Today's guest is Tom Davis. He is the president of Children's HopeChest, an international child advocacy organization. He is also the author of the fiction books, Scared and Priceless. His non-fiction works include Fields of the Fatherless, Red Letters and Confessions of a Good Christian Guy. He and his wife Emily have 7 children, including 2 adopted daughters from Russia.
Tom also maintains a blog on Beliefnet called Red Letters (Living the Words of Jesus). I would encourage you to check it out.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Tom Davis over the phone recently. This interview is an edited transcription of that call.
1. At what point did you know that you had to write about and model compassionate living?
That’s a long story. I was a youth pastor in Dallas, TX and we had a great youth group; looking at the number of kids it was very successful. I began my Masters in Theology and I started seeing all these verses about God’s heart for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, the slave--verse after verse. Here we were, pretty comfortable in more of an affluent, middle upper-class neighbourhood. I thought, here is this huge chunk of the Gospel we are not living out as a church or as a youth ministry. So we really wrestled with that a lot and prayed about it a lot.
You know, in James 1:27 it says, pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans in their distress, so I felt like we really needed to do something to try to care for widows and orphans. I started looking around at ministries locally and couldn’t find any that were doing this. So, in 1997, I took about 35 people from our youth group and our church, and we went to Vladimir, Russia and did a camp for 150 orphans. I had no idea what I was walking into-- I just knew this was an orphan camp and we were going to go over there and do what we could to help.
I started studying about the orphan problem in Russia and at the time there were millions of kids in state-run orphanages. I learned that they are forced to leave at 15-16 years old. Within 2 years, because of hopelessness, about 15-20% of them will commit suicide. About 60% of the girls will end up in prostitution or being sexually trafficked. About 70% of the boys will end up in prison or living on the streets. (This is all still true today.) It just broke my heart; I couldn’t believe that this is what these kids were facing at such a young age—the same age as the kids in my youth group. I started thinking about these kids getting out, not having a mom, a dad, any support system anywhere and being put in a situation where they would have to prostitute themselves in order to have a roof over their heads. It was the height of injustice to me, I just couldn’t believe in our world, with all our technology, all the forms of media available, that all of this is going on.
When we went, I expected to find kids with lots of problems-- you know, that we would be breaking up fights in the camp and kids wouldn’t want to have anything to do with us. It was the exact opposite. Once we showed these kids a little love, they just came alive. We were throwing them in the air, playing with them, tucking them in at night--they became like our kids for those 2 weeks. I had heard about God’s heart for orphans, the broken and the poor, but that was the first time I really experienced God’s heart for the poor. Here were these kids whom He loved, cared about, wanted good things for, whom He had created in His image, yet because of their circumstances were not experiencing the abundant life that Christ wanted. The enemy had come to kill, steal and destroy.
So out of that trip, (that was my whole foray into this,) we met a little girl. I came walking down the stairs one day and my wife had this little girl, Anya’s hand in one of hers, and some Russian wildflowers in the other, and we were just smitten with her. We couldn’t imagine her getting out in a few short years having to face what she was going to face. We were 22 and 26 years old when we started the adoption process and it took us a year. We adopted Anya, who was 11 at the time, and she came home with us in 1998. Our hearts had been broken for these kids, so we began looking at what we could do to help them not end up in those circumstances when they could no longer stay in the orphanages. That’s why I kept going back and helping establish programs and how we ended up with Children’s Hope Chest and all that we do now.
2. So how do you maintain hope with all the brokenness, pain and suffering you see around the world?
That is a fantastic question, Rick. It’s what I am doing my doctorate on right now believe it or not. The content of my doctorate is, “Where does hope come from? Especially in the midst of some of the most difficult circumstances, how do people maintain hope?”
I have personally met some people with heart-breaking stories. There were 2 girls in that camp in 1997, named Sveta and Lida . (At the time we were just beginning some of the programs we now have for girls. Today we place girls in what are called ‘family centers,’ where they live with a Christian couple, in an independent living program where 4-5 girls live together and get their education. They receive help from people who love them and care about them while they establish themselves in life.) Sveta got really involved in our programs; Lida didn’t. Sveta got married, got in our Family Center program, graduated college, and did incredibly well. She’s doing great to this day.
Lida, because we lost track of her, didn’t have the benefit of the programs; she got caught in the wrong crowd and was promised a better life from these people she did not know were traffickers. She was forced to do what traffickers do to girls, and have 20-30 clients a day. She was working this truck stop and a trucker, one of her “clients” had his way with her, killed her and threw her out the door and she was found in a ditch. She was buried in a tomb, in a graveyard; police never investigated. We never found her grave. She was buried among hundreds of girls who had nothing more than a wooden plaque saying “Unknown Girl,” over their graves among the weeds. Those situations are incredibly heartbreaking.
I think the hope comes from realizing that, for one, you are making a difference as an organization; with our partners we are seeing the lives of girls change. In fact, in the regions we work in, instead of the 60% of girls ending up in prostitution, it’s less than a half a percent. We know where the girls are and with God’s help and many other peoples help, we are transforming what’s happening to those kids. So I am a real firm believer in John 10:10 which says that “the thief comes to kill, steal and destroy, but I have come that they might have life and life abundantly.” How does the abundant life come? It comes when God’s people begin to get the heart for the things He has the heart for, to get engaged in His work and begin to make differences and instead of 60% of the girls ending up in prostitution and sex trafficking, it’s virtually 0% because people are praying, people are involved, people are helping to establish programs; they are taking a personal interest and it changes everything. To me that is where the hope comes from. It’s seeing the people of God being who they are supposed to be on this earth by combating issues of injustice, by using their voice to make a difference, no matter how small or how big of a circle they have. Everybody has influence, everybody can do something.
3. You started off writing non-fiction books and then moved to fiction books. Do you feel people respond differently to the 2 types of books?
What I have found is that there are 2 totally different audiences. I wrote the non-fiction because, at the time of the first book, Fields of the Fatherless, there was virtually nothing out there on these issues, on God’s heart for orphans, on why people should be involved, how to be involved, etc…, so the non-fiction ones are kind of ‘how-to’ books. What I started to realize was that people hear so many statistics all the time and get statistic weary. They don’t know what to do with that, they don’t know what to do with those numbers and the numbers don’t connect to lives for them, so I thought, what if I could write a book that was based upon one of these statistics but it was a real life story of a real little boy or girl that goes through these kinds of things every day and to put flesh on that statistic, and let people see the world through their eyes, walk in their shoes and experience what it would be like to be them? That’s how the novels were birthed. People are probably moved a lot deeper by reading the novels, but you have fiction readers who predominately read novels, and then non-fiction readers and that’s predominately what they read. It was just a way to reach more people in a different way, in a way especially for people who are thinking about going over to a place like Africa or Russia or who have never been and want to know what it is like, [so they can] enmesh themselves in these stories based on true life, and see what’s going on, see the spiritual battle and all that is happening and that there is a thread of redemption throughout ,so that it does bring hope.
4. So what is the ministry of Children’s Hope Chest?
The ministry of Children’s Hope Chest is primarily to live out to the best of our ability James 1:27, which is caring for widows and orphans in their distress. So we seek after the least of these. We try to go into places where many people don’t. Russia would be an example: there are not a lot of big organizations in Russia. Swaziland, [which has] the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, -- over 40%-- is just a devastated place, which needs a lot of hope, a lot of help. We go into those areas where we provide not only emergency assistance-- we see these orphan communities are starving to death, so we have to do emergency aid, food, clean water-- but we have a three-prong development plan: approximately a 10-year plan called Survive, Thrive and Succeed. The Survive phase is all about meeting the emergency need. Then it moves from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’, so we start looking at how can we rebuild this community or the lives of these kids, how can we help them overcome this cycle of poverty and orphanhood by helping to get them educated, and by teaching them life skills. The final phase, the ‘succeed’ phase, is a micro-enterprise approach where we are working ourselves out of a job. We will establish leadership academies where we are training people how to be Christian leaders, how to have job skills, how to start a business, how to be entrepreneurial; we’re giving them seed money to help start their own local businesses that work in their context.
Our fundamental belief is that if you reach a generation, a generation will reach itself. So once we start to care for those orphans and turn their lives around, they become successful. They go back into those orphanages and those communities where they used to be; they know what it was like better than anybody, then help provide those solutions and transform what’s happening in their own country.
5. Not everyone can go overseas so what are some steps the average person can take to make the need known and to help the hurting?
I think there are so many things people can do. Globalization has provided a way for anybody to get connected and to make a deep and significant impact in the life of somebody else. We do that via the internet where we have people who pray-- praying is a big part, I’m a big believer in that. Many of these orphans don’t have anyone to pray for them. They have no physical covering/protection and no spiritual covering either. We just did a big youth conference with about 5,000 kids and had a significant time of prayer and they caught the heart and vision for this and now they are praying for these orphanages by name. I think there are ways people can get involved by being advocates. Educate yourselves, first of all, on these issues. If your concern is sex-trafficking for example, read books like Priceless, read other books. Get educated so you know what’s happening and what’s going on.
Secondly, gather a group of people around you who have the same heart, and began to say “God what can we do?” I just got a letter from a family in NY, that heard that they could change the life of an orphan by helping to pay for their education. Their little girls, who are 7 and 9 years old, couldn’t believe that another little girl would not have the opportunity to go to school. They gave up all of their birthday money, they are doing lemonade sales, whatever they can and they are providing for a little girl in Africa who has touched their heart and they are seeing that she is completely taken care of, she’s going to school and these girls’ lives are just changed; they are looking for any way that they can help this little girl. These are young kids who have never been over to Africa but they are helping this other little girl just like them. I think it’s just a matter of saying “God, you show me what can I do?”
Look at it in this respect:150 million orphans in the world is a huge number, but if less than 7% of people did something like what those little girls did for an orphan, less than 7%, there’d be no orphan problem! Orphans wouldn’t be subjected to malnourishment, dying of preventable and treatable diseases and being trafficked. Because there are plenty of places and programs they can get into if people would just mobilize themselves and take some steps in the right direction to say “ok, what can I do?”
Children’s Hope Chest is a small to medium size organization, but there are a lot of those kinds of organizations out there who have a waiting list of kids to get into programs and into schools, into homes, if people just get involved. So I would start asking those questions of “what can I do?”, and making those prayers of “God you show me what to do and I’ll do it,” and gathering other people around you. I’m telling you, you can do incredible things that way!
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this Tom.