Q&A: Service leader sees ‘imperative for action’

The Rev. John L. McCullough speaks after receiving the United Methodist Council of Bishops 2012 Ecumenical Award on May 1 during the denomination’s General Conference in Tampa, Fla. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE BY PAUL JEFFREY

The Rev. John L. McCullough is executive director and CEO of the humanitarian agency Church World Service, whose “member communions” include the UMC and 35 other groups. At the recent General Conference, the Council of Bishops honored him with its quadrennial Ecumenical Award.

Mr. McCullough, an ordained UM elder, became CWS’s leader in 2000. He oversees an $82 million budget and initiatives dealing with hunger, refugees, emergency relief and more. He answered questions by email from managing editor Sam Hodges.

Would you sketch the early history of Church World Service, including the CROP walks?

CWS traces its origin to a grassroots ecumenical movement in the aftermath of World War II, recognizing the urgent need for humanitarian response. In 1946, people of good faith and compassion organized their churches and communities to provide immediate material resource assistance distributed first to Europe and later to Asia. This collaboration became known as CROP (Christian Rural Overseas Program).

Because of the proliferation of aid agencies stemming from the beginning of the 1940s, Church World Service was organized to be the coordinating agency for churches, in which issues could be discussed, and decisions agreed to and carried out. CROP volunteers organized boxcars filled with farm commodities and clothing, which were loaded onto Friendship Trains and transported across country. Then CROP Friendship Food Ships delivered them to post-WWII Europe. CWS organized for refugees that traveled on the return voyage of the ships, and immediately began its resettlement activity.

Finally, given the complexities of the situation, CWS organized public policy efforts in Washington to compel the government to give more attention to human needs. In the 1960s CWS organized the CROP Hunger Walk as the original community fundraising event in the United States.

What are the focus areas in 2012?

As a global ecumenical organization, CWS specializes in development and humanitarian assistance, immigration and refugee services, justice and human rights, mission and theology. Headquartered in NYC, the agency has primary offices in Bangkok, Belgrade, Buenos Aires, Elkhart (Ind.), Hanoi, Islamabad, Jakarta, Miami, Nairobi, Phnom Phen, Vientiane, and Washington, D.C.

CWS works with partners to eradicate hunger and poverty and to promote peace and justice around the world. Focus areas include helping communities improve food and nutrition security as well as access to water for all, helping women and children gain better access to quality education, achieving durable solutions for displaced people, and assisting crisis-affected households to meet basic needs and progress towards recovery and rehabilitation.

Are you biting off more than you can chew, and do you worry that your name—especially “Service”—is so vague that it causes identity problems?

There is an imperative for action. Hunger impacts more than 1 billion people worldwide, and more than 178 million malnourished children. This just is not acceptable. There are more than 155 million displaced people worldwide, and 15.4 million are refugees. Forty-nine percent are women, and of the 47 percent that are children, 11 percent are under the age of five. It is evident why CWS specially focuses on service to women and children. These are huge global issues, but today we can achieve lasting progress and we must not miss this opportunity.

CWS participates in coalitions like the ACT Alliance and the President’s recently announced New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition as ways to expand its capacity to meet its mission.

There is enough food that no one should go hungry, enough water that no one should thirst, and enough love and resolve to support all children in reaching their potential. Everyone has the right to peace with justice and a place to call home.

Much of your funding now comes from the federal government, for refugee resettlement work. How have events of recent years, including 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, affected what you do in that area? And from which countries are you resettling the most refugees these days?

Since 1946 CWS has helped resettle more than 500,000 persons and families in communities all across the United States. CWS also provides direct service in other global regions such as along the Thai Burma border and Pakistan. The tragedy of 9/11, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the wars on terrorism significantly influence refugee admissions to the United States. CWS has learned to adapt to uncertainty. CWS has also increased its advocacy work and is a leading voice on public policy issues like immigration reform and protection.

Refugees come from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Cuba, Haiti, Sudan, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Burma, Bosnia and Iraq.

Some observers say we’re in a post-denominational age, and it’s clear that the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations have been shrinking in membership and worship attendance. What does that mean for Church World Service, and have you tried to reach out to independent churches?

CWS works with all churches that share the common mission to eradicate hunger and poverty, and promote peace and justice. Our strategic vision includes working with churches based outside the United States.

Recognizing changing demographics of membership, CWS actively engages these churches to understand how it can add value to their global mission work.

Church World Service has recognized climate change as a key area of concern. Do you have any doubts about the reality of climate change, and what is Church World Service trying to do about it?

Eroding coast lines, salination of fresh water sources, prevalence of irregular rainy seasons, failing harvests and statements of government leaders detailing the effects on local populations are sufficient evidence that climate change is not merely theoretical. In response, CWS is accounting for and reducing its global greenhouse gas emissions, assessing climate change risks affecting programs and beneficiaries, and speaking boldly on issues of sustainability.

You’ve been a pastor in Kenya and have traveled across Africa on behalf of Church World Service. How would you summarize what most encourages and discourages you about the state of things on that continent?

I am more encouraged than discouraged. There is growing evidence of good governance, awareness of the social contract to care for the poor, more collaboration with civil society, the infusion of newer technologies, and an emerging middle class. These are relevant to what CWS values as the dignity of all persons and the possibility of self-sufficiency.

At the same time, I remain concerned that rural livelihood is sustained as a viable option, and rural development becomes an accelerated priority. Urban areas are growing exponentially, but there are not enough jobs or housing to sustain these populations. Rural development can be crushed by the weight of urbanization.

Many U.S. churches take mission trips to Africa. Do you think that’s a good thing, or should congregations work through nonprofits and church agencies?

Hands-on experience is beneficial for most everyone so it’s not an either/or proposition. There are some things that congregational mission teams do very well. They certainly can be great ambassadors and foster understanding and relationships in ways few others can. Development, however, is a longer term process, and that is where an agency like CWS is important. Congregational mission should intentionally complement the larger and longer term strategy and not necessarily claim separate origin. The church is an extremely powerful instrument of transformation and change, but its strongest position is working as a collective. Agencies like CWS do not have the capacity to accommodate mission teams, but that does not prevent the opportunity for collaboration, planning and sharing of resources towards common goals.

How does your Wesleyan background inform your work?

John Wesley found early in his ministry that there is a strong correlation between poverty and perfection. It was at the heart of how he read the gospel and shared the good news of Jesus Christ. That same correlation persists today. It is important to acknowledge and honor a lifestyle of poverty when it is a choice. On the other hand, the perfection of our faith can only be achieved when all of the world’s inhabitants have the opportunity to experience the abundance in which God created humankind. Wesley has taught me to be relentless in the pursuit of that opportunity.

What did it mean to you to receive the UMC Council of Bishops’ ecumenical leadership award?

It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by one’s own church. This recognition came as an unexpected light cast upon my call to ministry, and as a refreshing moment of affirmation, encouragement and accompaniment.

Is there a word of advice that you, as a UM pastor who has worked with many other religious groups, would share with the UMC as it tries to deal with declining numbers in the U.S., growth elsewhere, and divisions that became clear at the recent General Conference?

Ecumenical and interfaith work has introduced me to so many wonderful and vibrant people. Literally, they are like a mosaic of humanity and my life is enriched as a result. Clearly all of us do not see the world through the same lens, our theology differs as do politics, values and culture. I have heard similar stories of decline and division, and that is also true within ecumenism.

We are all part of the same fabric of creation, and I have as well seen the evidence of God’s continuing creative activity. However difficult our differences may be, it is to our advantage to understand that it is in the quality of how we discuss the issues that we are able to discern God’s leading. Disagreement isn’t reason for inaction. Trust in the good intentions of others, and in God’s ability to work out the details that we cannot see, is cause for moving forward.

Finally, is there a particular Bible verse, story or character that you draw on for strength and inspiration?

One of my favorites is: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” [Hebrews 13:5-6]


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