One week after tsunamis swamped the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and other South Asian countries—leaving devastated towns and rotting corpses behind them—the Christian international relief organization World Vision hit the ground running. On their website they put out a clarion call for generous donations, and to the press promised to raise $50 million for victims of the tsunamis—an amount that dwarfs the annual budgets of nearly every other Christian relief agency. But considering World Vision raised $1.5 billion last year, the goal may be more attainable than it sounds. If any Christian group has the economic muscle to follow through on such a grand promise, World Vision does.

World Vision has political clout too. Its international director Dean Hirsch collaborates with the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. It's a major player in its field, commanding the respect of secular and Christian agencies alike. World Vision has offices in 100 countries and employs 22,000 workers, most of whom are native to the countries they work in. In fact, World Vision made a point of "indigenizing" its staff back in the 1970s in the effort to distribute decision-making among its many branches. I discovered this several years ago during a missions trip to Tokyo when I met with the director and staff of World Vision there, all of whom are Japanese.

The success of World Vision hasn't come without its growing pains, however—and a good deal of conflict. The dynamic and exhilarating days of the agency's early history looked quite different from what is has become. We can't really understand what World Vision is today unless we become acquainted with the man who envisioned the organization and gave it the compassionate mission it carries out. The "broken heart" of Bob Pierce is indeed the thread that ties together an increasingly diverse and complex body of people working on behalf of the most desperate and needy in nearly every part of the globe.

Compassionate Evangelist

A fiery Youth for Christ evangelist, Pierce was quickly making a name for himself in the post-World War II climate, much as Billy Graham would a few years later. In 1947, he made his first international tour, traveling to China where he preached at various prestigious churches, including the Moore Memorial Methodist Church in Shanghai. He met with great success, as first hundreds then thousands came to listen to him preach. He even met with Shanghai's mayor and was promised the opportunity to preach in the city's largest auditorium if he agreed to return later that year.

But it was the plight of a little girl that captured Pierce's attention. Pierce had, at a missionary's invitation, agreed to speak to the children of a mission school about the love of Jesus. After the meeting was over, little White Jade had rushed home to tell her family about her newfound faith in Jesus. Her father responded by disowning her and throwing her out of his house. Disoriented and desperate, the girl turned to the missionary, Tena Hoelkeboer, who had invited her to the meeting to begin with. But the woman was already housing six children. Give me five dollars a year, Hoelkeboer told Pierce, and I'll add a seventh to my growing brood. Pierce took her up on the challenge, even though finances were already tight back home.

Moved with compassion, the young evangelist took his promise much further—White Jade was the catalyst that drove Pierce to launch World Vision in 1950. Following his trip to China, Pierce visited South Korea, where the storm clouds of war were gathering. There he saw desolate mothers and children wandering the highways in bitter cold as their husbands went off to war. And he found Korean Christians housing women and children far beyond their capacity, much as Hoelkeboer had in China. Appalled by the suffering he witnessed around him, Pierce paused to write a line on the fly-leaf of his Bible: "Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God." It would become his life's theme.

A Dream Takes Shape

Pierce came home to North America determined to find sponsors for Korean orphans. That's when he came up with the idea of giving sponsors photographs of the children they were supporting with their donations. He also traveled throughout Korea filming the devastation he saw around him, then put together film documentaries that spurred Americans back home to give. "If you are ever going to do anything for Asia," he pleaded, "do it now!"

Pierce's employees at World Vision could count on his can-do attitude. If anyone presented him with obstacles to a relief project, he answered, "Cut through the reasons why things can't be done." The plight of refugees then coming out of Vietnam soon captured Pierce's attention, and World Vision went in with gusto—setting up housing and schools, providing wheelchairs and crutches to amputees, even starting a bakery which turned out high protein biscuits. It was a pattern that World Vision would follow again and again.

Pierce's evangelical fervor did not die as his life's work became more holistic. An early mission statement is unapologetically Christian: "World Vision is a missionary service organization meeting emergency needs in crisis areas of the world through existing evangelical agencies." Pierce listed five "basic objectives" for the organization: Christian social welfare, emergency aid, evangelistic outreach, Christian leadership development, and missionary challenge.

Like many small Christian organizations, World Vision revolved around its founder. The organization lacked any long-range plans or sophisticated mechanisms of administration. Early World Vision workers rather liked it this way; lean management gave people freedom to act quickly and semi-autonomously. But even Pierce recognized the need for someone to manage the growing enterprise. His choice of Ted Engstrom, a friend from his early days with Youth for Christ, would prove to be providential, for reasons as yet unanticipated by Pierce.

Broken Family

There's a flip side to the success story of Bob Pierce. Having an impetuous nature, Pierce could—and did—rub people the wrong way. When World Vision's board of directors proposed organizational changes that would make Pierce more financially accountable, he blew up and tendered his resignation. The next day—to the Pierce family's astonishment—the board accepted his offer, replacing him with Engstrom as World Vision's new chief. Pierce's wife, Lorraine, pled with members of the board to retain him. But the deed was done, the bridge burned.

Even sadder was the strain Pierce's long tours away from home placed on his family. Following his resignation from World Vision, Pierce and Lorraine took a "goodbye tour" of Asia, and one of his daughters, Sharon, pled with him over the phone to come home early as she missed him desperately. Characteristically, he refused. Desperate, Sharon slashed her wrists. Though unsuccessful at first, she eventually succeeded in committing suicide while Pierce was away in Switzerland being diagnosed with exhaustion.

Sharon's death devastated everyone, and Pierce lost himself in his prescription drugs. Though the family relocated to Switzerland for a time to be with him during his treatments, Pierce distanced himself from them. It would take several years before he and Lorraine would regain some of the intimacy they had shared before Sharon's death. The brokenness Pierce had witnessed in his overseas travel had finally come home. Even he needed God's healing and forgiveness.

World Vision Post-Pierce

Following Pierce's departure, World Vision underwent significant growth over the next couple decades. In 1969, the agency had offices in nine countries and supported roughly 32,000 children. Ten years later, it had offices in 40 countries and supported more than 214,000 children. By 1989, that number had grown to 55 countries, and the organization supported over 830,000 children. And on and on it went, with the numbers of children passing a million in the 1990s. All the while, World Vision captured publicity in the television networks and spots on radio programs.

World Vision also expanded its vision to include concern for greater issues of social justice, and the board agreed to partner with all of the Christian traditions, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike. When World Vision began entering countries with tiny Christian populations, the decision was made to employ non-Christians, provided that Christians remain in leadership. This provoked the ire of some evangelicals who worried that the organization was "selling out."

But World Vision continues to hold to a mission statement clearly Christian in commitment. It reads: "World Vision is an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God." To the peoples of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the massive relief efforts of World Vision is good news indeed. May December 26, 2004, be remembered not for the devastation tsunamis wreaked, but for the tremendous outpouring of Christian love as mediated through the capable and compassionate response of groups like World Vision.