Photo courtesy Word Made Flesh
On the side of hope
Under the leadership of Chris Heuertz, Word Made Flesh pursues its innovative mission with the most vulnerable of the world’s poor.
October 13, 2009 | Chris Heuertz’s body is in Omaha, but his mind is in Peru.
The international executive director of Word Made Flesh is facing one of the many unexpected challenges that come with running a mission organization with a presence in eight countries and 107 people on its payroll.
“Sorry the office is sort of somber today,” Heuertz said. Normally the mood in the Word Made Flesh office is buoyant, as befits an organization intent on remaking the world. “One of our community in Peru has cancer.”
Questions to consider:
- Heuertz speaks about how his past has informed his present calling and his understanding of vocation. How has your past done the same for you?
- Word Made Flesh has made befriending the poor an end in itself. Have you made befriending those whom your organization serves a priority?
- Heuertz has found surprising gifts within himself for his present work. What gifts -- known or unknown -- has your work called forth from you?
- What would it mean in your life and in your institutional work to “fail forward?” How might this change your usual response to failure or difficulty?
Heuertz learned that the woman in Peru needs $9,000 for her hospital bills in order to leave the country. Hoping to fly her to Stanford University for treatment, Heuertz was on the phone trying to reach people in his network who might help.
The exchange reveals a lot about Heuertz and Word Made Flesh. The ill woman is not an employee or even a fellow missionary; she’s a community member. Heuertz has responded as befits a genuine church that stretches around the globe.
Heuertz, 37, both leads and embodies the organization. As part of the “new friars” movement, WMF models its radical way of life on saints Frances and Clare with their rejection of wealth, personally risky enactment of peace and embrace of the poor.
Rejecting the idea that missionaries bring salvation and services to benighted poor people, WMF has learned from Christian tradition that the poor are Jesus. Word Made Flesh missionaries -- or “Fleshies,” as they sometimes call themselves -- do not necessarily seek to fix poverty or to convert people. Their first intention is to seek friendship with the poor. And through that they seek, with their friends, to be converted anew to God.
Its ministries include a community care center in a red light district in El Alto, Bolivia; a program for women in the sex trade in India to turn saris into art; homes for formerly abused and neglected girls and widows in Kathmandu, Nepal; an agency to help with micro-loans and home construction in Lima, Peru; and physical therapy for disabled people in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Ministries such as these are not original. What is original is the care with which WMF talks about friendships with the poor as its main goal.
“Missionaries have always been concerned with the poor,” said Dana Robert, professor of world Christianity and mission at Boston University School of Theology. “What is different here is not the work, but the way of explaining it, of putting it forward as a first priority.”
Much of Heuertz’s vision comes from his struggling middle-class-Catholic-turned-evangelical upbringing in Omaha and a series of dramatic experiences that led him into friendship with the poor as a way to meet Jesus.
His parents, Linda and Larry Heuertz, modeled Christian charity in their own home, adopting two children who had been abused. They also have four biological children. Now his parents run Hope for Sudan, which resettles Sudanese refugees. Chris Heuertz experienced poverty first-hand as well: At one point, Heuertz’s parents worked seven jobs between them, largely to pay for private school tuition for their children. If Chris wanted to speak with his dad, he went down to the convenience store where Larry Heuertz worked the night shift.
“We learned to be thankful for grilled cheese and fish sticks and shoes without holes,” Chris Heuertz said.
But he also experienced miracles. Heuertz survived spinal meningitis and encephalitis at age 11. Doctors said he probably would die, and if he survived he’d be paralyzed. Defying that predicton, Heuertz recovered and walked out of the hospital.
Later, when he was a teenager, Heuertz’s parents stopped to pick up a stranger on the way home from church. They took the man to his destination and delivered their children a lesson in helping “angels unawares.” The passenger turned out to be a new senior medical director at Mutual of Omaha, who later paid Heuertz’s tuition at Asbury College, an evangelical, Wesleyan school -- which his parents could not afford.
“None of us should be here,” Heuertz said. “I do have an unfair chance at life, so I should give it back, and not live it for myself.”
Although he now describes Christ as “irresistible,” he once played the smart-aleck skeptic in youth group before converting to Christ during a mission trip to a Navajo reservation. It was visiting people in North America’s direst poverty, he said, that taught him to love Jesus.
There also were several to conversions to social justice. In college, he traveled to Jerusalem and played soccer with Palestinian street kids, who told stories of parents working as hard as his did -- with no hope of betterment for their children. And in 1993, he traveled the world to learn how Christians were ministering to the poorest of the poor, winding up among Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Kolkata.