Several years ago, I sat on the top floor of World Vision’s nine-story office building on Yeouido Island in Seoul, South Korea. It was located blocks from the National Assembly and was dwarfed by soaring skyscrapers in the nation’s main political and financial district. The real estate was elite. The building, befitting a humanitarian nonprofit organization, was not. I interviewed a series of Korean executives over bottles of orange juice, surrounded by sturdy vintage furniture from the 1970s.

I had traveled to Korea to research the origins of World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. I was expecting to confirm the accepted narrative of a dynamic evangelist named Bob Pierce, who in 1950 was undone by the sights of Marxist cruelties in Seoul. Working alongside the US Army, Pierce started schools, orphanages, and churches that helped lift Korea to capitalist heights out of wartime devastation. The myth of World Vision’s founding—an altruistic American evangelical organization born in the anxious ferment of the Cold War—has stood for well over a half century.

As I talked with Jong-Sam Park, the just-retired president of World Vision Korea, he jolted me out of this conventional narrative. The distinguished, silver-haired executive fielded my persistent questions about Bob Pierce, but he wanted to talk much more about a Korean pastor I had never heard of. Kyung-Chik Han had helped Park during the Korean War when he was a homeless refugee child covered only by a straw mat as he slept on the streets of Seoul.

I listened impatiently, hoping to return to my questions about American missionaries. But when I tried to guide him back, he grew exasperated. Han, he explained, was ...

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