An evangelical and a Catholic leader disavowed proselytism as they advocated witnessing to their faith recently at a global conference on the relationship between Muslims and Christians.
Building trust between Christians and Muslims requires transparency, not secrecy, Parham observes.
"The employees of Catholic Relief Services do not proselytize—ever—period. We are organizationally inspired by our faith. But we let our actions do the talking," said Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services.
David Robinson, senior advisor for World Vision International, said, "We have instituted policies that prohibit proselytism and we train our staff … to respect those of other faiths and not engage in any type of religious manipulation."
Hackett and Robinson were panelists at Georgetown University's "A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change" conference, the fourth such "Common Word" gathering.
Based on the shared belief in love for God and love for neighbor, Muslim and Christian leaders and scholars have held similar meetings at Yale University, the University of Cambridge and the Vatican.
Both Catholic Relief Services and World Vision have programs in majority Islamic countries.
"We walk like any other NGO [non-governmental organization] and often times we talk like any other NGO," said Hackett. "But many of us, who are faith-based organizations, are fundamentally different because we are organizations with a faith tradition that structures us and it orients our motivations and our values because those values … come from our traditions and scriptures."
Hackett said, "I would contend that fundamental faith identity for organizations offers far more opportunities for collaboration in the Islamic world than the secular organizations that might be similar."
He urged faith-based NGO leaders to be "clear and loud about who you are as an organization and the values that you hold. I find that people respect that we clearly and consistently abide by the moral teachings of our faith."
Acknowledging that his organization was rooted in Catholic social teachings related to the special option for the poor, he stressed that faith-based organizations working abroad must have respect for other religions.
"[I]t is important not to be aggressive and to flaunt one's religious identity," said Hackett.
He added during the roundtable discussion: "Be clear and very direct about who you are and what you believe. There are organizations that kind of try to hide themselves a little bit, are not transparent in who they are and what they intend to do."
Robinson, too, underscored the need for transparency, noting that "we are very upfront about who we are and how we operate."
"Our first and primary core value is that we are Christian. Our faith in Jesus motivates us to follow his example to serve the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God's unconditional love for all people," said Robinson, who works in Islamic countries.
World Vision does not and will not "use the power of our size or resources in humanitarian response and development to coerce, induce, discriminate or manipulate. World Vision's work is unconditional," said Robinson.
"The very act of obedience in following Jesus' commandment is a witness to our love for him … When our staff are asked why we are doing it, we will answer that we are doing it in response out of love and obedience to our Lord," he said. "Now that is a witness to our faith. That is not proselytism."
A signatory to the code of conduct of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, World Vision works in 20 majority Muslim countries, where the organization employs Muslim staff members.
World Vision focuses on saving lives in emergencies, empowering people to be owners of their own development and seeking justice to protect the most vulnerable, said Robinson.
Building trust between Christians and Muslims requires transparency, not secrecy.
Is it not rather odd that in the age of Google some American Christian organizations think they can trick government officials and local citizens in foreign countries into believing they are not really Christians or not really proselytizing? Does that American Christian mindset reflect the worn-out colonial attitude that "the natives" aren't really smart enough to know what's going on?
The answer to both rhetorical questions is "Of course!"
Yet some Christian organizations continue to think that the ends of conversion justify any means—concealment or manipulation or taking advantage of folk during an emergency.
Catholic Relief Services and World Vision offer a better way forward. Truth beats deception every time. Walk trumps talk. Transparency trounces secrecy.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.