraternity-Casanova. [Laughter]
So on the first date, Renee, pulled out of her purse this Campus Crusade tract, The Four Spiritual Laws. And she looked into my eyes said, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And I looked right back at her and said, “You have got to be kidding me?!” And she said, “No, I’m very serious, may I continue?” I said, “Well, I think I know what you are doing. But if you want to continue, go right ahead, take your best shot.” So she took me through the whole booklet, and of course there was this little place where it shows a diagram of a chair. And asks, who’s on the throne in your life? Is it you, or is it God? And I was pretty clear I was on the throne of my life, and I worked pretty hard to be on the throne of my life. So, that was our first date.
That was really the first serious exposure to faith that I had. I had a roommate before that who was a Christian that worked on me the four years at Cornell, but he didn’t make a lot of headway. And for me it really was this self-reliance. That I am in control of my life, religion is for weak-minded people who need a crutch. I don’t need a crutch. I have dealt with every adversity that life has built me and I’ve come out the victor and I’m not going to be one of those people that cling to religion as a crutch. I’m not interested because I don’t need what religion is offering. That was my deal.
So when Renee and I started dating, despite our ideological differences, we still fell for each other over the next six or seven months. We carried out a long distance relationship when I graduated. She lived in California, and I lived in New York. That fall I went off to University of Pennsylvania, and she was still at Cornell, so we were about five hours apart. We would see each other a few weekends, but every time faith came up we had a big argument, and a big fight. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just leave it alone. You believe what you believe, and I’ll believe what I believe. What difference does it make? We love each other. But she kept saying, “You don’t understand this is the most important thing in my life. And I have to share it with you. And if I can’t share it with you I don’t see how we can have this relationship.” So I gave her an ultimatum one day and said, “Here is the deal. You have to make a choice, is it me, or God? Because, I’m not going to change. I am not going to become a Christian. It’s not going to happen. It would take a miracle. Accept that and make your decision. I think we can have a great relationship if we just respect each others beliefs but you have to decide if you could live that way.” And that’s when she broke up with me and said, “Well, you just made my choice pretty easy. When you put it that way to choose you or God, God wins every time.” So she broke up with me and we were both very brokenhearted because we both had a lot of affection for each other.
That sent me for a loop because it was painful, and then set me up for a journey. I then started reading. Maybe a couple months later, I hadn’t talked to her and I was home for Christmas break. I started digging through a box of books I brought home from college to see if there was anything to read and I found, Basic Christianity, by John Stott. It was a book that my high school girlfriend had given me, who was also a Christian. She had written on the flyleaf six years earlier and she said, “I hope you read this book someday. It expresses what I believe better than I could ever do it.” And signed her name. And of course I had never read the book, but I didn’t throw it away, I threw it in a box. That night I started reading Basic Christianity. And I read it cover to cover in one sitting. I finished it at four in the morning and I was trembling because it almost felt like the Holy Spirit had grabbed me and said, “This is the truth.” I was literally shaking when I finished that book, and something had happened. The next day I went to the bookstore and bought a dozen books and I just started reading everything I could get my hands on about the Christian faith. Over the next three or four months I think I read fifty or sixty books.
It’s like we’re in a stream with a very swift current and the current is going one direction and we have to swim hard in the opposite direction to stay true to our faith values.
I did call Renee back and told her what was happening and that I was reading, and that I wasn’t making any commitments. I told her, “It’s either true or it’s false. And if it’s false you’re wasting your time. And I certainly don’t want to waste my time. But if it’s true, it changes everything.” After reading all these books I asked myself a question, “If I had to bet my life, which I do, on whether this is true or false, what do I bet?” And I realized that I would bet that it was true. If I had to bet my life, I thought it was more likely to be true than false and that’s when I realized that I don’t want to live my life as a lie. If I really believe that this is true, then it follows logically that I have to commit to it. So I literally got down on my knees in my room in Philadelphia and I prayed a version of the sinner’s prayer that had been in some of the books I had read. And said, “God, I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know what to do next. But I do know this, I want to commit my life to living for you and I need you to help me figure out what that means.” I always tell people that from that day on I never had a doubt about my faith ever again. It just clicked and it felt like I took the leap of faith and God caught me in mid-air. I just never doubted it again. So Renee and I got back together. A year later we got engaged. We married six or eight months after that. And I have been with that woman for 40 years now.
Risen Magazine: When would you say that your passions started aligning with the Lord’s calling for your life?
Rich Stearns: I guess I would say because I became a Christian from a place of unbelief and as a young adult, not a child, for me the change was much more dramatic. I had lived a life without faith and without God, and without believing in God, so I kind of knew what that had to offer. When I became a Christian I really understood this was an all-in commitment. From that day on I really attempted to make every decision in my life based on my faith.
One of the things I talk about in my book, Unfinished, is that so many young people are looking to find that thing that God’s called them to do. One of the principles in the book is that you may be longing for God to put you in the game, “Coach put me in. I really want to go to the front lines. I really want to do something important. I want to join the battle against trafficking. I want to eliminate hunger in our world. I want to do something important that I’m passionate about.” One of the questions I ask is, “If you haven’t been faithful and obedient in the small things in your life, why do you think God will give you a promotion and send you to do something important?” So if you’re not tithing your income, if you’re in a relationship with a non-believer, if you’re violating sexual moral teachings of scripture, if you’re not really kind to people, if you’re not diligent in your life in trying to live as an example so that people might see Christ in your life, then why would you expect God to give you something important to do if you haven’t been faithful in the small things?
You have got to start small and be willing to be faithful in a little. And try to live the way that Christ would want you to live and then dream big about what you might someday be able to do for the Kingdom.
Risen Magazine: World Vision reaches 100 million people in 100 countries around the world and you’ve travelled to nearly half of those 100 countries. Are there one or two stories that you can share that you’ll never forget?
Rich Stearns: A lot of my writing basically focuses on the fact that American Christians by-and-large live in a bubble. We’re wrapped up in our little world and culture, in the United States. It’s so important to look outside the bubble and see the world the way God maybe sees the world.
There’s a chapter in my book [Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning] called, Magic Kingdom, Tragic Kingdom and the Kingdom of God. I talk about Magic Kingdom Christians… of course the Magic Kingdom is Disney World. And inside of Disney World everything is controlled. The sidewalks are all clean with no gum, the restrooms are immaculate, the roads are laid out perfectly, every building is a fantasy, costumed characters… everything is controlled and you are called a guest of the Happiest Place on Earth. We all realize when we go to Disney World that it is a distorted little environment that we go in and that the real world is outside the walls of Disney World. We might have a day that we go in, but we have to leave at the end of the day and go back to the real world. And the real world isn’t maybe as happy and perfect as Disney World. So imagine, if you were born inside the walls of Disney World, were raised there, and never ever got outside of that world, how distorted your worldview would be. That’s the way a lot of Americans are. We’ve been born in the Magic Kingdom, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, without war, pestilent, or hunger, with 500 channels of cable, iPhones and everything we have in this protective bubble.
But there are 2 billion people that live on less than $2 a day in what I call the Tragic Kingdom. Where pastors are conducting more funerals than they are weddings or baptisms, people are hungry, and they don’t have clean water, they are dying from preventable diseases, and children don’t live until their fifth birthday. Not only do people not have a cool car, they don’t have a car at all. They may not even have a decent house to live in – they live on the very edge of survival.
God looks at both of these realities in our world. He sees the wealthiest nation of Christians in the history of Christiandom in the United States – 238 million Christians that control $5.2 trillion dollars a year of income – and then he sees the 2 billion who are living on less than $2 a day who are bearing children with great frequency and the question is, What would Jesus want us to do about all of that?
That’s kind of the big picture, [but one specific story would be] a trip I made to India a number of years ago after the Gujarat earthquake [of 2001.] It’s a story that reminded me every child is precious in God’s eyes. We visited a lot of villages and heard the terrible stories and World Vision was helping communities rebuild. This was the last village, on the last day we visited and it was hot. I was tired, we drank green tea with the leaders, we had a little ceremony, we looked at the work World Vision was doing in the village and then we got in the cars to leave and when we pulled away, there was an image I’ll never forget. There was a mother, who had a little boy, who looked to be about five years old. She, [the mother] was running beside the car. She obviously knew I was an important person. I’m a 6’2’’ guy with white hair, from America, and the head of World Vision. She was kind of a nobody in the community so she wasn’t a part of the ceremonies or meeting with the leaders. But she saw her chance and as the cars pulled away she ran alongside the car and held out her son to the window so I could see him, and when I looked, I just caught this glimpse of a mother’s face and a little boy who had no feet. And then the car pulled away and she was gone.
I got home a couple of days later and shared the story with my wife and kids, I said, “I’ve got this haunting image I can’t get out of my head. This little boy with no feet and his mother’s eyes were just pleading with me. But we just left. The car just left. What could I do?” And my wife as she usually does, says, “You’ve got to do something about that. Find out who he is.” I said, “Honey there are about a billion people in India and I don’t even remember the name of the village. How are we going to find this little boy?” And she said, “I don’t know but you’ve got to find him.” So I sent an email to our Indian team and I said, “Here is what I can describe, this is all I can tell you, can you possibly find out who this little boy is?” Anyways, a few weeks went by and they wrote back and said that they found him. His name is Vikas – in fact I’m looking at him right now, his picture hangs on the wall in my office – he’s six-years-old and when the earthquake happened his house collapsed on him and crushed his legs. He went days without medical treatment and finally a Korean medical relief team came in and when they saw his legs they had to do a field amputation. Gangrene had set in and infection and both of his legs and feet were cut off below the knee. But then they said, “We’ve had a doctor look at him and he needs another surgery and he could be fitted with prosthetic limbs. But it would cost about $300, what do you want to do?” I think they asked the question, “Would World Vision U.S. pay for that?” And I wrote back and said, “No, World Vision U.S. won’t pay for that, but Rich Stearns is going to pay for that because this one’s on me. God put this little boy on my heart. Three-hundred dollars is nothing, I’ll gladly pay that.” A few months later I got an email with a photo attached and it was little Vikas holding his mother’s hand and standing on his new legs.
The real enemy we are trying to attack is global poverty. Poverty presents lots of different symptoms. Human trafficking is a symptom of poverty. HIV/AIDS is a symptom of poverty.
I was there as the CEO of World Vision. We were helping thousands of children and families in India after the earthquake – I think 30,000 were killed in that earthquake. I think what God wanted to show me is that he cares about the one. He said, “Rich you’re looking at the wrong level. You’re looking at thousands and I want you to see the one. I want you to see the one child because that child is precious to me and I want that child to be precious to you. Great that you are helping thousands, but never forget the one.” It was a powerful lesson for me.
Risen Magazine: Organizationally, how do you take a multi-billion dollar company and cultivate that mindset making sure your teams across the world are operating in a uniform way to meet needs, yet still keep that attention to detail?
Rich Stearns: I think we struggle to do that constantly. You could say World Vision is one huge $2.7 billion dollar non-profit organization, that’s one way to look at it, or you could look at World Vision as two-thousand tinier non-profits. We have 2,000 area development projects around the world in those 100 countries. Each of those area development projects (also called ADP’s)is roughly the equivalent of a county in the United States, maybe a rural county that might have 25-thousand people living in the footprint. Every one of those ADP’s has it’s own team of staff members, it’s own five-year plan, it’s own strategy, it’s own community engagement and typically we will work for 10-15 years in each project area. So over the 10-15 years the World Vision team is in that project area, they really get to know the community. Typically, we’ll have about 2-3 thousand kids sponsored within the project and those kids are kept track of and you can write letters to those kids. We’re doing it on a very personal level. And when I go to these ADP’s, you can see that the staff and the community know each other, they respect each other, there’s affection and hugs when they arrive, they know each other by first name and it’s a very intimate kind of feeling.
That’s one way we keep it personal. The other way is that World Vision is kind of held together by what we call our core documents – mission statement, vision statement, a set of core values – that really lay out the fundamental principles that we base the whole organization on. A lot of them are derived from scripture and every office in the world is expected to be in alignment with the mission, vision and values of the organization. We do something called peer reviews and we have 100 offices, and every office in the World Vision organization has a fair amount of independence. Most of them have their own boards, and their own C.E.O.s and an office might have anywhere from 10-100 area development projects in each country. Every office submits to a review of their peers in the organization regarding whether they are aligned with the core values and mission and vision of the organization. They then get a report card and a list of recommendations and every office goes through this every 3-5 years. So it’s another way of keeping everyone in alignment. And you have to do things like that as you get big.
Risen Magazine: Especially when one of those core values includes God and that faith piece doesn’t get lost or watered down to just doing something positive in a community.
Rich Stearns: In a lot of Christian organizations today there is a constant tension. We’re being pulled by the gravitational pull of secularism. And secularism tells us not to talk about our faith, it tells us to keep our religion and our views private. In our world today if you want to be popular, liked, or accepted, sometimes being clear about your faith is not a way that you are going to win friends and influence people. We’re very mindful of that at World Vision, to try and resist the pull of secularism. In places like Europe and Australia, which are post-Christian cultures, that cultural pull is very strong. It’s like we’re in a stream with a very swift current and the current is going one direction and we have to swim hard in the opposite direction to stay true to our faith values.
Risen Magazine: What are the top areas of concern, or where currently does World Vision focus its energy?
Rich Stearns: The real enemy we are trying to attack is global poverty. Poverty presents lots of different symptoms. Human trafficking is a symptom of poverty. HIV/AIDS is a symptom of poverty. Hunger is a symptom of poverty. Domestic abuse and gender issues are often symptoms of poverty. There are a lot of issues you could pull out, but probably the most profound thing World Vision has learned about poverty is that it has multiple causes. What’s frustrating to us is that there are so many, what we call single-sector charities – food, water, anti-trafficking, health-related, etc. – who all deal with essentially one issue.
[For example] Let’s say you rescue a bunch of girls from a brothel in Cambodia because you’re an anti-trafficking organization. Great, you’ve rescued these girls from a brothel, but what happens to them? Why were they in the brothel to begin with? They were in the brothel to begin with because they were so poor, and their families were ignorant and maybe they sent their daughters to work as a nanny, thinking they would go work as a nanny, or maybe they even sold their daughters for money because they couldn’t feed the rest of their children. So the root cause of the trafficking was the poverty, and the ignorance, and the lack of education. You’ve rescued the girl from the brothel, but you haven’t solved the problem. A year later she’s going to be back in the brothel.
You can go through every one of those issues and if you just deal with the issue you’re not going to successfully help that community get out of poverty. So World Vision has learned the hard way that you’ve got to work at all domains and dimensions of a person’s life and you’ve got to do it over a fairly long period of time. Poverty isn’t cured in 12 months; it isn’t cured in a short-term missions trip. You have to walk with that community 10-15-20 years, and then you can begin to see the change. That’s the big picture. The big enemy is poverty. Most charities don’t have the wherewithal, patience, or the funding to hang in there, address the multiple causes of poverty and do it over the long haul. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to do the hard thing in the hard places.
Risen Magazine: If someone reading this wants to help, what is the best way to start? And what challenge would you leave a reader who may be hesitant to get involved?
Rich Stearns: The first principle is everybody can make a difference and everybody should; especially as a follower of Christ. Caring for the poor was not optional. In fact if you read Matthew 25, when he separated the sheep [on his right] from the goats [on his left], you get into some theological hot water because Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” He basically said the criteria for separating the sheep from the goats was whether they had helped the poorest of the poor. So scripture is all about responsibility that we have for the least of these in our world. We all like to believe that this is somebody else’s job. Maybe it’s Bill Gate’s job, he’s the richest man in the world he should do it, maybe it’s the President of the United States’ job, he’s got the government and the foreign assistance budget to do it, and the political clout, maybe it’s my pastor’s job because he’s the one paid for the mission’s program at our church… but the point I’m trying to make is, No. It’s your job. It’s my job. It’s everybody’s job.
At World Vision you can sponsor a child for about a dollar a day. Now there aren’t many young people, even those in college, that couldn’t find a way to do a dollar a day. We’ve got people today that I meet with that give us millions of dollars a year, who when they were in college sponsored one child. They kind of got in the habit of putting the poor first. I would encourage people to do something financially even if they don’t think they are wealthy because Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I would also urge young people to get involved with something they are passionate about. Learn about it, read about it, find out what organizations are doing good work in that area and become an evangelist for that cause. Advocacy is a great thing too. Your voice can make a difference as well.
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