How the radical heart of Jesus changed my own
World Vision CEO Claire Rogers’ personal story of faith transformed
World Vision Australia CEO Claire Rogers addressed the Sydney Prayer Breakfast gathering this morning. Below is an edited version of how she shared her testimony.
Let me tell you a story of an ordinary woman. I committed my life to Christ when I was nine years old. I put my hand up to run Christian groups at school, youth camps, coffee shops and beachside missions – and loved it all!
God took my ordinary life and gave it the most extraordinary shake.
I graduated from Melbourne University unsure of what my calling was. One thing I did know – that somehow, I wasn’t sure how, I wanted to change the world for the better.
So my life went on. I went to work at the ANZ bank. I became a wife, and a mother to a wonderful son and a daughter, and an active member of my church, all the while growing as corporate banker.
If I was the lead character in a novel, it would all look very safe and conventional. You’d only keep reading if you knew that something pretty crazy was about to happen to this woman – and you’d be right! God took my ordinary life and gave it the most extraordinary shake.
It began in 2016 when I got a tap on the shoulder. World Vision needed someone with the expertise to transform Australia’s best-known humanitarian agency to meet the new demands of the 21st century, as well as to find new ways to tell our story of community development with the world’s most vulnerable people, to the next generation.
This role, as CEO of World Vision Australia, I knew in my heart and in my guts, would be the job of a lifetime! And it is.
Right now, I am in the middle of an amazing, heartbreaking and thrilling adventure that’s turned my universe upside down, and transformed my personal faith on every level.
I went from being ANZ’s Head of Digital, in corporate suits and high heels, to sitting barefoot in a dusty field amongst the Samburu women of Kenya.
Those Samburu women dressed me in a beautiful white dress they’d sewed for me. They made brightly coloured earrings and put them in my ears. They took my hands and danced with me. And I felt like life itself was dancing with me. Like King David in the book of Samuel, wearing a special garment and dancing with all his might before the Lord.
Alongside those dancing companions, with their bright faces and laughter, I felt welcomed and accepted, and understood that I was part of a global community of human beings. That every child, woman and man, no matter what their creed or country, is my neighbour. And the words ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ which, like most Christians I’ve heard all my life, now ring with new urgency – like a bell in my heart.
I understand that God is changing my life, and renewing my faith by this intimate engagement with the challenges faced by the world’s most vulnerable people.
When I said yes to the job of changing World Vision, I didn’t guess how much World Vision would change me. I knew my Christian faith would become vital in a way that it’s never quite been before. This is an organisation that has challenging Christian work in its DNA.
Back in 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the Communists, thousands fled in unseaworthy boats. Stan Mooneyham, then president of World Vision US, was asked to do something about it. He thought it was too big a problem, but he agreed to pray.
He later said that: “Agreeing to pray was mistake number one. I couldn’t get the boat people out of my heart.”
Against all advice – including from the then CEO of World Vision Australia – Stan raised money for a rescue ship with a medical team, interpreters and a crew led by a naval veteran, and began saving lives. Soon other countries were embarrassed into action.
Following the radical heart of Jesus, Stan Mooneyham understood what it took to follow Christ.
But now I see Jesus as a leader with a radical heart.
My understanding of Jesus, since starting this work, has fundamentally shifted. Once, I saw him as a wise teacher and saviour – which of course he is. But now I see him as a leader with a radical heart.
If Christ was here today, I think He’d be found in the back blocks of Cambodia where ethnic minority Muslims are persecuted, or comforting the suicidal refugees on Manus Island. Or feeding the million Rohingya people eking out a painful and desperate existence on the slopes of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Christ’s boldness, courage and lack of care for how he would be perceived are clear from the New Testament stories, like the one of the Samaritan woman by the well.
This woman had three counts against her. One – she was from an ethnic community that no-one liked. Two – she was a woman. Three – she’d made a mess of her personal life and had been married five times. She was so ashamed she’d only come to the well in the heat of the day so she wouldn’t have to see or talk to anyone.
This figure resonates with me – she’s just like the people we work with. And what happened? Jesus spoke to her, and gave her hope.
There are answers to global poverty – it’s not all bad news!
Jesus walked with the marginalised, the lepers, the sick, the disabled, the women … the messy parts of community. I am learning to be an image bearer of this Jesus.
The first revelation of my new role was seeing for myself that there are answers to global poverty – it’s not all bad news!
In the world’s messiest and most fragile places, World Vision partners with local leaders to help them solve challenges in their communities, until that community is self-sustaining and ready for us to leave. It’s effective, compelling, and a cause for hope.
In the last 20 years, infant mortality has halved through the work of NGOs, including World Vision. And through the efforts of many, more than one billion people have been freed from extreme poverty since 1990.
The second revelation to my faith has been in getting to grips with the fact that there are almost 35 million children displaced around our world. As the mother to Lachie and Maddy, this terrible fact hit hard. Every child needs a place to call home.
Don’t focus on the inequity itself, but focus on what you can do about it.
This is the greatest humanitarian challenge of our age. The scale of the refugee crisis can feel paralysing, but here’s something Jesus has taught me in the past two and a half years: Don’t focus on the inequity itself, but focus on what you can do about it.
Last year, I was very proud to lead the Kids Off Nauru campaign which we began without any expectation of success. By Christmas, every one of those 130 children, and their families, had been liberated from Nauru.
The third revelation and transformer of my personal faith has been seeing the crisis in God’s creation. Recently, World Vision commissioned research on Australian millennials with Barna, that shows that 42% of millennials see Global Climate Change as one of the world’s greatest problems. The environments that humanitarians work in are getting messier, with more severe floods, droughts and natural disasters – with deadly consequences. Because climate change creates vulnerability, I believe that World Vision has an obligation to speak into it.
A few months ago I flew from London to Mozambique to assess the devastation left by Cyclone Idai. Driving through the Mozambican city of Beira was like seeing a recent apocalypse. Trees were uprooted. Houses and telephone poles were ripped up.
By emergency helicopter, I flew into communities where the faces of the children told stories I will never forget. This disaster affected more than a million people, killing about 1000 people across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It displaced 70,000, and left communities grappling with disease as they began the massive clean up.
Jesus joins us in the dirtiness and messiness and is comfortable with us there.
As I took in the mess I saw that this was the heart of our work at World Vision. We look for human dignity in the messiest places.
Like the dignity of Cecilia, a beautiful 14 year old who had lost everything – but the day I met her, someone had given her clean clothes.
Sometimes we sanitise Jesus. We see it in the pictures of the stable or how he engaged with the poor. Now I understand in a deeper way, that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hated, persecuted, abused and excluded – so much of what the vulnerable children we serve experience.
The birth, life and death of Jesus was not protected from the mess of this world. He was born in a stable, was driven into Egypt as a child refugee, spent his ministry with outcasts, and was degraded before dying on the cross. God has given us the answers.
Jesus joins us in the dirtiness and messiness and is comfortable with us there. It is where he went and where he would have us go.
When we go to the Rohingya who have been rejected and tortured, when we’ve been with the forgotten children of Syria. When we challenge child sacrifice, unjust incarceration on Manus and Nauru, female genital mutilation, and domestic violence. When we fight for early childhood care for indigenous Australian children. That’s when we do messy Jesus.
By taking on this role, I’ve given my imperfect heart to continuing this mission of being an image bearer of radical messy Jesus.
That said, I am just an ordinary woman. When it comes down to it, we’re all just ordinary people. But if we are open to it, God gives every one of us opportunities to have extraordinary impact.
Since taking on this role, I have sat with feelings of being overwhelmed, or ashamed of my wealth, opportunity and access. But Jesus has taught me through engaging with the woman at the well that I need to simply follow his lead and do what I can to bring hope to a socially outcast, resource-poor woman like her, who was transformed by her experience of Jesus.
I encourage you from the bottom of my heart, don’t be distracted by the size of the problems. Focus on what we together can do to bring hope and justice to a broken world.