Donald E. Miller, University of Southern California

Unveiling the Heart of 100 Humanitarians

During decades of traveling internationally on various research projects, Donald E. Miller would occasionally encounter a truly exceptional individual who was addressing a humanitarian issue with passion, fortitude, and vision. Interestingly, to the religion professor at the University of Southern California, they often were deeply spiritual.

Grant Title
Spiritual Exemplars: A Global Project on Engaged Spirituality
Legal Organization
University of Southern California
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 November 2018
End Date: 31 October 2021
Grant Amount

These individuals were not superheroes in the “Marvel Universe” sense. They were typically ordinary people who had been moved to act on a social issue. But rather than donating a few dollars or volunteering during their leisure time, they devoted their lives, heroically, to tackling poverty, human rights, or climate change. Their commitment was off the charts compared to most of us, raising a question for Miller of what role their religion had to do with their steadfast service to others.

In 2018, Miller and a team at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California launched a project to profile 100 exceptional humanitarians from around the world to uncover the characteristics of Spiritual Exemplars: People who are advancing human development, inspired by their religious faith, and sustained by their spiritual practices as they address some of the most challenging problems in the world.

They may be Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or not adhere to any particular tradition. But what they do share is an engaged spirituality. These are people whose spiritual commitments compel them to work on the world’s most difficult issues.

Miller says, “Rather than religion being an ‘opiate’ as Karl Marx claimed or a crutch as Sigmund Freud concluded, religious values inspire them; their spiritual practices sustain them in confronting extremely difficult social issues; and their religious beliefs help them reframe issues in hopeful and life-affirming ways.” Their religious values, and more specifically, their religious practices appear to be an antidote to cynicism and burn out.

Azza Karam - Photo Credit: Courtesy of Religions for Peace International
Makvala Margoshvili - Photo Credit: Julien Pebrel/MYOP

Identifying Spiritual Exemplars

At the beginning of the project, the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC invited the public to nominate Spiritual Exemplars from around the world and also did intensive research of prize winners and humanitarians covered in the global press. Their goal was to assemble a diverse group of exemplars, representing a broad range of geographies, races, and religions, including individuals who do not adhere to a particular tradition. “The initial task,” says Miller, “was to create a database of individuals who might be candidates for study.” He and his research team created criteria for the candidates, based on the following:

  1. They would focus on living individuals, not saints from the past, which has been the focus of many previous studies.
  2. These individuals needed to be admired and emulated by others within and beyond their community.
  3. Candidates would have demonstrated significant impact related to human flourishing.
  4. Exemplars would respect human rights, such as those defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  5. And, finally, religion needed to play an important role in their lives. Specifically, they were inspired and sustained by spiritual values, beliefs, and practices. The research team also decided to take a fairly broad definition of religion, including individuals who were deeply spiritual, but did not necessarily identify with institutional religion.

While Miller’s team can identify common traits amongst these exemplars; virtues like compassion, empathy, selflessness, courage, humility and equity; they also discovered characteristics that are essential to sustaining the grueling work of humanitarian efforts and creating long-term change. Exemplars demonstrate grit, resilience, purpose, entrepreneurial creativity and vision, and often operate in counter-cultural ways.

Out of this broad database, Miller and his team worked with international journalists and their own in-house researchers to profile 104 “spiritual exemplars” from 42 countries across the globe who champion humanitarian efforts in charity, peacebuilding, individual transformation, policy change and cultural empowerment. These efforts—expressed in focused projects such as racial justice, health care, education, gender equity, religious tolerance and peacebuilding, socioeconomic development, and environmental justice—are being implemented in some of the world’s most challenging environments and circumstances.

Spiritual exemplars are not so concerned with the question of, ‘What is God?’ They are more likely to ask, "Where is God?"
– Donald Miller, co-founder and director of strategic initiatives of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC

The Role of Religion

Humanitarian work takes a toll, and exemplars are just as susceptible to burnout, vicarious trauma and loneliness as any other human being would be in the field. While Miller’s team did not compare non-religious humanitarians with spiritually motivated humanitarians and hold no critique over those who were not religious, the researchers focused on what is distinctive about spiritually motivated humanitarians.

What Miller’s team uncovered are a number of spiritual practices that sustain people who are working in extremely challenging humanitarian circumstances. Spiritual practices common to exemplars include prayer, meditation, study and reflection, corporate worship, chanting and singing, and regular retreats or time apart for solitude and rest. These practices animate the exemplars’ commitment and dedication to their humanitarian efforts, allowing them to see their work as part of a larger and more hopeful spiritual worldview.

“Spiritual exemplars are not so concerned with the question,” says Miller, “of, ‘What is God?’ They are more likely to ask, ‘Where is God?’” The answer is often that God is to be found when serving the poor, the vulnerable, and those who are suffering. “Religion is not an abstract and theoretical word game for exemplars,” he says. “Exemplars are rooted in real life problems and issues.”

Miller further explains, “Engaged spirituality is not simply applying a set of religious values or virtues to a situation. In fact, the process is much more dialectic: In the act of doing – responding to a human need – one is drawn into a deeper understanding of religion and moral values. Religion ‘inspires’ people to engage in humanitarian work. It also ‘sustains’ them in doing the hard work of engaging difficult issues. There is also a sense in which ‘doing the work’ has a reciprocal effect; it has the potential to transform the individual and their own theology or spiritual understanding.”

woman surrounded by children, while holding two children

Emerging Insights

To understand how religion powered these heroic behaviors, Miller’s team is exploring three categories of religious influence: the role of beliefs, the role of community, and the role of spiritual practices.

Summarizing, Miller says, “In spite of the challenging environments facing many spiritual exemplars, they tend to be highly resilient. Several factors may account for this quality. First, they are purpose driven individuals who connect their identity to religious values and faith. They have spiritual practices that renew them daily, refreshing their sense of calling as vessels of a divine purpose or higher power beyond themselves. And their beliefs function to reframe circumstances in a redemptive way, offering a vision of hope and possibility. In short, purpose, spiritual practices, and beliefs mutually reinforce each other. Indeed, the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann says that we don’t practice because we believe, but we believe because we practice.”

Religion "inspires" people to engage in humanitarian work. It also "sustains" them in doing the hard work of engaging difficult issues.

According to Miller, “Their religious beliefs reframe their own potential within a larger narrative story that allows them to access a perspective of hope and possibility, have a gritty perseverance, and be driven by a greater sense of purpose. Exemplars furthermore draw ongoing support from their communities and are able to renew themselves and remain inspired in their sustained efforts because of their personal spiritual practices.

“At this moment in human history, which seems overly focus on cynicism and debunking, we need heroes to emulate. Heroes who have figured out some of the levers of resilience. Heroes who given themselves to a cause and have found purpose and meaning in their work,” says Miller. “One place to look for such heroes in among people committed to humanitarian work that are inspired by their faith, sustained by their spiritual practice, and reframe each day with hope and possibility because of their beliefs in an unseen reality.”


Grantee Infographic

humanitarians infographic

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