Bob Pierce was an extreme version of post-WWII evangelicalism: entrepreneurial, energetic, independent, and out to evangelize the world. In 1947, the young Youth for Christ evangelist started toward China with only enough money to buy a ticket to Honolulu. That was how things were done in Youth for Christ: God's work overcame all obstacles, and God's workers should "burn out, not rust out." Pierce eventually made it to China, where thousands came to Christ during four months of evangelistic rallies. Hunger was everywhere; communism hammered at the door. A compassionate Pierce was hooked. "My father went to China a young man in search of adventure," his daughter Marilee Pierce Dunker would write. "He came home a man with a mission."
Pierce later wrote haunting words in the flyleaf of his Bible: "Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God." Dragging a movie camera across AsiaChina was soon closedPierce showed the resulting pictures to church audiences in North America. He asked for money to help children. He showed their faces and begged Christians to "adopt" one. In 1950 he incorporated this personal crusade as World Vision.
In 1959, journalist Richard Gehman wrote that "[Pierce] cannot conceal his true emotions. He seems to me to be one of the few naturally, uncontrollably honest men I have ever met." When asked by Franklin Graham how to "shake people out of their complacency," Pierce said he had "become a part of the suffering. I literally felt the child's blindness, the mother's grief. It was all too real to me when I stood before an audience. It's not something that can be faked." Pastor Richard Halvorsen wrote that Pierce "prayed more earnestly and importunely than anyone else I have ever known. It was as though prayer burned within him. Bob Pierce functioned from a broken heart."
The same intensity led to his downfall. He had an ungoverned temper and frequently clashed with the World Vision board, particularly over his insistence on making financial commitments on the fly. He traveled as much as 10 months of the year, and his family suffered. "I've made an agreement with God," he said, "that I'll take care of his helpless little lambs overseas if he'll take care of mine at home." In 1963 he had a nervous breakdown. For nine months he almost disappeared, preferring to travel the world rather than return home. In 1967 he resigned from World Vision, bitter at those whom he felt interfered with his organization. On a 1968 good-bye tour of Asia, his daughter Sharon reached him by phone. She asked if he could come home, but he refused, saying that he wanted to extend his trip to Vietnam. His wife, Lorraine, started home immediately, but by the time she arrived, Sharon had tried to commit suicide. Later that year, she tried again and succeeded.
By then Pierce was hospitalized in Switzerland. He would stay there for a year, treated with insulin and other drugs. The following year, he took over a small hunger organization that became Samaritan's Purse. In 1970 he legally separated from his wife. His daughter Marilee wrote that his memory was "badly crippled" and his mind "frequently unclear." Just once, in September 1978, the family was able to gather for an evening of reconciliation. Four days later, Pierce died.
Yet Pierce's work continuesbigger than he could have imaginedin World Vision and Samaritan's Purse. His passion and compassion still set the standard for others who serve the poor. God works with imperfect instruments.