Voices

Women who inspired World Vision’s founding father

World Vision founder Bob Pierce went to China in 1947. Meet the women who sparked his vision on that trip, determined to change the world in Jesus' name.

My father, World Vision founder Bob Pierce, first traveled to China in 1947 as an evangelist with Youth for Christ. World Vision wasn’t even a twinkle in his eye. But years later, he would write, “My own world vision from God was sparked on that first trip.” Among the people who ignited that spark were women who were determined, despite the odds, to change the world in Jesus’ name.

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Beth Albert

The trigger of the vision God gave me for missions.
World Vision founder Bob Pierce went to China in 1947. Meet the women who sparked his vision on that trip, determined to change the world in Jesus' name.
Bob Pierce credited Beth Albert, pictured right, as “the trigger of the vision God gave me for missions.” Among legendary American missionaries, Albert worked with lepers in China and in impoverished areas in India. (photo courtesy of Marilee Pierce Dunker)

My father met American missionary Beth Albert when he took a break in his speaking schedule to fly to a remote area of China called Kunming. “I got off with my camera and gear and just stood there, not a living soul in sight.  Then along bounced an old jeep. ‘You Bob Pierce?’ the driver asked. ‘I’m Beth Albert. I work with lepers.’”

Over the next two days, Beth introduced dad to a world he never knew existed. In 1947 leprosy was still considered a death sentence, and anyone infected was either driven out of town or shot. Beth had discovered more than 100 men, women, and children struggling to survive in the only place they were allowed to live — a cemetery.  They were starving, naked, and dying without any medical intervention. And most heartbreaking of all, their healthy babies died with them. Beth, a nurse who had trained at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), was determined to help.

“Beth had no help from the outside,” my dad would later recall. Until he began supporting her, she was dependent upon whatever locals would give her. She scrounged among the trash for old cans and taught the people — many without fingers — to fill them with mud to make bricks. With this they managed to build small shelters.

Through food, clothing, medicine, Bible studies — somehow one indomitable woman managed to bring life and hope to those whom the world had written off. And every one of the precious people she served came to know Jesus, not because she preached, but because she loved.

After she was forced to leave China when the communists took over, World Vision continued to support Beth’s work with lepers and the poor in India, which included establishing 14 leprosy clinics. My dad credited Beth as “the trigger of the vision God gave me for missions.”

 

Tena Holkeboer

World Vision was born that day.

If Beth was the trigger, Tena Hoelkeboer was God’s call to action.

Already shaken by all he had seen in Kunming, dad arrived on the island of Amoy for a week of Youth for Christ meetings. Tena Holkeboer, a Reformed Church of America missionary and principal of the Iok Tek Girls’ Middle School, invited him to speak at their morning chapels. As a result, several of the girls accepted Christ.

World Vision founder Bob Pierce went to China in 1947. Meet the women who sparked his vision on that trip, determined to change the world in Jesus' name.
Tena Holkeboer, a Reformed Church of America missionary and principal of the Iok Tek Girls’ Middle School, was affectionately called “Auntie Tiger” among children. (photo courtesy of Amoy Magic)

What happened next has become a familiar World Vision story. At the end of the week, dad went to Tena’s home to say goodbye. She met him at the door with a little girl in her arms. The child had been beaten and abandoned by her family for becoming a Christian. The fiery look in Tena’s eyes as she confronted my father left no doubt as to why her students affectionately called her “Auntie Tiger.”

Shocked and feeling utterly helpless, my father asked, “You will take care of her, won’t you?”

“I am feeding as many children as I can,” Tena replied. “The question is, ‘What are you going to do?’”

It was a question my dad had been asking himself ever since Kunming. Overwhelmed, he had walked away from the needs of the many. But now God was confronting him with the need of one child.

Dad gave Tena his last $5, promising to send more when he got home. He would later reflect, “I didn’t know it at the time, but in a real, practical sense, World Vision was born that day.”

 

Lillian Dickson

World Vision founder Bob Pierce went to China in 1947. Meet the women who sparked his vision on that trip, determined to change the world in Jesus' name.
Pierce met Lillian Dickson, pictured right, in 1953 on a visit to Taiwan (then called Formosa). Their lifelong partnership would become one of the cornerstones of World Vision’s ministry. (©World Vision archive)

‘Typhoon Lil’ scooped out her bucketful

It is fair to say that my dad met his match when he was introduced to Lillian Dickson in 1953 on a visit to Taiwan (then called Formosa). Her willingness to take on human need wherever she found it reaffirmed my father’s own conviction that God will do impossible things when we don’t put limits on Him. Their lifelong partnership would bring thousands to Christ and become one of the enduring cornerstones of World Vision’s ministry.

The story of the diminutive founder of Mustard Seed International is all the more remarkable in that Lillian came to Formosa in the 1920s as a missionary’s wife. Her husband, Jim Dickson, was the “official” missionary in the family, and his bride devoted the early years to their children and home.

But when the kids got older, Lillian decided she wasn’t going to “sit out her life.” With Jim’s blessing, she packed up her Bible and her accordion and began hiking with a team of medical missionaries into the most remote areas of Taiwan. They went where neither modern medicine nor the hope of the gospel had ever reached.

During the next 30 years, “Typhoon Lil” (as she was affectionately named after surviving a particularly savage storm) walked thousands of miles, fearlessly wading through rushing rivers, crossing dangling wooden bridges, and facing down angry witchdoctors and headhunters. She slept, ate, laughed, and cried with the tribal people she loved, and every day God trusted her with new needs and a bigger vision.

She was once asked why she worked so hard when people’s needs were like a great ocean of suffering that could never be emptied. Lillian responded, “I must scoop out my bucketful.”

Lillian’s bucketful included caring for street children, lepers, and abandoned babies.  With support from World Vision and other partners, she built churches, schools, children’s homes, and clinics, and her ministry continues to this day through Mustard Seed International.

 

Elizabeth Hunter (Sales)

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. …
World Vision founder Bob Pierce went to China in 1947. Meet the women who sparked his vision on that trip, determined to change the world in Jesus' name.
Dickson’s ministry work brought her into contact with not only Bob Pierce (pictured center behind Dickson) but also Billy Graham (second from left) and Cliff Barrows (left of Pierce). (©World Vision archive)

These three women are only a few of the legendary missionaries who influenced my father’s life and ministry. But there is one name that will not be found in the history books. I doubt she ever left the United States or met a hungry child who wasn’t sitting at her kitchen table. Still, her life helped change the world.

Her name was Elizabeth Hunter (Sales), and she was my father’s high school Sunday school teacher. Every week she would make stories from the Bible come alive for a group of active teens, challenging them to use their lives to make a difference in Jesus’ name.

Throughout his life, my father credited Miss Hunter with first challenging him to ministry. But I never realized how deep that challenge went until I discovered a small blue book among my father’s library a few years ago.

It was entitled James Hudson Taylor, Pioneer Missionary of Inland China. On the first page I found an inscription dated Christmas 1928:  “To Bob from Miss Hunter. My prayer and deepest desire for you is Matthew 28:18-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. …”

Your prayers were answered, Miss Hunter.


One of Marilee Pierce Dunker’s greatest joys is watching people come to a child sponsorship table to search for the little face that touches their heart.
©2013 World Vision/photo by Adam Arkin

Marilee Pierce Dunker travels the world as an ambassador for World Vision, the organization her father, Bob Pierce, founded in 1950. Like he did, she shares stories, pictures, and personal reflections, bearing witness to the extraordinary ways God is using his people to share the gospel and care for the poor.

Visit World Vision’s Speakers Bureau site to request Marilee or another World Vision speaker to present at your upcoming event.

Follow in Bob Pierce’s footsteps and sponsor a child today. You can form a special bond with a boy or girl who will know your name and feel your prayers, while providing basics like nutritious food, clean water, access to education, medical care, safe shelter, and more.

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