Our world is full of stories. From ancient hieroglyphics to the stories in the Bible, to cultural fables and modern fiction — stories create understanding and give meaning to our world. They captivate and compel the human brain like nothing else can. They affect how we think, how we behave and how we respond to the world around us. Stories can empower and encourage us or take away our hope and our dignity. They can compel us to reach out in compassion or turn inwards and hide behind walls. In the words of Robert McKee, stories “are the currency of human contact.”
It’s no wonder, then, that when people ask me about the World Relief story, I get excited because ours is a story of God at work. It’s a story of solidarity with the suffering, the oppressed and the marginalized. Of people saying ‘yes’ to God’s call and co-authoring his story of hope and transformation. Of a small ministry birthed in Park Street Church in Boston in 1944 that has grown to touch more than five million lives every year and has responded to disasters, extreme poverty, violence and oppression in more than 100 countries since it began.
For over 75 years, World Relief has sought to discern the movement of God and respond to it. Our identity and character of today have been molded by the recognition of our dependence upon God and in our belief that we, as believers, get to be co-authors in the story God is writing today. Throughout our history, we have been formed by the countless stories of individuals who have followed God’s call and allowed him to use their lives and experiences to shape who we are and what we do.
Take Debbie, a young American nurse who was working in a mission hospital in Ghinda, Ethiopia, in 1974 when rebels armed with machine guns and grenades burst into the hospital where she was working. She and another missionary nurse named Anna were abducted and forced to run across the mountains of Northern Ethiopia in 104-degree heat. When Anna couldn’t keep up, the rebels shot and killed her while Debbie looked on in horror. Debbie, who was pregnant at the time, was held in captivity for 26 agonizing days. Most of us, I think, would have turned our backs on Africa after such an ordeal. But not Debbie. She and her husband later settled in Nairobi, where she joined World Relief and found herself responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis that was beginning to engulf the continent.
Years later, Emmanuel, a humble, soft-spoken man of deep faith felt called to Rwanda and became one of our first staff members in the country. It was 1994, and the genocide had just ended. Christians around the world were grappling with the horrific reality that the church was complicit in many of the atrocities that stunned the world. I first met Emmanuel a few years ago and asked him what it was like when he first arrived in Kigali.
“There weren’t many people then,” he told me. “Just lots of bodies by the roadside, and dogs. Lots of wild starving dogs, feeding off the corpses.”
Nearly twenty-five years later, Emmanuel’s selfless, compassionate love and quiet, spirit-filled wisdom in those early years has built a reservoir of trust with local communities and churches that has paved the way for our work to flourish. The respect he commands within local communities, and his powerful ministry of presence has opened the doors to hundreds of churches and homes, allowing our staff to come alongside families and communities in transformative ways.
Meanwhile, a South African man named Dr. Pieter was working at World Relief in Mozambique, pondering the question, “how can we address high levels of child mortality in very poor remote communities that don’t have access to healthcare or clinics?” He piloted an innovative program to reach women and communities with education that encouraged healthy behaviors, ultimately resulting in the creation of our Care Group model. At the time, this use of peer group instruction was a complete paradigm shift in development work.
Of course, the stories that make up our organization don’t just belong to our staff. Thousands of them come from the small stirrings and big leaps of faith of men and women like you. People like Jonathan, a software engineer from Massachusetts who identifies strongly with his Jewish family history. His father was on the last Red Cross train out of Germany during WWII, and his grandparents both perished in Auschwitz. Today, Jonathan gives faithfully to World Relief to fight back against the violence and oppression that so many, like his father and grandparents before him, experience on a daily basis, and to support them on their journey as refugees to find safety.
As I reflect upon these different stories of faithful commitment, I am struck by the fact that no amount of central planning, no government organization or think-tank could ever have assembled the people and the pieces that have contributed to the World Relief story, and make our approach to development and sustainable solutions so distinctive today.
These separate strands of commitment, curiosity and discovery were the yeast that gave rise to our theory of change and our model of church empowerment. Years later, our staff codified and professionalized these learnings, as we came to understand the uniquely powerful role the local church could play in poor – and especially remote – communities. We recognized the importance of trust and relationship building, and of allowing communities to take ownership of their own destinies rather than depending on outside interventions.
Our theory of change did not emerge in a classroom or research laboratory, but on the margins, “in the dust of the communities and the heat of the huts, where we recognized the storehouses of [preexisting] wisdom,” as Debbie puts it. Only the hand of God, the movement of his spirit and the faithful obedience of people like Emmanuel, Debbie, Dr. Pieter and Jonathan could write such a beautiful and unexpected story.
Today, these experiences and more have led to the adoption of our Care Group model by more than 25 different NGOs in over 28 countries with beneficiaries now numbering in the millions. Similarly, our innovative Savings Group model and our grassroots Village Peacekeeping Committees are creating incomes, building independence and preventing the outbreak and spread of violence in places like Congo and South Sudan.
At World Relief, our fluid approach to the changing world reflects what New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, has described as “obedient improvisation” – faithful to scriptural authority and tradition, but alive to our time, open to new learning and discoveries and constantly seeking out what story God might be writing on the margins and responding to it.
I thank God that World Relief has brought help and hope to over five million vulnerable people around the world this last year. But what amazes me most, and what I am most grateful for, is the commitment of the 1,500 staff, 6,000 churches and 95,000 volunteers who have joined us as co-authors in this story. I thank God for the thousands of you who make this work possible by choosing to engage, pray for and give to this work. Your commitment, courage and faith is an inspiration to us every day. Thank you for co-authoring this story of restoration and hope that God has so graciously entrusted us with.
Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.