Crossing the Boundaries of Faith to Fight Poverty

08/29/2012 05:37 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Conflicts between religious and secular organizations have filled the news this year. From political ads to boycotts, religious viewpoints seem to be in opposition to secular positions. On both sides, the attitude can be one of mutual suspicion, with neither side willing to work toward common values or to seek understanding.

As the head of an organization that works with religious groups of other faiths as well as secular companies and governments, I think these conflicts ignore what we have in common to the peril of children and families sinking further into poverty. We don't always see eye to eye, but there is no reason why people of good will cannot partner with people of good faith.

Two Sundays ago, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel with Abed Ayoub, the CEO of Islamic Relief USA, and Caryl Stern, president and CEO of U.S. Fund for UNICEF. The panel was moderated by Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance. We gathered to discuss how faith-based and secular organizations can partner together to improve global health. Our discussion showed that despite (sometimes deep) disagreements, religious and secular organizations share a desire to help people around the world live healthy and productive lives. We can respect each others' differences while still partnering to achieve shared goals. In fact, while each member of the panel opposed the use of inducement or coercion in using aid to gain converts, we all agreed that faith-based organizations had a right to share their religious motivations with aid recipients in appropriate situations.

Bill Gates Sr. opened the session affirming the common ground religious and secular organizations share. "I've learned over the years that whether you are religious or not, if you are committed to helping fellow human beings, what connects us is much more important than what separates us." He said that two ideas -- a belief in the sanctity of every human being and a conviction that human effort can improve the world -- cross the boundaries of faith.

These two ideas result in shared goals among secular humanitarian organizations, governments and faith-based organizations. We all want children to grow up healthy, with access to education and future opportunities. We desire economic opportunities for parents. We work for women and girls to be empowered to make decisions affecting their lives.

Faith-based and secular organizations share common values in part because the individuals in them are motivated by faith or values, regardless of the type of organization we work in. Gary Darmstadt of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, asked the assembled group, "How many would say that there is a faith element to what you do regardless of whether you're with a faith-based or secular organization?" While audience members represented people from diverse organizational persuasions, nearly every hand among the 700 in attendance went up.

As a Christian, I like to say that the Christian faith is one that requires demonstration. All of us give testimony to something through the work that we do. In my work, I give testimony to the life and work of Jesus Christ and I have the desire to see children experience fullness of life because that is Christ's desire (see John 10:10). People of other faiths or with different values may have different motivations, but still seek to improve the well-being of children. Our common ground is valuing human life and giving people hope for the future. Far from causing harm, working with faith-based groups may not only be beneficial but essential to good development.

We can disagree with each other, yet we may still work together without expecting people of other faiths or no faith to compromise their values.

Faith-based organizations can play a unique role in development. About 90 percent of the world's population has a profoundly religious worldview. As a result, secular organizations may find it difficult to fully understand the issues in deeply religious communities. Religious leaders, whether they are Hindu or Buddhist, or Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, have tremendous influence. They have moral authority and the trust of community members. Organizations that can mobilize faith communities can begin to change behaviors. As Melinda Gates has pointed out, even with all the technology in the world, behavior change is essential for good development and good health practices to be embraced by a community.

Finally, a community's religious groups are the most sustainable. Long after the humanitarians have left, the mosque will still be there, the church will still be there, the synagogue will still be there, and the temple will still be there.

It is true that faith-based and secular organizations have their differences. Sometimes disagreements run deep. But we must learn to respect each other's differences. We should not ask religious groups to violate their beliefs. Yet, while nearly 21,000 children die everyday of largely preventable causes, we must not allow our differences to hinder our progress when the contributions of all are desperately needed.

If we respect one another's differences and recognize that with those various worldviews come important strengths, then we can break through impediments to accomplish the greater good. There is room for everyone in the fight against poverty and injustice. We can't afford to leave anyone on the sidelines.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 from 12-4 p.m. ET and 6-10 p.m. ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

Richard Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of The Hole in Our Gospel. Follow Stearns on Twitter @RichStearns.