The intersection of church and state: faith-based groups have a role in disaster relief

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 9/22/17

Education: Bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and a master’s degree in marketing.

Work experience: CEO of Lenox, maker of fine china.

Does this sound like the resume of a person equipped to lead a humanitarian organization?

Rich Stearns …

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The intersection of church and state: faith-based groups have a role in disaster relief

Posted

Education: Bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and a master’s degree in marketing.

Work experience: CEO of Lenox, maker of fine china.

Does this sound like the resume of a person equipped to lead a humanitarian organization?

Rich Stearns didn’t think so either when he was being recruited by World Vision U.S. in the late 1990s.

World Vision tackles issues such as poverty, hunger, education, clean water and disaster relief in nearly 100 countries.

“You’re looking for somebody that’s part CEO, part Mother Teresa and part Indiana Jones. I don’t think that’s me, and I don’t know who you’re going to find to fill that job,” Stearns told Christianity Today’s Richard Clark recently during an episode of The Calling podcast.

Stearns had numerous reasons for not wanting the job. It would entail relocating his family and taking a 75 percent cut in pay.

After growing up poor, he had finally made it to the top of the corporate world. Before Lenox, he served as CEO of Parker Brothers, the toy and game company.

Trading in his life of ease would be inconvenient for him and possibly disasterous for strangers around the world who would be counting on him.

After wrestling with the decision, Stearns ultimately decided to accept the position of World Vision president in 1998.

“If there is one child somewhere in the world who suffers and dies because I didn’t have the courage to say yes to this job, I don’t think I could live with myself,” Stearns told his wife.

Stearns couldn’t shake the thought that there was at least one child in the world who needed him to come to World Vision. On his first trip to Africa, the first child he met was an AIDS orphan who shared his name — Richard.

Ten years later, Stearns returned to Lenox to visit friends and learned about factories closing, layoffs and a revolving door of CEOs.

Two weeks after the meeting, he received a letter from the company notifying him that Lenox had declared bankruptcy and his executive pension had been canceled.

Stearns took the meeting and the letter as signs that his leap of faith had been part of a divine plan.

In recent weeks, World Vision has delivered supplies to disaster areas in Texas and Florida.

A Sept. 10 USA Today story highlighted how important faith-based groups are to disaster relief efforts.

“In a disaster, churches don’t just hold bake sales to raise money or collect clothes to send to victims; faith-based organizations are integral partners in state and federal disaster relief efforts. They have specific roles and a sophisticated communication and coordination network to make sure their efforts don’t overlap or get in each others’ way,” reporter Paul Singer wrote.

The Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships, took care to point out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not direct the work of faith-based groups but rather affirms the work that they are already doing.

The article highlights several groups and their respective areas of expertise.

Adventist Community Services helps states warehouse items that are donated to hurricane victims.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief sends in trained case managers to help families navigate a maze of paperwork. UMCOR also has early response teams that help with initial cleanup.

Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical organization, remains active in disaster zones from the debris removal phase through the rebuilding process.

The labor provided by these groups can be counted toward a state’s required match for disaster aid.

Two groups not included in the USA Today article but no less worthy of mention are Mennonite Disaster Service and World Renew.

Both built or repaired dozens of houses in Walker County after the April 2011 tornadoes. Their final rebuild, completed in Cordova just before the two-year anniversary of the storms, was a joint effort — the first time that the two faith-based organizations had collaborated on a project.

According to their respective websites, both groups on now on the ground in Texas and Florida. That’s good news for hurricane victims.

As the people of Walker County know well, FEMA reps and news crews eventually move on, but these organizations don’t give up until the job is done.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.