On October 2nd, The Seattle Times featured an AP article about the recent quake in Sumatra, along with a “how to help” list. At the top of that list was World Vision International.
What the article failed to mention, and many donors fail to realize, is that World Vision is an Evangelical Christian organization with a mission that includes “serving as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps the best known program of World Vision is their child sponsorships. As an Evangelical college student, I sponsored a child in India. I even got and sent a few letters, and it felt great knowing that thanks to me he could afford to attend a Christian school in his area.
World Vision explicitly states on their website that they “do not proselytize or work with those who insist on proselytism. Proselytism takes place whenever assistance is offered on condition that people must listen or respond to a message or as an inducement to leave one and join another part of the Christian church.” The organization ascribes to Red Cross standards prohibiting conversion activities. But consider the next paragraph from their website:
“At the same time, World Vision shares the Church’s commitment to disciple followers of Jesus Christ who bear witness to the Gospel by life, deed, word and sign, with the goal of encouraging people to respond to the Gospel. We do this through the life of service that we lead, the deeds of Christian love we perform, the words that we share about our faith and the signs of prayers answered as we visibly and concretely improve the lives of others.” (emphasis theirs)
People in disaster zones and small children, the two primary populations served by World Vision, are both particularly vulnerable, and because of this they are particularly vulnerable to influence. It’s great that World Vision doesn’t take an “or else” approach to aid: listen to our message or else go hungry. Not all missionary organizations adhere to this ethical boundary. But to deny the conversion pressures of money and medical care or education is naive. Consider the plight of Hindu parents who have a choice between a bare local school or a Christian school that provides paper, pencils, and books. All over the world, vast differences in power and resources say to desperate people: Christians have what you need; Jesus is the answer. The World Vision mission, in its own understated way, acknowledges this.
Does this make World Vision a bad investment? It depends on your own values, on whether their mission of encouraging people to respond to the Gospel is also yours. Make no mistake. In evangelical circles, the word “witness” is code for seeking converts, and “Gospel” means salvation by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. If that is a message you want carried to the world by a competent, compassionate aid organization, World Vision may be your ticket. If it’s just the competent, compassionate aid that you care about, then you’re likely better off sending your money to an organization further down the list. Try Mercy Corps, for example, or Doctors without Borders or that standard bearer, the Red Cross itself.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.