After 25 years in the worst places on earth, new World Vision CEO has a message for Australians

‘I learned the opposite to what everybody would think I did …’

“Every emergency, war, famine since 1995, I’ve participated in it, either [being] there myself personally, or leading teams there or supervising teams.”

“I started during post-9/11 in Afghanistan. I was in East Timor in 1999.

“I was there in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. I was in Northern Uganda during the time of Joseph Kony [when thousands were murdered, abducted and mutilated].

“I was in Sierra Leone during the RUF period [the Revolutionary United Front, a guerilla force responsible for the loss of 50,000 lives and the displacement of approximately two million people].”

These are just some of the remarkable situations that new CEO of World Vision Australia Daniel Wordsworth has endured in the name of serving those in need.

As his conversation with Eternity unravels, Wordsworth reveals he has also lived in the slums of Hong Kong, served in Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Somalia, El Salvador and in refugee camps around the world.

Prior to returning home to Australia to join World Vision in January, Wordsworth spent 12 years in the US at the helm of Alight (formerly known as the American Refugee Committee). In that role, he launched work with the Rohingya people in Myanmar, migrants in Latin America and with families in war-ravaged Syria.

And before that, he served 12 years with Christian Children’s Fund (CCF), leading emergency response programs in the challenging places mentioned earlier.

“So what did I discover in that time? I learned the opposite to what everybody would think that I learned, actually,” says Wordsworth in his global accent, patched together by his itinerant life.

But before answering that question, another pressing question remains: how did a boy from Tamworth in northwest NSW end up in such “God-forsaken” places and in such God-ordained roles?

A ‘huge commissioning’ to serve the poor

Wordsworth’s childhood was spent on motorbikes and “doing other fun things” on the family farm in Tamworth. However, the virtue of hard work was modelled by his dad, who worked seven days each week as a newsagent.

Christian faith was also part of his upbringing.

“I was confirmed as an Anglican, and I was interested all the way through high school in spiritual things. I used to go along to a fellowship with the Uniting Church in Tamworth,” Wordsworth explains.

He gave his life to Christ at a youth event in Adelaide, in January, 1985. A week later, at age 19 and fresh out of high school, he joined the Royal Australian Navy.

“What does it mean to try to walk and live in the kingdom of God on earth? For me, the way I understood that calling was to serve the poor.” – Daniel Wordsworth

Then, a year later, during a naval mission on the Great Barrier Reef, Wordsworth’s life changed forever after reading Jesus’ words from Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, particularly the Beatitudes.

“It was one of the most beautiful things that I had read, and it just seemed so fundamentally true in a soul way,” Wordsworth recalls.

“It was just like, imagine if you are a guitar and suddenly somebody put their hands on a cord and then they strum it, and you’re like, that’s what music’s meant to sound like. That’s the experience I had. That was my real awakening. And what it awakened in me was a feeling that I just want to live my life in a worthy way – so doing things like turning the other cheek, if you have two shirts, giving one, and also being merciful.

“I think it took me from one life into a kingdom life. And that’s the way I’ve thought about it ever since. What does it mean to try to walk and live in the kingdom of God on earth? For me, the way I understood that calling was to serve the poor. It struck me that if you want to give up your life [for Christ], you should serve and give it to the least.”

So when Wordsworth’s crew returned to HMAS Creswell – the naval base where he had been training to be an officer, in Jervis Bay, on the south coast of NSW – he took immediate action.

“I told my commanding officer that God had spoken to me and called me to serve the poor, and that’s what I fully intended to do. He was kind of in shock at the time – it was a big surprise. I was like, I’m as surprised as anybody. I didn’t realise things happened like this. Amazingly, they let me go,” he recalls.

Daniel Wordsworth, newly appointed CEO World Vision Australia

Daniel Wordsworth, newly appointed CEO of World Vision Australia World Vision Australia

Armed with what he understood to be his divine commission to serve the poor, Wordsworth took a cab from the naval base directly to the nearest travel agent.

“I walked in and I said to the guy behind the counter, ‘I want you to book me a ticket.’ He said, ‘OK, great. Where would you like to go?’

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve got all my stuff. I’m going into all the world!’

“He said, ‘You have to narrow it down. I need to have an air ticket location’ … Then he said, ‘You need to book a return ticket.’

“And I said, ‘Well, I’m never coming back.’

“He said, ‘Well, we still need to book you a return, otherwise it’s going to actually be more expensive. You can do a year-long ticket.’

“And I said, ‘Actually, I want to do the return ticket from Calcutta in India, because that’s where I’m going to end up.”

Wordsworth’s spontaneity was tempered by reason when he returned to Sydney and discussed his radical plan with some Christian friends.

“I think they thought I needed a little bit of talking to,” laughs Wordsworth, “so they took me to a pastor … There’s a quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which says ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking. And so he was a little bit like that. He was like, ‘We need to spend some time with you and you need to understand more about all of this.’

“What I ended up doing was working for a children’s home in Sydney as a house parent for very terribly abused children who couldn’t be fostered out because of behavioural difficulties.”

“We scoured the world to find people who serve the poorest of the poorest in the hardest places. And then we would send these young people out in pairs for six months to 12 months to work with them.” – Daniel Wordsworth

But, feeling like this was not “hardcore enough for me”, Wordsworth and one of his friends soon came up with another radical plan to serve those in need.

“We rented this old, ramshackle, wooden, giant house in Pymble [in northern Sydney]. We found two other friends and said, ‘We’re going to live a kind of Franciscan life.’ Again, this was coming out of the Beatitudes – freely you’ve received, so freely give. If somebody asks you for something, then you give it.”

“So we opened up this house. We put bunk beds in the four rooms and then we sent letters around to all of the street crisis centres, drug rehabs, prisons. And we said, ‘Anyone that you have that you can’t take in, anyone that’s been banned, anyone that you’re turning away, we’ll accept everybody.’

“And the Franciscan way is that you never ask questions. So we said, we will accept everybody, no questions asked. And so then, people started coming.”

Wordsworth – who was also then working for Sydney City Mission in the youth crisis centre – along with his friends, supported those coming to live with them by pooling all their money to pay for rent, food and other expenses.

“Within two years we had four homes,” says Wordsworth, adding a surprising clarification: “It wasn’t because the need was so great, even though it was great. It was because so many young people wanted to do what we were doing.

“And again, our rules were very strict: you must not only welcome everybody, no questions asked, but they live in the room with you. and you have to give everything you have. If anyone asks you for anything, just let them have it. So we ended up being poorer than most of the people coming in.”

He continues: “We had so many people wanting to do this that after opening the fourth house, we rented a farm in Windsor, on the outskirts of Sydney. And we used to take young people in and train them for three months on how to serve poor people.

“Then we scoured the world to find people who serve the poorest of the poorest in the hardest places. And then we would send these young people out in pairs for six months to 12 months to work with them, in slums in India, jungles in the Philippines, an orphanage in the Ukraine. We started sending young people all over the place, and I ended up in Hong Kong in a slum.”

“I said, ‘You must have one job that’s your worst job, that no one else wants to do, in the worst, most dangerous, most horrible location. I will go there and I’ll pay my own way.” – Daniel Wordsworth

At around age 26, Wordsworth first heard about non-government organisations (NGOs) and their welfare work.

“Apparently they had money! And I thought, if I could bring that money to bear, I might be able to get people out of poverty. I was like, this is amazing! You don’t have to work and give up all you have. So I came back to Sydney and I wrote to all these different groups, including World Vision, actually.”

“When I went to meet [the NGOs I had written to], I said, ‘I’ve spent the last six years serving poor people on the street. But I don’t have any formal qualifications that you would like, except I love poor people and I’ve lived a life in solidarity with them. And I said, ‘Here’s what I will do. You must have one job that’s your worst job, that no one else wants to do, in the worst, most dangerous, most horrible location. I will go there and I’ll pay my own way.’

“‘I will work there for six months, and if at the end of six months, you like me, then hire me. And if at the end of six months you don’t like me, just send me the return ticket and I won’t fight or argue, I’ll just come back.’

“The fifth place that I visited was Christian Children’s Fund in Sydney. And the guy there said, ‘Relax, you don’t have to do all that.’ And he gave me a job … and that’s what started me on this route now.”

A message to Australians

After witnessing so much suffering, you may presume Wordsworth is left feeling pessimistic about the world’s needs and humanity’s response to them. But you would be wrong.

“Actually what I [have] discovered is the world is gloriously abundant, and that people are actually good. It was a real shock to me!”

“Even in the places that everybody thinks are the worst places, actually there’s abundance there. And mostly that’s because people are there, and people are wondrous. I notice there’s an overwhelming goodness that people have,” he enthuses about the most positive aspects of humanity.

He continues, “People are sacred and, if they’re allowed to, they live up to who they are … I think all human beings have this feeling that deep down that they’re wondrous creatures created by God and reflective of God. And yet they live lives that feel profoundly small and disappointing. And we all live with this contradiction.”

Wordsworth offers the solution to this problem: giving.

“I realised my calling is not serve poor people, actually. My calling is to serve others to serve poor people.” – Daniel Wordsworth

“The fundamental way that God meets us is through grace, which is giving … If we reflect that, it means, fundamentally, that we’re giving creatures – that, actually, our deepest desire is not happiness. It’s not joy. It’s actually not even to be loved. But instead, our deepest desire is to give freely of who we are.”

And so as head of World Vision Australia, Wordsworth believes his role is to give Australians the gift of giving.

“I realised my calling is not serve poor people, actually. My calling is to serve others to serve poor people. That’s what I did in that first house, but I didn’t even realise it … It’s the same to this day. The reason why I want to lead World Vision Australia is very specifically around this idea.

“If asked, ‘If you could stand in the lounge room of every Australian’s house, what would you do?’ What I would do is give them a gift. I would give them the gift of realising their own worth. And how would I do that? By giving them a way to give freely of themselves.”

“We in the church are an example, and lead the way in the idea of giving and in the belief that the world can be changed.” – Daniel Wordsworth

For those feeling too overwhelmed or fearful to start helping tackle the world’s problems, Wordsworth gives this strong encouragement: “Part of what’s being robbed [from society] in the last 10 years is we’ve been made to believe that we’re powerless in the face of forces that exist around the world, that are coming against us.”

“And we have allowed that idea to creep into the church – that we’re under attack, so now we’re on the defensive. But this stuff is not even true …

“I’m coming back to Australia after 25 years in all of the world’s poorest, most scarce and warring places. And my message is that the world is great. We don’t have to be afraid of it …

“And so the biggest issue that I think the Christian church can take on is that story, begin speaking to the Australian people in hopeful, optimistic, believing ways. Believe that the world can be made better, believe that we have the power to do that. And believe that we in the church are an example, and lead the way in the idea of giving and in the belief that the world can be changed.

“The truth is that the world wants the Christian church to do that. It wants us to be like, Jesus, it does. I’m like a broken record on this view. The world is better than people think, and don’t believe otherwise. You can do more than you think, and don’t believe otherwise. So go out and do it.

“You get this time on the earth. At some point you’re going to be 70 or 80 years old and you’re gonna look back and say, was I a burden on the earth? Did I feed the hungry? Did I visit the sick?

“You’re going to ask those questions either on this earth or in the next, and you want to have a good answer to them.”

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