Islamic Relief USA’s Muneeza Tahir reports on a panel discussion, organized by the Washington Global Health Alliance, about humanitarian aid from both secular and faith-based organizations’ perspectives. (Photo credit: Andrea Peer for World Vision)

“From an Islamic perspective, saving one human life is as if you save the whole world,” said Islamic Relief USA CEO in front of an audience in Seattle last week.

The event—part of a Global Health Month initiative by the Washington Global Health Alliance—sought to bring awareness to how faith-based and secular organizations partner to achieve better global health. Ayoub was joined in a panel discussion by Caryl Stern, President and CEO of U.S. Fund for UNICEF and a member of the Jewish faith, and Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S.—a Christian humanitarian organization.

Islamic Relief USA's Abed Ayoub, U.S. Fund for UNICEF's Caryl Stern, and World Vision's Richard Stearns participate in a panel discussion about the global health crisis and the role of faith-based and secular humanitarian relief organizations in delivering assistance to those in need. (Photo credit: Andrea Peer for World Vision)
Islamic Relief USA’s CEO U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Caryl Stern, and World Vision’s Richard Stearns participate in a panel discussion about the global health crisis and the role of faith-based and secular humanitarian relief organizations in delivering assistance to those in need. (Photo credit: Andrea Peer for World Vision)

“That’s what the Talmud teaches me, that if you save one life, you save the world,” agreed Stern, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor.”

Stearns’ organization World Vision shares a faith-based humanitarian worldview with Islamic Relief USA, and he echoed the sentiments as well. “We try to demonstrate the gospel through our actions,” he said.

The evening shed light on the difficult road faith-based and secular organizations often encounter when working with one another. But all three panel members—leaders of organizations that have continually learned and evolved from their experiences—had words of wisdom for audience members.

“You have to find some common understanding and mutual respect between organizations,” said Ayoub. Stearns added that conflicts can be greatly reduced by protecting the beliefs of people of other faiths, and not asking them to go against their faith. “When you require someone to violate their beliefs, you exclude them from doing the good that they could do,” he said.

But what is it really like when organizations of different faiths attempt to work together? In Stearns’ experience, working with faith-based organizations has often been easier than working with secular organizations. “They understand where we’re coming from,” he said.

Stern added that people working in secular organizations have their own faiths and traditions as well, and Ayoub stressed the importance of working together to help others as human beings and not just members of different faiths, and finding common ground.

“As humanitarian workers, we all share something in common—we save lives, we improve lives, and we build bridges,” he said.

The panel members shared anecdotes and heartfelt stories of their experiences working in the field—in countries, cities and villages of all different faiths and traditions. They also addressed the need for humanitarian organizations looking to help overseas to first learn about the people they want to help.

Stern shared the story of a newly built free maternity clinic in Peru that was not receiving patients. When staff members inquired why women weren’t coming to the clinic, they discovered the clinic was built on a western model of birthing and didn’t take into account the traditional birthing styles of Peruvian women.

Ayoub relayed a similar situation in Palestine, when malaria medicines were sent to an area where people were not suffering from malaria, so the medicines were useless. “You have to know the need, and the need has to come from the field in order to be effective,” he said.

“Learn, listen, learn, listen, learn,” added Stearns. “[The local communities] know what the problems are, and they even know what the solutions are.”

Panel moderator Lisa Cohen, Executive Director of Washington Global Health Alliance, asked the panel members if their organizations had encountered any stereotypes over the years. Both Ayoub and Stearns responded that many people assume faith-based organizations engage in proselytizing, attempting to convert people to their religion, when that is not the case. Stern agreed that in her secular experience working with many faith-based organizations, she had never witnessed such an action.

In a time of great global need, the event helped bring humanitarian community members of all faiths together to hear from the experiences of others and renew their own commitments to their respective causes.

The camaraderie continued after the event, when Stearns sent Ayoub a letter thanking him for taking part in the discussion.

“Together, we clearly demonstrated that faith-based organizations hold much more in common than in disagreement as we seek to address human suffering, injustice and distress,” Stearns wrote. ” … We value our partnership and look forward to working shoulder to shoulder in the years to come.”

At the event, Bill Gates Sr., co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recalled President Jimmy Carter’s words at a church in Abuja, Nigeria, where he spoke on a global health issue: “God will not look at our wealth or our words, but at what we have done for the least of these.”