July 31, 2008— -- On a military helicopter headed to Rwanda's remote Western Province, Rick Warren -- the best-selling author and evangelical superstar -- takes in the beautiful view of one of that nation's poorest areas. The sights, however, are far less spectacular once on the ground.
"I've been coming to Rwanda for three years now," said Warren. "I think this is my 10th extended trip. The Rwanda I read about in the press and the real Rwanda are two different things."
Rick Warren is leading a mission. He went to Rwanda, he says, to help alleviate the suffering in a deeply wounded nation, a place where 200,000 people have HIV and 800,000 children are orphaned.
"The problem with so many humanitarian efforts is that they just come in and leave," said Warren. "They come for a little while. They take a picture. They go home and put it in a brochure and raise funds. We're not into that. We're into long-term relationships."
Fourteen years ago, the world turned its back on Rwanda as 900,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. The residue of the genocide is still fresh amid the grinding poverty. Everyone has lost someone. The average income in the country is $260 a year.
As Warren departed the helicopter, he was warmly greeted by a crowd of children and their parents. But it wasn't only the helicopter that attracted the welcoming party; Warren is seen as someone who cares -- someone who is making a difference.
A similar reaction was seen days earlier in the country's capital of Kigali, where Warren was to preach to a stadium of 20,000 people in honor of the 200 Rwandan pastors graduating from an intensive three-year program designed by Warren and his team.
"God has never made a person that he doesn't love," Warren proclaimed in his sermon. "God has never made a person that he doesn't have a purpose for. No human being is an accident. There are accidental parents, but there are no accidental children."
But how did he wind up in Rwanda preaching his gospel of purpose and hope? Whether by coincidence or divine intervention, it happened in the house of a man named Joe Ritchie, who knew Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame. While visiting Ritchie's Chicago home, Kagame saw Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" on a bookshelf and asked to take it.
"Right after that I got the letter from President Kagame saying, 'I'm a man of purpose. Can you come help us rebuild our nation?'" Warren recalled.
That was more than five years and many, many conversations ago. Kagame remembers it too. He remembers thinking Warren could be helpful.
Kagame says he really didn't know how he expected Warren to help. "Well, nothing very specific," Kagame admits, "but the very fact that I could tell that this is a man who is very practical and thinks in a very straightforward way and is very forward-looking. If he is willing to partner with us, that could be very useful."
"That makes sense," Warren said after hearing Kagame's comments, "because I had no idea what their country needed... [The] P.E.A.C.E. plan is in some ways about flying the plane while we're building it. What we're doing, a lot of it hasn't been done before."
The P.E.A.C.E. Program is a long-term development program aimed at promoting reconciliation, equipping servant leaders, assisting the poor, caring for the sick and educating the next generation.
The program is based on the premise that there aren't enough schools or hospitals or professionals to help those in need, but there are enough churches and church members. Warren says that some people were shocked that he would suggest sending church members to Rwanda to provide health care.
"The P.E.A.C.E. plan is an amateur movement," said Warren. "I love the word amateur. I'm proud to be an amateur. It comes from the Latin word amore. ...It means, I do it out of love. I don't do it for the money. No one pays me to do this. I don't even serve my church for a salary. I do it for free. I'm a proud amateur because I do it out of love for God and I love people."
Actually, he's not kidding. Warren has made enough money from his book -- one of the best selling books of all time -- that he and his wife Kay decided to reverse-tithe. They live on 10 percent of their income and give the rest to the church. The Warrens have personally pledged a quarter-million dollars to build a new hospital in Rwanda's Western Province. The site for the hospital will be on an old soccer field where, 14 years ago, thousands were slaughtered as part of the genocide.
He also thinks big. In the next 50 years, Warren intends to build an international network of Christians: one billion, he says, to help the suffering around the world, using Rwanda as a model.
Warren took "Nightline" to the hospital that currently serves the 144,000 people who live in the region. "This is the best you've got right here," said Warren of the site. "They do the best they can with what they're given."
But what they're given is very, very little. There is no running water in the hospital, and no food is provided. For patients to eat, someone from outside the hospital has to bring food and cook it.
Warren says the last time he visited the hospital, a 5-year-old was there taking care of his grandmother. "The 5-year-old was out cooking a meal and bringing it to his grandmother because his mother and father had died of AIDS," Warren recalled.
"One of the things we're trying to do with the P.E.A.C.E. plan is to have the churches start to provide some of the meals," he said.
Not only is food and water in short supply, so is personnel: There is one doctor for every 24,000 people. The shortage of trained nurses is even worse. There is one for every 50,000 people.
"Tuberculosis is high. Malaria is very common, HIV," said Christie Wiggins, an intensive care nurse who has attended Warren's Saddleback Church in Lakewood, Calif., since she was a child. By moving to Rwanda about a year ago, she increased the number of nurses by 25 percent. Besides caring for the patients, Wiggins is also a teacher, training others to look after these desperately ill people.
"I came here and I was pretty shocked by what I saw," said Wiggins. "I saw the need for staffing, the need for education. I felt like if I didn't come back I wouldn't be doing what God set out for me to do."
"You've heard the phrase, 'Don't give a man a fish, teach him how to fish,'" said Warren. "The P.E.A.C.E. plan, we take it a step further. Don't teach a man to fish. Teach him how to sell a fish. Here's what I mean by that. If you teach a man to fish, you produce a village of fisherman, they all go and they catch the same fish. They all sit on the side of the road and try to sell the same fish. There isn't enough market for the fish. So, they rot and they go home. In order to build an increasingly stable and vibrant economy in a village you have to specialize."
In the meantime, there is all the pain, all the need, and all the children. Can a pastor and his wife really bring about change in a country where tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in the churches?
"Anybody who is willing can be used to make a difference in the world," said Warren. "Why hasn't this been done really before, what we're doing with churches and government and business? Because it's hard and it takes time. We Americans are so impatient. We get in a hurry, we want to do it fast."
Although Warren is a tornado of a man, he would be the first to remind others that he doesn't work alone. His wife Kay is also instrumental. It was she who helped him start Saddleback, and six years ago it was Kay, inspired by a magazine article she read about AIDS orphans, who was first inspired to help in Rwanda.
"He has an amazing gift of faith that is a visionary gift," said Kay Warren of her husband. "But all visionaries, that is one of their unique characteristics, they are able to see things that aren't and call them as though they are. Rick has that gift. He can see what isn't in existence at the moment and yet has the faith to believe that it will."
She also finds humor in his ambitions.
"Oh goodness, I'm always trying to yank his feet back to earth," said Kay. "He always has these grand visions for this. Even when we were starting the church, I was saying 'Excuse me?' Someone has to take care of the kids. Someone has to plug in the coffee pot. We do have some details we have to take care of. But that's why we've been a great team."
They both believe Rwanda's churches hold the key to helping the people there. And after many years and many missteps, they feel they are now making progress.
"We have 60 volunteers and 30 pastors," said Rick Warren. "What have they been learning? First, how do you identify all the diseases. When is it malaria, yellow fever, typhus, measles and mumps and those kinds of things?"
Warren acknowledges there are many in Rwanda that still have a lingering uneasiness about religion that stems back to the genocide.
"People were killed in churches," said Kagame. "In fact, it comes out very well when we see that people took shelter in churches, believing these were places of sanctity where they could take refuge and they would survive. Not only did people follow them there and killed them, church leaders collaborated to have them killed."
But Warren says there is still an important role for the church to play in Rwanda.
"If you take all the people of faith out of the equation you've taken out most of the world," said Warren. "If you could say only secular people could do humanitarian work, then think about this: one in three people in the world is a member of a church. The actual number of secular people is actually quite small outside of Manhattan and Europe. When it comes to humanitarian work, I say that I don't care why people do it , as long as they do it... the reason I do it is because I have a savior named Jesus Christ who said 'love your neighbor as yourself.' That's why I do it."
"I don't think I barely resemble myself to myself or to my family," said Kay Warren. "My kids say, 'Who are you? And what have you done to our mom? Where did she go?' I was a stay-at-home mom when my kids were growing up. Really involved in the church, but I didn't work outside of the home. Now I'm gone. I travel. I work really long hours. I'm talking to all kinds of really interesting people. It's hard.
"I like who I'm becoming. I'll put it that way. I like who I'm becoming because, I have to quote somebody who I really like and is kind of famous, I have purpose. I know why I'm here. I know what I'm supposed to be doing. There is such fulfillment in that."
"The P.E.A.C.E. plan is not a five-year plan," said her husband. " It's not a 20-year plan. It's a 50-year plan. Reformations take 50 years. It does not happen overnight. The problem with most of our planning is that we set our goals too low and we try to accomplish them too quickly. Instead, we need to have bigger vision and bigger goals and devote the rest of our lives to it. I've got maybe 20 years to give to the P.E.A.C.E. plan. It will not be accomplished in my lifetime. It won't, unless there's an absolute miracle."