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Around the Foothills

The world's starving children die at a rate of 40,000 a day.

July 07, 1988|DOUG SMITH

The new president of the Christian relief and development organization World Vision was home briefly last week with news from a scouting trip to Mozambique.

The word from that war-ravaged and economically blighted country in southeast Africa wasn't particularly uplifting.

But the respite of home was. Home for Robert Seiple is a large and quietly appointed house on Bubbling Well Lane, a strip of forested pavement in the upper reaches of a wealthy La Canada hillside neighborhood.

Though he had scheduled a press conference later in the morning at World Vision's Monrovia headquarters to report on the spread of starvation in Mozambique, Seiple consented to receive me at home without apparent discomfort over the contradiction of imagery.

He even offered to stay if the questions went on too long.

"I'm the president," he said. "I can get there when I want to."

The word from that meeting is that the family on Bubbling Well Lane brings the charming country drive a complex, compassionate and yet steely-nerved world view.

While his wife, Margaret Ann, took a stroll with the dog and teen-age children came and went quietly, Seiple, tall, trim and unostentatious with only slightly relaxed military hair, sat stiffly in a comfortable chair and answered questions about his own wealth with the same equanimity as he did those about the world's poverty.

Material comfort is not something he has sought, but is rather a necessary, though certainly not despised, platform for the Christian ministry he plans to spread across corporate America, he said.

The former Marine fighter pilot, lumber salesman, athletic director and college president seldom laughed and flinched only once, when asked his salary.

"It's not my motivation for being here," Seiple said, declining to state the figure.

He was effusive, almost evangelical, though, in describing the personal stamp he hopes to put on World Vision.

The agency, which he has headed since last July, sought him out for the job through a recommendation by his friend Charles Colson, the former presidential adviser who became a born-again Christian while serving time for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

His intention, he said, is to expand its method of financing from its traditional base in direct marketing by taking his ministry into the homes of people like himself.

"I really do believe that fund raising is a ministry," Seiple said. "You shouldn't give this money because God needs it. Give it because he wants to bless you for it. In that sense I think we have a real need to minister to people in this country. . . . American people will respond to needs if they are properly articulated with what they can do best, and that is the sharing of financial resources."

Cooly, and without apology, Seiple acknowledged the emotional tension inherent in the job.

"I think everybody has that problem," he said. "And you try not to feel guilty that you can go home at night, or back to an air-conditioned hotel in a country, back to America, a place like La Canada. I don't think we need to dwell on guilt because guilt can be paralytic."

In Seiple's complex personality, there is no sign of paralysis.

At one moment, he spoke as a family man who, by design, has introduced his wife and three children to his vision of suffering.

"Our family feels very strongly about these things," he said. "My wife travels around the world with me. She holds the same kids. She cries real tears. . . .

"I've had my son with me to China and Vietnam, my 12-year-old son, and in time will take my other two children so that they know, even as they grow up in Southern California, that most of the world is in desperate shape and it needs people who can be committed to solutions."

At another moment, he spoke in tones of almost military resolve, rejecting the possibility of cynicism over the frightening specter of the world's starving children, who die at a rate of 40,000 a day.

"In fact, we are doing something," he said. "In 1980, the figures were 43,000 kids a day. By 1990, the figures are anticipated at 33,000 a day. That's still a mind-boggling number. But the fact is that 10,000 kids a day will be saved."

Once, he even analyzed the problem in pure business terms:

"We've got a tremendous product," Seiple said. "The beauty of this job is that the product is essentially a hurting child. No one has a better child than a child in need."

Soon, Seiple had to rush off to face the cameras for his report on Mozambique.

He was going to describe the fate of three families he had visited in October.

"They had a collective total of eight children in the three families," he said. "And five of the eight had died when I got back last week."

In parting, he allowed himself just one small breach of decorum:

"When is this going to be in the paper?" he wanted to know.

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