Holly J. Burkhalter: Everyone is part of the mission

The human rights organization International Justice Mission is effective in part because everyone working there understands their role in the Christian institution’s mission, says a senior leader.

Working for human rights can be discouraging -- people in the field come into contact every day with the worst things that human beings do to one another.

But at International Justice Mission, "we understand ourselves to be just a small part of what God is doing in the world. That is a shared belief, as is the belief that the full burden of violence against poor people is not ours. It is God’s, and we are only a small part of the answer,” said Holly J. Burkhalter, the vice president of government relations and advocacy for the organization.

“I think that is what makes it possible for our investigators and our social workers and our lawyers to do that work. Because without it, you would almost invariably feel great despair.”

Holly BurkhalterBurkhalter joined IJM seven years ago after many years in human rights advocacy, working for organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch.

She staffed the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations from 1981 to 1983 and was appointed by President Clinton to be a member of the board of the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Burkhalter spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke University for a talk sponsored by the Center for Christianity and Scholarship and co-sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center.

Q: What difference does it make when an organization, especially a social justice organization, is Christian?

Gary Haugen, our founder and president, refers to it as a community of spiritual transformation. He thinks that the work of providing justice for victims of violence, poor people in the developing world, comes from transformed people. So every one of us on staff -- and there are hundreds, probably about 550 staff -- all of us are Christians.

We have no faith test whatsoever for those we serve. In all cases, IJM’s work is the expression of our shared Christian faith, so we do not proselytize and evangelize.

I’m 59, and I became a believer in my early 50s and joined IJM about seven years ago, so [previously] I wasn’t a Christian and I wasn’t working for a Christian organization.

There are many, many, many ways that the fact that we share this faith and depend on God for wisdom and for guidance -- there are many ways that that makes a difference. We understand ourselves to be just a small part of what God is doing in the world. That is a shared belief, as is the belief that the full burden of violence against poor people is not ours. It is God’s, and we are only a small part of the answer.

That’s an unusual stance for a human rights organization. I think that is what makes it possible for our investigators and our social workers and our lawyers to do that work. Because without it, you would almost invariably feel great despair.

Q: How does your organization maintain itself at that large scope and scale?

IJM is enormous. We have about 18 overseas offices now. I found when I came to the organization that two things really stood out to me. One is the loving quality of the people that work there and the kindness and the shared faith and the extreme warmth of the staff.

Simultaneously, there is very, very high professionalism. It is all business. Gary, our boss, and everyone in the organization takes extremely seriously the stewardship of the resources which come from our donors and belong to God.

It is so fiercely devoted to its mission and mandate, and highly, highly professional. Every meeting starts on the dot. Everybody comes prepared for a meeting. Everyone wears a suit to work every single day -- every intern, everybody at all levels of the organization -- which I don’t usually see in the NGO world.

You get this combination of extremely effective, almost corporate culture, combined with this kindness and niceness and a lot of humor and a lot of good esprit de corps.

We have spiritual disciplines that we engage in. We’re all Christians, but we’re by no means all the same kind of Christians. I’m a sort of faux Catholic; I go to a Catholic church. I’m not Catholic, but my husband is.

Every morning for a half-hour is what we call “8:30 stillness.” We’re expected to be at work at 8:30. The doors are closed, and you do not start your day job. You spend that time in stillness or whatever spiritual disciplines you want.

Every day at headquarters, we break for prayer at 11 a.m. Everybody drops what they’re doing -- it’s a huge organization, 125 or so at headquarters -- and joins for a half-hour of corporate prayer.

It’s where we bring before God the things we need help on and that we desperately need prayer on: our difficult cases, someone’s family member being ill, all kinds of things. We also raise things that we want to praise God for, because we are witnesses to miracles every day. We do that every single day.

This is all quite deliberate, because Gary does not want to be a Christian organization in name only. He wants it to be a community of believers that lean on each other and that lean on God.

It’s been wonderful for me as a new believer. It took lots of getting used to. I was an atheist my whole adult life, and so this is all pretty much the deep end of the pool. But it is an absolutely wonderful discipline, and my own faith has grown greatly because of the privilege of being a part of it.

I would also mention that we’re overwhelmingly privately funded, and we have very generous donors. This is people’s treasure and their hearts. The vast majority, the bulk of the funding, comes from Christian foundations and Christians of means, and people of small means, too. They believe in us, and we want to be as effective as possible.

That comes from the top, and it saturates the organization. Symbolic things like everybody has to wear a dark suit to work may seem kind of silly, but it does keep you grounded in this serious business.

We know that our colleagues overseas in Guatemala or in India or Cambodia or Kenya -- we know that they’re going to court in their robes and in their business suits on behalf of people who are the poorest of the poor.

Gary Haugen is constantly saying that we wear the uniform of credibility on their behalf.

Q: It’s part of the shared mindset?

It’s a part of the office culture. When IJMers turn up in a meeting, they always look like they’re going to court. We make a lot of jokes about it back at headquarters.

The three aspects of IJM culture are we’re Christian, we’re professional and we’re bridge builders. It’s taught. Every new class of interns and new staff goes through a week of orientation and training, and these values are constantly reiterated.

It’s not just saying them once. It’s living them. It has to be led and learned, and IJM is very good at that.

Q: You’ve seen this institution grow from the beginning. What do you think are the keys to its growth and effectiveness?

The most important is that our president and founder and all of his leadership team have a very clear mission, and it is very well understood.

The mission is to rescue people who are abused and hurting and bring perpetrators to account and show the world that justice is possible for the poor. That’s what we do overseas, and everybody in the organization knows and is a part of that -- whether you’re answering phones on the front desk or whether you’re the vice president for government relations, which is my job.

I don’t go out to the field very often, but I really do feel that my job is contributing, and my team feels like they’re a part of what’s most precious to us, which is rescuing people from violence.

Everybody feels tied to that. Eleven o’clock prayer is a big part of that glue. But also Gary and the senior leadership team are constantly talking about ways that everybody understands their contribution to that mission.

I would say, second of all, it is that the leadership of IJM puts an enormous amount of effort into nourishing staff. There’s extremely good human relations and business practice. There are great HR procedures. We have very, very good leadership, and it’s not accidental.

Q: It sounds like there’s an interesting story about how you became a Christian leader.

Well, I think everybody’s story of how they came to faith is very precious and important. Mine is just probably odd.

I grew up in a Christian home -- very much so. My grandparents, whom I loved, were Mennonite missionaries in India. I was very close to my grandmother in particular.

I made a decision not to be a believer when my grandmother had a mental breakdown. I was 16 years old. She was in her 70s when my grandfather died, and she lost her faith through that experience. She had catatonic depression for a very long period of time. Then for the rest of her life, she had periodic recurring episodes of very, very deep depression.

I just couldn’t imagine that God could be real if he was not present to my beloved and sainted grandmother when she most needed God’s presence. All I knew was, “Well, enough of that nonsense,” and I just chucked it.

I stumbled into international human rights work in my first real job, which was for a congressman [now senator] from Iowa, Tom Harkin. I got to do [human rights] work with him and never left the field.

But I stayed a nonbeliever. I certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with the church -- none whatsoever. I’m very liberal. What I was seeing of the mainstream church in the Moral Majority era was not attractive to me.

I’m working in the field of the worst things people can do to each other -- genocide and rape and torture and disappearances and murder and cruelties. There was just nothing within my line of sight that gave me any reason to think that there was a good God that gave a damn about the world he had created.

I just didn’t have any reason to believe, but I was continually mentally shaking my fist at God for what I saw in the world.

Not in my own life; I had a nice husband I loved. We adopted two little girls. I was very happy, but I knew that this was just an accident. My prosperity and happiness was just simply nothing that I’d ever done to deserve and simply an accident of where I happened to be born.

Knowing full well that while I was falling in love with my two little adopted girls, moms in every other corner of the world were grieving the loss of theirs just didn’t make any sense to me.

What really started to change that was my association with Gary Haugen. We knew each other for 10 years. Even though he was a Christian and I was not, I really liked his vision of what he wanted to do in the world with his faith. I found him to be a person of great integrity, and I still do, and we had many, many talks over the many years.

He was employee No.1 [at IJM], and I saw his office in the basement of his little townhouse. Now he’s the president of a 550-person organization, and he’s still the same -- total integrity.

He’s funny and full of life, and he has this very strongly rooted belief that God hates injustice and that he has a plan for dealing with it on earth, and that plan is his people.

Gary is going to strain every sinew to do what he can to be part of that plan, but he also knows that it is God’s work to do and that we are just privileged to be a tiny part of it. I’ve come to believe that as well.

Q: Did that experience rekindle your childhood personal faith?

I wouldn’t say so, no. I would say that the example of IJM, which was people who believed in God and took seriously God’s words about injustice and acted on that belief, gave me a new way to think that it could actually be possible that there was a good God in a crappy world.

I heard it said once that you can either believe in a good and a sovereign God or you can believe in the Holocaust, but not both. I was on the Holocaust side of that spectrum.

I really came to see that there might be something, another piece to that terrible, terrible equation -- either God is good or the Holocaust -- and the third choice was that human beings did that, violently, violently contrary to what God wanted for his creation.

Gary would ask the question not, “Where was God during the Rwanda genocide?” for example, but, “Where were God’s people?”

It really started to help me dismantle my intellectual barriers against believing in God. I actually came to see that yes, this could be true. But I suppose the most authentic transformation is when you just feel God’s presence in your own life, which I’d never had before.

I wish I could say it was that Jesus and I had a nice conversation. That did not happen and has never happened. I’d like for it to happen. But I do pray to myself quietly. I’m not a very good pray-out-loud person, but I do pray for the Lord’s assistance and companionship.

When I first prayed, I felt like that prayer was answered, and I still do.