A Conversation With World Vision President Richard Stearns
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to spend a few minutes with Richard Stearns, president of World Vision USA, the Christian humanitarian organization.
Under Mr. Stearns' leadership, World Vision has become one of the world's largest charities with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Its focus is on children in 90 countries. Earlier this year, Mr. Stearns announced that he was stepping down after 20 years at the helm, so we thought this would be a good time to check in with him to hear his thoughts about his work and his mission. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Richard Stearns, thank you so much for being with us.
RICHARD STEARNS: Well, thanks, Michel. Great to be here.
MARTIN: Before your service at World Vision, you were CEO of the Lenox china company, which I think many people would know. So how did you go from Lenox china to heading up what has become one of the world's largest charities? What was the connection?
STEARNS: Well, it's kind of a crazy story. About the only commonality is that both organizations were involved in feeding the hungry. Lenox fed them on fine china, but World Vision obviously deals with hunger around the world. But the decision to come to World Vision really came out of my faith background.
I was a Christian, considered myself committed to my faith, and this was an opportunity not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk. And so my wife and I had been donors to World Vision for almost 15 years before the phone call came, and it was from an executive recruiter. Essentially, made the decision to quit my job, sell our house, move our family to Seattle, where the sun rarely shines. And 60 days later, I was in the jungles of Uganda in the middle of the AIDS pandemic.
MARTIN: What exactly does World Vision do? Just talk a little bit, if you would, about what World Vision does.
STEARNS: Well, we're often described as a relief and development organization. And so most people understand emergency relief. You know, it's the Syrian refugee crisis. It's the Haiti earthquake. It's the hurricanes in Houston. It's flooding in Bangladesh. And people are desperate. They're in the world's emergency room, and we're like the emergency room doctors that go in and try to stabilize and help traumatized people. Syrian refugee crisis would be a good example. We are in the five most affected countries in the Middle East. We're doing clean water for tent settlements of refugees. We're doing some health work. We're the World Food Program's largest implementing partner in terms of food vouchers and making sure that these refugees have sustenance. But maybe more important than even that is to try to provide hope for people who are, right now, in hopeless situations.
MARTIN: When you talk about providing hope, though, you know - and I'm sure you're aware of this - in recent years, some have become more critical of these organizations. The feeling is that sometimes relief workers are really there to save themselves. Their focus is really on their own kind of experience as opposed to providing actual service.
STEARNS: Well, I really reject that. Our staff on the frontlines in these places - in the South Sudan Civil War, in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis - these are courageous people. There's rarely a year goes by that there isn't a World Vision worker killed in the line of duty. And so I don't believe it's that kind of motivation for most of them.
MARTIN: What is the motivation for most of them?
STEARNS: Well, for World Vision, it's our faith. You know, Matthew 25 - that famous passage - I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. Jesus said whatever you have done for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you've done it to me. Mother Teresa claimed that first. And she said when she worked among the poor in Calcutta, she said I saw the face of Jesus in his most distressing disguise.
MARTIN: Twenty years is a long time to lead an organization, so it's kind of hard to summarize, but what would you say was the high point of your tenure and what was the low point?
STEARNS: Well, you know, most of what we do is in the low points of the world and - because we only go where the most-hurting people are. So one of the things you have to deal with is just the constant exposure to human suffering. But I think our finest hours have been when we have become champions for major issues in our world. And I think I'd point first to the AIDS pandemic. In the early 2000s, there was a lot of ignorance around what AIDS was doing to Africa. Americans were largely unaware. And of course, AIDS was stigmatized.
And so we went on a 15-city tour of the United States, speaking to pastors, speaking to business leaders, speaking to the press, trying to raise awareness and support for AIDS in Africa. And it was a high point because we were instrumental in lobbying for the PEPFAR program, the President's Emergency Plan For Aids Relief, that came under President Bush. And it was the largest foreign-assistance program ever passed by Congress since the Marshall Plan back in the 1940s. And we helped to turn the tide for HIV and AIDS. And the PEPFAR initiative alone has probably saved 12 million lives and counting.
MARTIN: Asking again about low moments - in this country, one of the stories that some associate as a low moment under your tenure was in 2014 when you announced that World Vision would change its policies to hire LGBT Christians in same-sex marriages. But after a backlash from some of your prominent supporters - donors - you rescinded that and said that you would not change the policy. What do you think? I mean, did you do the right thing?
STEARNS: Yeah. Well, you know, there are so many things that can divide us as a faith community. So we're a faith-based organization. We're a community of people with faith values that we hold deeply. And we're a multi-denominational organization. We were trying to find a space of unity beyond the controversies of this issue, and we were unsuccessful in doing it. And we got out ahead of our constituencies, and it really distracted us from our core mission of joining hands to help the poor and to do it in the name of Christ. And so we did reverse the policy so that we could move on and really get back to focusing on what we think our core mission is in the world.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask, do you have some sort of thoughts about how kind of faith has integrated in your own life?
STEARNS: Well, you know, for me, faith is the bedrock of my life. And you know, I became a Christian at age 24. I'd been an atheist. And through my wife and my relationship with her before we got married - she was a committed Christian - her testimony to me and through some friends and through a lot of reading of C.S. Lewis and John Stott and other theologians, I really came to the conclusion that the Christian story was, in fact, true and real.
And I remember the day that I knelt down in my dormitory room at the Wharton School of Business, of all places, and I made a commitment to Christ and said, I want to live my life for you. I want to become more like you. And I will go where you call and follow where you lead. And so that explains why, in 1998, when a recruiter called me and said, how would you like to leave your large salary and your corporate Jaguar and your beautiful home in the suburbs and come and serve the poorest people in the world? I mean, that answer had to be yes because it was almost like God was saying, are you going to make good on that commitment that you made when you were 24 years old? - because I've got a job that I want done, and I'm inviting you to do it.
MARTIN: That is Richard Stearns. He is concluding 20 years as president of the Christian charity World Vision USA. It's one of the world's largest. He was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.
Richard Stearns, thank you so much for speaking with us.
STEARNS: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.