Despite its large size, World Vision International retains its Christian mission of serving the poor and oppressed by focusing on children.
Through helping children in Africa, Daniel Muvengi leads Christian communities to build schools, hospitals and churches. Muvengi says churches in the West can learn from African churches how to go deep in relationship with God by sharing resources with a wide range of neighbors.
Muvengi is the regional advisor for World Vision International and director of Faith & Development/Christian Commitments Programming for its East Africa region. Daniel trains pastors and Christian leaders across Africa in social justice and reconciliation. He also is responsible for ensuring that World Vision’s humanitarian and development programs reflect the organization’s Christian mission.
While at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute, Muvengi spoke with Faith & Leadership about his work creating a network of Christian leaders serving people in Africa. The video is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.
Q: Could you speak about your role as a regional leader in Africa for World Vision International?
Our vision is an international partnership of Christians whose mission is basically to serve the poor and oppressed. We focus on three main areas: as we follow Jesus Christ, we seek to pursue human transformation, we seek justice and we seek to bear witness. We are predominantly Christian. We are not shy about it. In my role, I’m responsible for the Eastern African region; I have also been serving in Africa as the director for our Christian ministries. That involves helping the organization to remain true and faithful to its vision, a very hard job.
That means one of the focuses is to revisit the whole question of what kind of ethos we set up as an organization. And over the years, we have attempted as much as we could by God’s grace to ensure that whether it’s our policies or practices, our leadership style expresses Christ-centeredness. We attract Christian mature leaders.
Of course, we do have a provision to recruit staff who are not necessarily Christian, because at World Vision, we work with all people, regardless of race, regardless of religion or any affiliation. We will go where the children are, where the poor are. We want to come and work alongside the communities. We want to work alongside the church. And we partner with faith communities which are not necessarily Christian.
World Vision believes that the church is the sustaining institution in the community for spiritual and social transformation.
Q: It must be difficult to help keep World Vision faithful to its Christian roots while working in communities of various faiths.
It’s very difficult, but we have designed and developed very clear guidelines. Staff who are not Christians know they can only remain at this particular level. We say clearly that they cannot be at a point where they have the power to make decisions. They can’t decide about where resources go, because we have a policy that we cannot invest in promoting another faith. As the staff come, we give them an opportunity to understand that they are coming to join a Christian organization.
Q: World Vision is an enormous organization. How do you remain faithful to a person-to-person vision while scaling your work all over Africa?
Sponsorship is the program that works with children. The child is the avenue that we connect in the community. The reason we work with communities and government and other partners is because we believe the child needs to have an opportunity for good health. The child needs to have an opportunity for an education. The child needs to have an opportunity to be protected and participate in decisions that shape their life.
We use [child sponsorship] for resources; that’s why we market to our donors that they give money to a specific child. But we also communicate to our donors that by giving to that particular child you are opening an [educational] opportunity for other children who may not have an opportunity to be sponsored in this particular community.
That specific child we sponsor is enabled not to miss school; the health of that child is taken care of. But we also see it in a broader way, because we ensure that we put up a school in a community, and so that that child who is sponsored and other tens and hundreds of other children who may not be sponsored, they are able to access the same education facilities.
We work with communities to set up health facilities, and we do a lot of health education for communities, sometimes, through the same funding that comes through the child. That child is a blessing. We say it’s a channel of transformation to the rest of the community through child sponsorship.
Q: So to really bless a child you have to actually bless an entire community?
Exactly. And our donors are very excited about it, that through giving to one child you are able to touch 10, 20 other children. And that’s how World Vision has been able to grow.
Q: It’s not really possible to do Christian ministry in Africa without its being holistic in ways that you describe.
It’s very difficult, because first and foremost Africans are, someone remarked, notoriously religious. The lens through which we see health, education, relationship, it’s from a religious perspective. Right from the beginning, we do a lot of assessment, and begin to see we have all these indicators of poverty and poor health, but we’ve got to examine the root causes. As I said, World Vision is the grass-roots, community-based organization. So we listen to the people.
One of the issues we’ve been able to examine and we found working very strongly is that poverty is fundamentally a spiritual issue. We see how [spiritual aspects] connect with practices within the community around education, around health, around feeding and many other issues. The way we approach our work is very holistic. We’re committed to both spiritual and social transformation.
In the social [arena], it’s issues of economic, health, education and all that, but we see this as inseparable. They cannot be separated. We are working in 25 countries now. With all these countries, we do a lot of training of our staff to embrace a holistic mind. So that as they facilitate development in the communities, they can be able to engage with all the aspects of life: social, spiritual, economic, as well as political.
Secondly, we recognize that we can’t do that alone; that’s why we partner with the church. The church is our indispensable partner, because World Vision was born in the church. So what do we do? We also program ourselves to invest in the church, because the church is the people; the poor people are in the communities; in most cases the church itself is poor. So we invest in their capacity, but we don’t give money to churches, because we know that’s very limiting. At best, it only attracts divisions and politics with the churches, because whom do you give what? And there are so many churches in Africa.
When we go to a community, we bring our churches together from all expressions of the Christian traditions. And as they come together, we begin to work a journey that helps them to dream afresh about their mandate in that community. And that mandate is both spiritual and social.
Q: With World Vision operating in 25 countries in Africa, how do you remain true to your original vision?
At World Vision, we say the only constant thing we do is change: We change. We change our structures, we change our people, we change our programs, but we remain faithful to our mission, and our mission always goes to one place -- to the poor, particularly the children that are vulnerable. The vulnerable children, that’s our target, that’s our focus, the children. So, in terms of remaining constant, we remain constant because our calling is to the vulnerable child; we see the community through the lens of the child.
So we work with the government, we work with the churches, and different programs emerge because communities are dynamic and [there are] many changes that are taking place. We listen to their needs and aspirations, but through the lens of the child. The child is the lens. So yes, today, this year, we may have this program, next year we may have a different program in this particular community, because communities are dynamic. But we are able to remain focused on our target, our focus, who are the children and engage broadly with all stakeholders in the community.
Q: What lessons can churches in the United States learn from churches in Africa?
I think the first area is the area of mission. For example, the question of mission and suffering -- we have been born in suffering, we have grown in suffering, we have overcome suffering. And I think that’s one gift that we can give to the church in the West.
The other area I see is the African church does not interpret life in the dichotomy of secular and spiritual. As a part of the African church, we are not just concerned about spiritual well-being; they also are concerned about what are people eating, where are people sleeping, what’s happening to my neighbor.
So our churches are informed by a worldview that is very integrated, as opposed to sometimes what you see in America and in other places where they like to keep spiritual matters very private. For us, spirituality’s not private. It’s a public issue. It’s public to the politics, it’s public to the economy, … it’s public to business.
Another issue is the whole question around relationship, because it’s so critical in God’s mission. We have a very strong belief that transformation takes place in the context of relationships. Africans are very interconnected. What happens to me or to my neighbor is my concern. And so over the years, the African church has blessed us, being able to know what’s happening to the neighbor church, to the next neighbor’s problem. When there’s a catastrophe, the church is there. Our identity is one of connectedness and relationship.
In Africa, we define ourselves in terms of the other. As one scholar stated, “I am because you are, and because you are I am.” I’m not disconnected from your suffering; I’m not disconnected from your problem. I celebrate with you and I cry with you. In our context of Africa, we lament together, we cry together, we celebrate together when there’s something to celebrate.
We can also teach the church in the West how to really facilitate reconciliation -- for example, to facilitate transformation that is rooted in relationship and issues of identity, but also a spirituality that is deeply rooted in Christ.
And finally, our spirituality that Christ calls us to is one that is deep but is also a spirituality that is wide. You can’t claim to be deep and miss the wideness. With all due respect, sometimes what we see in the West is a spirituality that separates my relationship with God and my neighbor.
Our understanding in Africa is that our spirituality that calls us to go deep in Christ in terms of our discipleship -- our walk with him, our joy, our expression with him -- is also expressed by how I share my food with my neighbor. That’s another gift that we can share.