When Third World Children Become Pawns

Our sponsored child and her mother.

Our sponsored child and her mother.

This past Monday, World Vision, a Christian relief organization, issued a statement that they had revised their employment policies and would now begin to hire Christians in same-sex marriages.  Richard Stearns, World Vision’s President, stated, “Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.”  He went on to say, “This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support.”

World Vision struck out to find middle ground recognizing that faithful Christians are not in agreement on this issue, and that as a Christian organization they wanted to reflect that diversity within the Christian community.

The last few days have seen a flurry of responses. More progressive Christians applauding the decision, more conservative denouncing it. Folks like Franklin Graham and other Evangelicals issued statements claiming World Vision had clearly turned their backs on biblical faith. Reports emerged of more than 2000 sponsorships of needy children had been pulled.  Rachel Held Evans and others online encouraged new people to step forward to fill the gap. In short, a fire storm was taking place.

Yesterday, World Vision changed their minds.

My family sponsors two children through World Vision, a boy in Swaziland and a girl in Burundi. We get letters from them and we send them postcards and small gifts throughout the year. Each Christmas we send a larger donation, $100, to help them get something they desperately need. This past month we got a reply from the young girl telling us how grateful she was and explaining how she and her mother bought many things including a dress outfit for church, metal sheets for their roof, some soap, basic food supplies and a goat.  We got a picture of her standing near all these things.  $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world.

I couldn’t imagine ever pulling my sponsorship of her over any issue I had with World Vision. And that’s the thing I just can’t get over in the midst of the last few days.  2000 children and their communities lost sponsorship and a connection with a family here in the US due to this issue.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement, people on Rachel Held Evan’s blog said things like, “As a gay Christian, while I cannot help but feel betrayed by World Vision’s sudden reversal, I won’t take my sponsorship away. I made a commitment to a young boy, and I want to honor that.” There were many of these responses.

I’m not naive enough to think that only conservative Christians would pull sponsorships and only progressive ones would honor the commitments.  I suspect that there will be some who feel betrayed in this week’s change and then change back who will cancel new sponsorships (although they more than likely haven’t even finalized the paperwork), but I get caught by that number of 2000 kids losing sponsorship.

All too often I hear evangelical Christians proclaim to “hate the sin and love the sinner” as the answer to tough issues. But this week many didn’t show any love at all. Kids in the Third World became pawns to be played in this issue, even though certainly they had done nothing wrong. Many conservatives claimed that they would switch to another relief organization, but still the particular child they sponsored would be left in the lurch.

In the end it comes down to whether you understand faith as incarnational or not. For many evangelicals it’s about right belief.  Either you are right or wrong (although issues they focus on shift as time goes on—see women’s ordination and divorce). Many believe this is the last great defining issue on biblical authority and if it falls, so too will fall the foundation on which they stand.

But to me it really is about how to live faith in real flesh and blood.  Pulling money from a child in Burundi goes against the biblical injunction to care for widows and orphans as the only way to gauge pure religion (James 1:27). The policy change came about certainly because of real Christian people who wanted to work at World Vision (or currently work there) and are married to another person of their same gender. Dismissing both the children and those employees refuses to see them as God’s children, as valuable to God.

Biblical faith isn’t about policies, it’s about relationships. Jesus came and lived among us. He got to know us. He had deep compassion. What this week showed deeply is that for many Christians it’s all about being right regardless of anything else. In the biblical narrative, Jesus had a tendency to denounce people like that. When sinners came in to do acts of compassion—like the woman who washed his feet—he praised her for it.

This week exposed a deep truth: we still have much to learn from Jesus.