A Discussion with Christo Greyling, Director of Faith Partnerships for Development at World Vision

With: Christo Greyling Berkley Center Profile

February 17, 2015

Background: Christo Greyling is something of a force of nature, with boundless energy, hope, and visions for a better future. Under his leadership, World Vision is building a “Channels of Hope” approach that works with and through local communities and primarily in alliance with religious actors. Originally focused on HIV and AIDS, the Channels of Hope program is developing into a broader five-part worldwide program that also deals with maternal health, child protection, gender relations, and Ebola. In this skype conversation with Katherine Marshall on February 17, Greyling began by discussing World Vision’s swift mobilization to support Ebola programs in Sierra Leone and beyond. He elaborated on the Channels of Hope program overall, as well as increasingly utilizing World Vision's “sweet spot” by integrating work with local faith communities into its development efforts. The interview also covers how he came to this work through a path of theology studies and work as a reverend, living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa, and building new programs to address stigma and to build hope.

World Vision is working in West Africa to address the Ebola epidemic. What does the work involve?

This is a new program, very new. We are working in Sierra Leone, the only one of three main Ebola affected countries where World Vision has been active. Our effort focuses on responding to the crisis facing communities in Sierra Leone and, worldwide, on preparedness. We are working with various research partners, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. We are supporting the community preparedness in advance of the Ebola vaccine trials roll-out in Sierra Leone. Now the new Channels of Hope for Ebola is part of World Vision’s Ebola programs. This is a curriculum that we developed quickly to respond to the Ebola crisis. This forms part of the Channels of Hope Program that has run for over a decade. There is a heck of a lot of work to be done.

As I heard about the Ebola epidemic from the spring of 2014 it was frustrating because on the one hand it was initially a purely medical response which did not take into account that the people in these areas are deeply religious, and that a lot of the reasons why people rejected the health measures were due to deep-seated cultural and religious practices. To make it worse, there was also clearly some bad theology going around. There was preaching about this Ebola thing as a judgment from God that would disappear if people would humble themselves and pray. There were places where pastors were continuing to lay hands on people, saying they act in faith, and that by laying on hands they demonstrate the power of God to heal and to protect them from infection. These are issues that are at the heart of the Channels of Hope program. It uses interactive ways to help faith leaders to understand scripture correctly, through a careful reading, and to connect this with the best of science to bear in ways that communities can appreciate. That is part of what we are doing in Sierra Leone.

In many respects we got started quite late and in a somewhat chaotic fashion. World Vision Sierra Leone was heavily involved in the Ebola response from early on. While most of the U.S. and Europe were on leave, Dave Robinson and I were really concerned about what was happening in Sierra Leone. We felt something needed to be done which will help the faith communities to respond appropriately. Our first response was just to ask CABSA (The NGO who holds the copyright to Channels of Hope HIV) to help us. Lyn van Rooyen and I put together a four-page document which just translated the basic facts into a language faith leaders can relate to easily. We sent this to our team in Sierra Leone, but they were so swamped with the immediate needs on the ground that they did not give us feedback for a number of weeks. The next thing we heard was that they were already running workshops with the materials we had sent. These were within the communities where World Vision previously already did the Christian-Muslim combined version of Channels of Hope HIV, and this was followed up with the interfaith training which Dave Robinson and Chawkat Moucarry did in these communities. So this created great positive interfaith relations which made it easy to bring Christian and Muslim leaders together on Ebola. They had workshops where pastors were going into mosques and imams into churches. With only that document and the available prevention messages, they already called this “Channels of Hope for Ebola.” Our question was how we could help to make this better.

When we appreciated the magnitude of what was happening we mobilized rapidly but that was really only from October 2014. The first training was done without us there due to the quarantine restrictions. So we recorded videos on cell phones and webcams for the trainers to see how we propose the different sessions needs to be done. We are now running full tilt, in a massive ramp-up stage in collaboration with a number of other partner organizations. But we are in many ways designing the airplane while it is already in the air. We still have to see what the impact of this will be. We held a training of facilitators a few weeks ago in Dakar (where Dave Robinson from World Vision has been working since August). Five more training of facilitators events are happening in the next three weeks. We expect to have 130 new facilitators before the end of March. The Christian and Muslim trained facilitators will be paired up to do workshops in the communities. Each participant to the CoH Ebola workshop gets a workbook that has all the information they need to know. They also receive a flip file which they can use in small groups to share right messaging.

All the Channels of Hope workshops have common themes; It always starts with where the people are, so in this case “Ebola and me,” and then it goes towards the scientific part of “more than the basics.” Where vaccine trials are concerned we go into more detail, for example explaining how the immune system works. We then bring in the heart stuff called "Living with realities.” This is a key element where a person of faith who has been directly affected tells their own story, sharing what went well, and what did not. Then we focus on strategies for prevention and care, but the whole time the trained facilitators link the participants back to the Christian and Muslim guiding principles that form the backbone to which we measure our response. They are then also linked to existing health and community responses so that they faith community do not re-invent the wheel, but also know where they can go to for expert advice.

World Vision’s Channels of Hope Ebola program more broadly (now the fifth part of the Channels of Hope program) combines both an emergency and development approach. In preparedness countries, like Senegal and Mali, we are working to provide information so that we don’t have a panic response in the case of an outbreak.

With global press focusing these days on destructive images of radicalized religion, we need to demonstrate how faith leaders, who have been catalyzed and equipped, can play an essential and positive role. In the case of Ebola, we need to stand up for what is right. We need to be there. World Vision is present in Sierra Leone, working on community mobilization and on the key issues of safe and dignified burials. We are less focused than others on the clinical side, more on the community response and specifically children in crisis. There are huge needs for child protection. The challenges of rebuilding communities and rebuilding community health systems are there and is the focus looking ahead.

Have you been able to reach the smaller churches? Leaders of traditional religion?

We have good links to the large number of small Pentecostal churches which are normally hard to reach. As to leaders who are totally traditional, I will also want to know if the fetish priests and Poro group leaders, etc were reached and how they responded. They are very influential in both Christian and Muslim communities. This is worth looking into further.

World Vision puts much emphasis on the Channels of Hope program. Can you explain exactly what it involves and how it came to be?

The central idea of the Channels of Hope program, which is also central to World Vision’s contemporary work and approach overall, is to incorporate the faith dimension of our identity in a positive way. We are very clear about our Christian identity, and it has been part of World Vision from the very beginning, but we have learned over the past decade how to consciously and effectively utilize that Christian identity to permeate our development work. The Channels of Hope program is grounded deeply in our core mission, which is to work with most vulnerable children and poorest of the poor, and in our commitment to working in partnership with communities.

World Vision has historically worked through area development programs which consists of an area of about 20,000 to 40,000 people. In South Africa, for example, we will choose the poorest of the poor areas, where the least number of NGOs are working. In those communities, we go through a process that involves a whole discussion with the community. We share who we are, the community identify the main issues of concern, and then they discuss how and what we can do together. World Vision’s main role is that of a facilitator. The focus is on working with the whole community, in a way that will ensure that the community owns it. And in this we recognize that the faith community, both Christian and other faiths, is an integral part of the community.

These faith communities often serve as the gatekeepers, and if they feel that they do not agree with messages that come from the government of NGOs, they will resist these messages. Adding to our understanding is an appreciation that there can be cultural and religious practices that might be harmful. A result of both faith plus cultural and religious practices may be that messages (developed by the government or by outside groups) don't get through or that they are poorly adapted to the realities of the communities.

Channels of Hope does not want to replace any of these groups but comes alongside, and works to help faith leaders to understand the messages. The goal is to understand how a broad vision, sound theological understanding, scientific knowledge, and people’s understanding can come together so that a lot of change processes can happen. The groups can then become positive voices of change and can help to remove barriers, and work to correct some of these harmful cultural and religious practices. The faith leaders are then partners, messages can be positive, and the process can turn areas of concern into positives. And thus the community can reach its aspirations for the wellbeing of its children.

How has the Channels of Hope program developed over the years?

The Channels of Hope program now has five parts. It started with our work with HIV, and grew from a program I developed in South Africa together with CABSA. As a church leader living with HIV, I believed that the church should be at the heart of the response to HIV and AIDS, but I also saw how wrong perceptions can lead to stigma and judgement. Our early efforts to support communities where HIV prevalence was high led us to a deepening understanding of the vulnerability of women and children, from stigma as well as direct consequences of disease, and from there to an appreciation of the gender dimensions. We saw a need to address gender issues in more detail, and worked to use the principles of the HIV model to create a model specifically looking at the issue of gender inequality. We saw that many attitudes and behaviors (applied both to HIV and to gender relations) grew from an incorrect understanding of scripture. We began to focus more and more on the family, and on the quality of gender relations within the family, and on gender based violence. That in turn led us to focus on maternal health and on the newborn child. Originally these two Channels of Hope curricula were implemented separately, but we then and more recently saw how HIV programming became deprioritized even in areas with a high HIV prevalence. We also realized that some areas such as West Africa have a low HIV prevalence, but a huge need in terms of Malaria, nutrition and hygiene. So now we have a modular approach to address the needs within different countries. We have integrated HIV into the maternal and newborn health content for HIV high prevalence contexts, and West Africa for example could swap content about water, TB, HIV, and child protection. The Channels of Hope for Child Protection uses the same modular approach to address the different child protection issues around the world. There are so many issues that make children vulnerable—anything from female genital mutilation to early marriage, physical and emotional abuse. Many of these issues are deeply related to religious beliefs and practices.

So what we have come to is five main issues area that all center around children. Each of the issues areas involves the same basic set of approaches and interventions, centered on the community approach I described, whether they involve an issue like HIV and AIDS or trafficking. What's important to know is that our work is more effective in the long run when we partner, rather than 'go it alone.' That means we work often quite closely with a surprising variety of players. That includes many government departments, other NGOs, and of course both Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches committed to the well-being of children. In some cases it even includes Muslim organisations. We don't always agree on methods but we agree on putting children first.

You have expressed concerns about sharpening the focus on evidence and its quality. What kinds of evidence and for what?

A major concern that I have at present is around evidence, evidence in a form that will help us to see where we should be going. There are standardized development indicators for most development issues such as maternal mortality, HIV, stunting etc. But there are no standardized indicators related to the role of faith in development. Globally there has been a growing interest in this aspect, but we need sound evidence to show that working with local churches and faith communities can enhance development outcomes. We need, in addition to the normal kinds of monitoring and evaluation, an understanding of the sensitive faith issues, so that the right questions can be asked. We also want to move to understandings that can contribute to discussions with and understanding by the local communities we work with. We have had very little evidence about what difference it really makes when a community engages with something like the Channels of Hope program. We have done a heck of a lot of work to this end over the last year. We have worked to develop tools and a field guide, and have moved with rigor to elaborate a theory of change, monitoring and evaluation indicators, detailed data collection sheets, to define terminology, etc. We have undertaken a four-country review on Channels of Hope Gender (including Zimbabwe and Zambia) with Groningen University and with Oikos, both here in the Netherlands, with funding from the Dutch development agency.

What we need now, however, is not so much a review of operations but a more well-designed operations research. I am thankful that I think we are now getting there! We have recently been awarded a research grant from the Templeton Foundation, that will focus on Kenya and Ghana. It will take the Channels of Hope approach, focusing now on healthy timing and spacing of pregnancy and family planning, in two sites, both of them multi faith. The idea is basically to compare a “normal” situation where only the normal health programming is applied and another where the Channels of Hope approach is applied together with the health programming, and see if there are distinctive changes in uptake of services, reduction of stigma and resistance to new ideas, and so forth.

How did you come to join World Vision?

That’s a story in itself! When I first joined World Vision in 2002, I was the HIV advisor for South Africa and Lesotho. This was part of World Vision’s Hope Initiative, which was the organization’s global response to HIV. In my years before I joined World Vision, I lead an AIDS awareness programme in South Africa. Initially it focused on peer education, but I was later asked to adapt to assist faith communities. In the meantime we started
CABSA to support Christian churches with their HIV response. Before I joined World Vision, I handed over the copyright ownership of Channels of Hope to CABSA.

When I joined World Vision, I obviously started to use this approach in South Africa and Lesotho. World Vision was really excited to have access to a tool that can work closely with churches. So it was not long before World Vision fully adopted the program, and signed a license agreement with CABSA to utilize Channels of Hope. It then moved beyond Southern Africa, to other African countries. I basically took that on. Then in 2005, we took the program globally, and in 2007 did the Muslim adaptation with Sheikh Ali Banda and Islamic Relief South Africa. In 2010 we began to add new Channels of Hope curricula beyond HIV and AIDS. In 2008 they asked me to become director for HIV and infectious disease, thus taking me away from Channels of Hope specifically, to a bigger picture. But when Logy Murray retired in 2013 I felt a deep seated calling to go back to leading Channels of Hope. I believe in the powerful influence churches and faith communities can have in their communities. I have witnessed powerful transformations of faith leaders who moved from extreme judgment and blame to ones who speak out with conviction with a language of acceptance and support. So, I took back the role to lead the Channels of Hope team, and so essentially they gave me back my passion! We are now about five years down the line with that broader program. I moved to the Netherlands as a more central location for a global endeavor. Channels of Hope for HIV was implemented in some 51 countries, moving beyond Southern Africa. Now with the addition of the new Channels of Hope curricula, the potential is there to go even beyond that.

To give an idea of scale we have set ourselves the goal to reach 485,000 participants in some 14,000 workshops by 2018. I do not see that we do this alone! Increasingly other organizations such as Islamic Relief Worldwide and CORDAID are becoming implementing partners of Channels of Hope. This is very important to me that this tool will be a tool of transformation that can be utilized by others to benefit so many of the most vulnerable people in the world. Looking back on where this all began, I feel very, very small.

I have a dual reporting arrangement to both the faith in development team and to the health team. In this I am part of the so called global center team which involves quite a small team of people. We work very much in a virtual model. Most of World Vision’s staff (the estimate of 44,000 is not far off) are working in the countries where we operate. Country offices develop their own strategies and program approaches in which they will then utilize different programs to address their strategic approaches. We are seeing more and more that Channels of Hope gets to be selected as one of the core approaches to work with churches and faith communities, alongside other sectoral programs. And that is how Channels of Hope should be used. It is best not to use it in isolation, but as an essential program component to address the key development issues. There are teams for the main sectors—child development and rights, gender, child protection, sustainable health, water, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, maternal and newborn care. Emergencies and Christian commitment have special teams.

How is the program funded?

Until now most of the Channels of Hope implementation was funded with funding that was raised through child sponsorship. Remarkably, we are increasingly seeing grant applications get approved that include Channels of Hope. It is very interesting that the European Union has recently approved quite a number grants which included Channels of Hope. This is remarkable because they traditionally were hesitant to fund work with faith communities. But they are increasingly seeing that the Channels of Hope program is working to help local communities and address barriers to the success of programs. The EU funding is now being used in countries like Burundi, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu.

What does the Christian commitment involve?

That is a very interesting question. World Vision is very clear and up front about the fact that we are a Christian organization. The Christian Commitment group is the group that helps World Vision to put that into practice, and to make sure that we maintain our Christian identity. We realize that we should not only protect or our Christian identity, but that we should utilize our faith identity in a positive way. We need to continue to do high quality professional development work but then also realize that our faith identity enables us to work across denominational and confessional boundaries in the widest sense of the word. But even wider than that, because of relations of trust we can even work with faith communities beyond those that are Christian, and still maintain our Christian identity. So, the Christian Commitments group are also training staff in interfaith sensitization, and in implementing programs which enables the spiritual nurture of children in whatever faith context that child may be in.

How does World Vision today address the issue of proselytizing? My understanding is that the position has changed quite sharply and that it is not without controversy.

World Vision does not engage in proselytizing. It is integral to our policies that we do not proselytize. Our work is to bring faith leaders alongside our mission for the well-being of children and not to convert.

There is indeed a history and World Vision has grown tremendously in this regard. It started as a deeply evangelical Christian organization whose founder Bob Pierce preached the gospel in Korea and China and helped orphans and other vulnerable children. It changed later to a multi-denominational Christian organization that felt called to go the most difficult places in the world including majority other faith countries. Working as we do in different contexts we have to help our donor base to understand and honor who we are, that we do not do this work or go to those places to proselytize. That is why we have a Muslim version of Channels of Hope, presented by Muslim sheikhs. Does that mean that we lose our identity? No! As Francis of Assisi said, preach
and if necessary, use words. Our witness lies in the fact that we are there where support is needed, even if the presentation is a Muslim one conducted by a Muslim imam. Our witness is that we are concerned about your children. That is what we stand for. For some people this may be a big mind shift. And that is what I celebrate. We are ready to be upfront in our Christian identity.

But to go back to your personal story, why did you study theology in the first place, and how did you come to work with World Vision?

When I was growing up in South Africa, and was about to go to university, I was pulled in two quite different directions; I wanted to be a either a meteorologist or I could follow my personal calling to study theology and become a reverend. In the very end the calling was bigger than the scientific interest. So I went to the University of Stellenbosch to study theology. But I always said to friends in my class that I did not want to be a normal reverend. I wanted to work with youth and do fun stuff in church, like drama and music. I always knew that God has an excellent sense of humor. But the path he intended for me was kind of different from what I expected.

I was in my pre-final year in the seminary when I got the diagnosis that I was HIV positive. It came as a complete shock (see the story I wrote for my daughter here). I was a haemophiliac from birth, with regular treatments and suddenly I got this diagnosis. HIV and AIDS still seemed far from Africa at the time, and I had no thought that this was an issue or a risk. At the time it came as a death sentence, just as my life was beginning.

The Dutch Reformed Church, and essentially most of my theological class was a very conservative community. I did not know how they would react if they were to get to know that I was living with HIV, especially as a reverend. My wife knew that I was HIV positive before we were married, but no one else in my church community knew.

I always felt that I did not want to wake up ill before I had used my HIV status in a positive way. I wanted to help people to come to terms with HIV and AIDS and the issues of stigma, even if it would cause some media chaos. I took some time to decide to be open about my status. After I was ordained I first worked as an announcer and producer or Christian radio programs with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation. After that I became a reverend in a Dutch Reformed congregation in Windhoek. This is when I had my first AIDS diagnosis, five years after I was diagnosed with HIV. I had a conversation with someone in the leadership of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa about HIV and an idea for a program, and they answered dismissively that there was no one in the church who was or could be HIV positive. I had proposed establishing a ministry on HIV. This was in 1990. On May 15, 1991, I made a public announcement during a Sunday service that I was HIV positive. This did cause quite a media circus. I was so thankful for my media experience with my time with radio industry. It must have been about the same time that Canon Gideon Byamugisha, in Uganda, made the same announcement—a black African further north, and a white guy in southern Africa—God at work. But the church was not ready to take on the issue.

As the Bible says, if you don’t speak, the very stones will cry out. In this case the stones prove to be an insurance company. I spoke to a guy in Namibia who was the country director for Old Mutual, a huge company. I was seeking slides that they had prepared to train their staff in HIV and AIDS. I needed a tool. His answer was totally unexpected. He was looking for a worthwhile program and I fitted his need exactly. And so we worked together. As a secular organization he offered me and my wife, Liesel, the chance to develop the program, "I have Hope." It addressed AIDS awareness in school, with peer education and, increasingly, training of youth leaders. He asked me what my dream was. I answered that it was a one stop center where faith leaders could go to get information and training. I saw the need for church leaders, leaders within the church, to take the message further. They could come and share their experience as well as their hopes and fears at that center. We moved ahead in that direction. By this time it was the year 2000.

The “I have Hope” program did fantastically well. At that time HIV AIDS programs were getting underway and the NRASD (National Religious Association for Social Development) challenged me to write content into a version of their program that would relate to interfaith. It would involve training, from the Baha’i, to the traditional, to the Catholic, all in the same room. We started with the Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa (CABSA). I also began traveling and speaking at AIDS conferences, sharing my experience in doing peer education. We were working with the Department of education and the department of health, on life skills. I began to get some reaction, some pushback—but what is your health background? What do you know? What does a reverend know about HIV and AIDS and about public health?

I was lucky and got a fellowship with the Bristol Myers Secure the Future Foundation. I was one of a very few white guys selected and went to study public health at MEDUNSA (the Medical University of South Africa), which was the old Apartheid university for black medical students. It was an excellent experience. I had a pretty good background; my parents were activists against Apartheid. But it was quite different to study and form friendships with people who had lived on the other side of the railroad. In any event I got my masters in public health. So I had the language to understand faith as well as public health.

I was busy writing assignments on September 11, 2001 when the airplanes hit the towers. It unfolded in front of my eyes on CNN. Despite the turmoil I was to meet that evening with donors who I had hoped would be willing to fund the activities of CABSA and their Churches, Channels of Hope program. I realized the events of the day might be very upsetting to these donors from the USA who was flying out the next day. As I was going out my wife handed me a CV, just in case. During the meeting they grilled me on everything, including my vision, what we were doing, and what I wanted for CABSA. On the way out, a guy (Milton Amayun) who had grilled me especially hard asked me if I happened to have a CV with me. Thanks to my wife, I did. Eventually I was appointed within World Vision. I have been with World Vision since 2002.

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