Thursday, March 27, 2014

In Which We Are Insulted By World Vision and Respond With Lamentably Uncharacteristic Charity

World Vision has just slapped our ELCA congregation in the face.  We are taking a deep breath and preparing to turn the other cheek.

As it happens, our congregation has a long history of participation in World Vision's fundraiser-slash-educational event, the 30-Hour Famine.  We are one of their largest contributors through this particular program, and are about to send them a check for almost $20,000.  That's a drop in the bucket compared to WV's billion-dollar annual budget, but represents sacrificial giving on the part of a small mainline church.  It is by far our largest single charitable donation for the year, the product of many hours of hard work by a large team consisting mostly of passionate teen-agers.

During the past week, World Vision has made big news for reasons that have little to do with its work among the world's poor people.  First, it announced with some fanfare that its hiring policies would no longer discriminate against people in same-sex marriages.  Their purpose, it seemed (according to this NPR story), was quite reasonable for an organization that works with many different churches:
 World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained the organization was not endorsing gay marriage. Instead, gay marriage would join a series of issues — like divorce, remarriage, [infant] baptism, female priests — that many Christian churches disagree on.
Well, that was very nice of them.  An organization that works across denominational boundaries is well-served by building the biggest possible tent, and taking no position on disputed questions.  Whether the Christian who feeds a hungry person is a strict predeterminist or has been sold on that free will business makes no difference to the person eating the sandwich, and should not make much to the one who paid for it.  Why, we ourselves (we blush to admit) once accepted the hospitality of a church that preached Nestorianism.

So, World Vision decided to build a bigger tent.  That lasted a couple of days.

Under what we can only assume was withering pressure from some of its donor churches, World Vision has reversed course, going so far as to ask forgiveness for ... its briefly-held policy of nondiscrimination.

Now, this puts us in an odd situation.  As an ELCA pastor, we are part of a church body that recognizes and performs same-sex marriages.  (Our particular congregation does not yet do so, but it has -- after an agonizing discussion -- chosen to remain faithful to a church that does.)  For a few days, in other words, World Vision accepted the practice of our church as a valid expression of Christianity.  Then it decided not to, and added insult to injury by asking other Christians to forgive it for ever having done so.

We have been, at least metaphorically, excommunicated.  That's a painful thing.  It is very much like being slapped.

If we were like the churches on the other side of this question, we would now be calling World Vision to ask whether they really wanted our check.  And indeed, that was our first impulse, until we remembered Whose church we are.

For years, we watched congregations offended by the discussion of sexuality hold back their synodical benevolence as a way to punish the denomination.  The irony was that, even though in those days we ourselves (and several of our parishes) disagreed with the existing practices of our church body, we remained faithful in our giving as in other kinds of service.  When the church finally embraced our position, we shrugged and continued on, basically unchanged.  Many of those who disagreed with us picked up their bat and ball and left, because they simply could not bear to be part of a community that disagreed with them -- even though we had been doing just that for many years.

Their behavior, we believe, is profoundly wrong.  We are saddened that Word Vision has copied it.

As it happens, long before this, we had begun to reconsider our parochial support for WV's 30-Hour Famine.  Friends in Africa had shared some reservations about the actual function of WV's charitable work -- a lot of money seemed to be going into showy SUVs and so forth.  Lutheran World Relief, a much smaller agency and one in both we and Charity Navigator have a lot of confidence, offers a similar fund-raising program.  We are Lutherans, and feel a certain obligation to support the home team -- even though our partners in its work, the LC-MS, disagree with us about ordaining women and marrying gay people.

So it is entirely possible that the big fat check we write to World Vision this year will be our last.  Or not; we are still discussing it.  But if so, it will not be because WV has chosen to embrace and then reject one of our church's theological positions.  It will not even be because we feel that they have insulted our church, and the churches that share this with us.  We are willing to work in Christian ministry with other Christians even when we disagree with them in details of faith and practice -- we earnestly desire to be part of a big-tent Christianity.

It's too bad Word Vision doesn't share this desire.

1 comment:

Gillian Barr said...

When I was in charge of the parish 30 Hour Famine back in my DCE days, I directed the earnings to Episcopal Relief and Development, our equiv to LWR. Didn't know the particulars of WV's position on specific issues, but figured if we were going to give money to overseas work we should support our own denomination. Not out of purity issues, more from loyalty and greater confidence that the work being done would focus solely on relief and development, not proselytizing.