- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

When President Obama released his faith advisory council list last month, Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, was the last of 15 names.

Mr. Stearns attends University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where he moved in 1998 to take the reins of World Vision, one of the world’s biggest aid agencies with $2.6 billion in worldwide revenues. U.S. donors provide $1.1 billion of that amount.

Heading this up is a daunting responsibility for Mr. Stearns, 57, who nine years ago was comfortably ensconced in a lovely home just west of Philadelphia, making $1 million a year as CEO of Lenox Group. Recruiters for World Vision sought him out and, in an agonizing reappraisal of life’s priorities detailed in his first book, “The Hole in Our Gospel,” he decided to accept the job.

The book makes much of the sacrifices entailed in taking on a pay cut for a job that offered $200,000 (now $328,556, according to Guidestar.org). Having moved from the East Coast to Seattle during my teens, I noticed he lives in Bellevue, a city of about 118,000 residents just east of Seattle that is a pretty nice place. My parents live there, so I should know. Plus, the Stearns family lives in Clyde Hill, one of the better neighborhoods.

I asked him what he plans to do when the faith council meets early next month in Washington.

“I will [put forth] some of my philosophical views,” he said. “Global poverty is a moral crisis in our world because of the excessive wealth of the wealthy nations compared to abject poverty of poor nations. It is good foreign policy to burnish our reputation as a nation that cares about people in less fortunate circumstances, and not only when it is politically expedient to do so.”

Mr. Stearns often goes out in the field, where World Vision’s 40,000 staff members work. The book tells of how he’s paid out of his own pocket to help some of the hapless cases, such as a young amputee he met in Gujarat, India.

“When you run a big organization like this and help millions of people, it can become just a business,” he said. “When you go out into the developing world and encounter individual people, it becomes profoundly personal. The statistics have a face again.”

Referring to seminary professor Ron Sider’s classic 1977 book “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” he added, “I am writing something for a new generation at a new time. I know there are a lot of people like me - corporate executives and professionals - who hunger to do something more with their lives. A lot of people in their 40s and 50s have had success, but they do not always feel they have done something significant.”

On average, American churchgoers give 2.5 percent of their income, he said. “The biblical standard is the tithe, so we are about 75 percent shy of that.

“With the average church, 2 percent of their budget is spent outside of [its boundaries]. So the Christian community in the United States gives 5/10,000ths of our income or 6 cents per person per day. We have not reached the point where we are doing too much.”

“If every Christian in America tithed, it would be $168 billion. Our whole foreign assistance budget for the world is $39.5 billion. We could have four times as much as that available for overseas or problems in American cities. If we all gave 10 percent, we could change the world.”

• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at Julia Duin

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