9 Questions With Wess Stafford (Super-Sized Edition)

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Except you'll notice that today it's 9 questions. That's right! This is the Super-Sized edition of the 5 Question feature.

Today's guest is Wess Stafford. From the poor of Africa's Ivory Coast, to President and Chief Executive Officer of Compassion International, Dr. Wesley K. Stafford — Wess — has maintained one simple belief: God's children are priceless resources. To that end, Wess leads Compassion's efforts to break the cycle of poverty for children everywhere.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Wess Stafford over the phone recently. This interview is an edited transcription of that call.

1. You were the son of missionaries, but you didn't have the easiest childhood, correct?

That's fair to say. In a nutshell, I think I was very privileged to be born into and raised in a missionary family. Every year of my childhood was split between two locations: one of them was the worst of times, and one of them was the best of times: It was pretty much mission policy back in those days that all the missionary kids in West Africa were required to go to a boarding school. In large part, to get them out of the way so the gospel could go forth.

Being away from your parents for nine straight months-- It was about seven hundred miles away; it took about a week to drive it, and we stayed there from March until September.--Being away from your parents when you're only six years old was tough enough, but the really sad things was, the people who were put in charge of us didn't go to Africa to take care of missionary kids; they went to Africa to save the lost. They didn't make it, either linguistically, or cross-culturally, or something. But ultimately, instead of being fired, ('cause you can't fire a missionary--they bring their own financial salary across the border,) they were given the least important thing there was to be done. And that, as it turned out, was to go take care of other missionaries' kids'. Well, they weren't called to do that, they weren't trained to do that, they didn't want to do that; nobody held them accountable while they did that.

As a result, about a dozen grownups absolutely took out their rage on us kids (there were about 50 of us.) And we were abused for nine months in any way a child can be abused. We were scared to death of God, and we knew that we were little sinners in the hands of this very angry God, and there was no sense of the love for God, just fear. Emotionally, it actually came to the point where I wouldn't look a grownup in the eye, and I wouldn't speak except in a mumble, and hope I wouldn't be hurt, 'cause anytime I engaged with a grownup it always ended up in a beating of some sort.

So at age six if you'd have looked at me… We ran into one of my teachers a year ago, and my wife asked this teacher: Did you see in Wesley, this little tiny boy, any evidence that he would grow up to be the leader of a huge ministry? And the teacher stood there for a while and it was an eternity, and she finally said, No, I really didn't. And she told the truth. There was no evidence. All of us kids were like hunted little animals, we just avoided grownups. Any contact with grownups ended up with either shame or pain or both. So we were emotionally just crushed. Physically, it was run very strictly. When I was nine years old and they taught the math class how to average stuff, the most reoccurring thing in my life I could think of to average was, How many times do they beat me in this place?

I kept a little tally under my pillow for several weeks and then I did the math, and I was being beaten seventeen times a week. Sometimes to the point where you could hardly walk. Many of my friends, I actually risked my little life to help pick them up and carry them back to their rooms. You cannot believe the physical abuse. And then Rick, and I don't talk about this a whole lot, but the sexual abuse. Any time Satan has free reign, this is one of his favorite tools, and he was just having his time up there. The very grownups who were reading us our Bible stories, after the generator was off and the dorm was dark, were going up and down the halls molesting little children. Even the older kids who had been victims themselves turned into predators. It turned out that it was a very dangerous place to be a little child, for the very people you should have run to for help were the ones who were hurting you.

2. You mentioned the best of times. How did those shape you?

The best of times was this wonderful village that I got to be raised in. My sister and I were the only white kids for a day's drive in any direction. The village had a saying, it takes a whole village to raise a child, so everybody thought they owned every kid in the village. I was one of those kids- wrong color skin, mind you, but I was one of those kids that everybody loved on and poured into. I never fell down and hurt myself without some African swooping in, picking me up, drying my tears and sending me on my way. They taught me what they taught their kids.

I really learned everything I need to know to lead Compassion's Worldwide ministry around the campfires of a little African village-- all the things that really mattered. Oh, you can learn about management and all that stuff, but stuff of the heart, the real quality stuff, I learned there. Like joy, and love, and hope; that time is your servant, not your master; that people matter, things don't; how to give, how to receive; why God gives strength: it's not for you, it's for others; why God gives courage, not for you to be the best, but for you to be there when others are frightened. All of my heart foundation I owe to the poor in that village. Sadly, I was only there for three months of each year, and it was an oasis of love and of restoration, and the building back up of really damaged little boy from the rest of the year. And that was the hard part, was the rest of the year.

3. So how did you get involved with Compassion International?

It's an interesting thing, 'cause there is a direct line of reason. Although I didn't know where I was going, there was a direct line of reasoning all the way from the village and that boarding school. The people of the village, while they were wonderful in their values, were poverty-stricken, and by the time I was fifteen and came to live in the United States, half of my boyhood friends in that village had died, some of them right in my arms. I lost friends to malaria, to evils, to smallpox, to snake bites. You know, our hospitals were a day away and we had snakes that could kill you in thirty minutes. I came to understand poverty and how cruel it is and what it does to the hart of a child and how it breaks the hearts of parents. I didn't know how it all pieced together, but eventually when I understood that Compassion existed, it was the most natural fit in the world. I knew the very children we are trying to minister to now in our organization. I know them, not just the statistics about them, I know them, I know who dies even-- everybody dies, turns out. The good ones die. Rascals like me survive, but the really good ones… I had friends who we discovered after their death had died of malaria, because every time they were given a pill, they had given it to a child who they thought had needed it more.

So when I think about the poor, frankly, I don't think downward at all, I think upward. I tell staff around the world that they need to earn the right to even be around these people. The worst thing about poverty is not all of these circumstances, the worst thing about poverty is the message that all of these circumstances eventually bring into the heart of a child, that says, "Give up. You're not going to live; nobody cares; nobody's coming to your rescue; give up." Well, ironically, that's the same message that abuse is sending: "Give up. Nobody cares."

And so, you know, the twin paths of my childhood actually led me to the ministry of Compassion. When I came to America when I was fifteen, half my boyhood friends had died, in fact that's where the book starts is when I first arrived in Manhattan. But one of the first days in America, I saw people walking along the sidewalk carrying grocery bags. And being a pretty good hunter, I backtracked them, you know, where's that stuff coming from? And I walked inside, and I saw all of this food! It hit me like a ton of bricks: Nobody needs to starve. There's plenty of food. And next door to the grocery store, attached to it, was a drug store. And I asked one of the people inside, "What's all this?" And they said, "Well this is all medicine." And I realized: There's plenty of that, too. My friends didn't need to die, there's plenty of medicine, there's plenty of food. And I went out on the curb of Manhattan, sat down and I just sobbed. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. The childhood full of abuse and loss because of poverty. And because it was Manhattan, nobody stopped to ask me, you know, "Are you okay, what are you crying about?" And after my tears dried up, I began watching people walk by. And I became more and more angry: what is wrong with these people? You have all of this and you don't care. And I went into a huge rage, that lasted through my high school years while we stayed in America.

After I'd lived in America for about seven or eight years, and gotten to know this place and the language in this place--I spoke four languages as a little guy, and English was my weakest--but once I got to understand it, I thought, It's not that they don't care. These people really don't even know. It's like it's happening on Mars and not on their own planet. And I realized at that point, somehow now, I have lived at both ends of this bridge. I know both cultures, I know both languages, I know the hearts of both ends of this bridge. Somehow in my life I've got to serve as a bridge between these two worlds because they need each other. And when I had understood that in my heart as a sense of my calling, I stumbled onto a little thing called Compassion.

Compassion was in a 7-11-sized office in Chicago. What they were doing was linking children in poverty and their families and their little churches to people in America, or Western Europe or elsewhere. I realized You know what? That's exactly my calling. And I threw myself in--that was thirty-four years ago,-- into this, and I have fought with all my heart ever since then. If it hadn't existed when I came along--it was already twenty-five years old when I came--I would probably eventually have had to start it.

Why do you fight so hard for kids?

When people ask, "Why do you care so much?", the response is, "I care so much because it's a personal calling. I have felt poverty, I have felt abuse; I know the message that it speaks into the hearts of children, and I know how important a voice of hope is in these little kids' lives. That's why sponsors are so important to me: way more important than the money that they send, is their prayers and the letters that they send that lift up these children, saying "Don't give up, I'm watching you girl, I'm believing in you: Don't you dare give up." I could have used a letter like that at the boarding school. And so here I am, all these years later, in the sweet spot of my calling, in the sweet spot of my heart, and I've had a front-row seat to watch what God can do.

5. How many kids are being sponsored right now?

When I began, the budget here was about ten million dollars, and we had about twenty-five thousand children and twenty-five staff. Here we are, a few decades later, and we have 1.2 million children. The budget this year is almost 600 million dollars. I've had a front-row seat to watch what God does when a ministry does something so close to His heart, and honors Him with what it does.

6. So you work with local groups in each location, correct?

Every local group is a local church, yes. Compassion does not touch the life of a child except through the local church in their village. We try to maintain a pretty low profile, we don't want to write Compassion on our vehicles, and Compassion t-shirts-- we want that church to get the credibility. We want the people in that community eventually say to the Christians in that community, "Why do you care? Why do you care about our children so much?" It gives the Christians in that church, the pastor and the rest of them, the credibility, having lived the gospel, to now speak the gospel. Which is kind of a backwards way to how most missions try to do stuff. But we start with the actions.

7. Compassion provides more than food and clothing though correct?

Oh yes. Our product, if you will, is child development, or child discipleship. When the Lord said, "Go into all the world and make disciples and teach them to observe all things I have commanded you?" Well, "all things I have commanded you" throughout the scriptures, have everything to do with why people are poor. We are commanded to take care of our environment in Psalm chapter 8, "You put all things under his feet, all sheep, oxen, the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea." How do we relate to our environment? And environment is a big part of why people are poor.

We're taught how to take care of our own physical well-being. If you want to learn how to dig a latrine, for Pete's sake, Leviticus teaches you how to build a latrine. How to wash, what to eat, what not to eat, that's a piece of what it's about. The importance of studying hard and excellence, and the importance of working hard, and the dignity of work. How do you relate in an unjust society? Do you just give up or do you shine like light and have the flavor of salt? So what we do with the church is a whole range of activities and services to support these children that allow them to discover their value, which is why a sponsor is so important and why the Christian community is so important: to speak into this child, "You matter. You matter to God, you matter to me, I want to know what you're thinking, I want to know what you're dreaming."

So the children get fed: it's not because it's just a nice thing to do, it's because the children need food in order to achieve the rest of their developmental goals. So we feed them: 1.2 million children a day. We put water in their communities if unsafe water is what's keeping them from reaching their potential; we help them with their schoolwork, we pay the fees,-- you know sometimes the 12 dollar uniform to go to school, in these countries, is more than these families can handle, so the kids don't go to school for want of twelve lousy bucks! And then of course, moms and dads usually are illiterate, so we have tutors at the church projects, where the kids not only go to school, but they excel in school. And healthcare: both preventative as well as curative. We do open-heart surgeries sometimes to save the life of one of these little ones we've given ourselves to. And ultimately, living out the Gospel in such a way that they have the opportunity to accept Christ as their Savior.

8. So kids are coming to a relationship with Christ?

438 children come to Christ every single day. I know that because last year it was over 150 000 children. And the thing that excites me is that's at the knee of their pastor, or in a Sunday school class under a mango tree somewhere. And the rest of the job is the discipling of them to understand God's love and to reach their God-given potential. We have 2 million people who have graduated from Compassion's program in the last 60 years. They are now scattered across society. They are teachers, they are doctors, they are lawyers... We've got kids in Haiti who are senators; we've got kids who are judges in Uganda, kids who are medical doctors; hundreds of thousands of them have become pastors. That's the beautiful thing about working with kids, is that they grow up. And if you have built the foundation right, then they turn around and bless their nations.

9. How easy is it to sponsor a child?

It's one click: all you've got to do is go to Compassion.com and there's a section there, "Sponsor a Child." Obviously with the 1.2 million children that we're serving, there are always children in the pipeline waiting for a sponsor. (We help those kids with our full program while they wait for a sponsor.) It's as easy as clicking on the picture of a child and saying, "I'll do that one... let me have that one." Many people-- most of our sponsors, by the way, are young college-age singles, or young families,-- do this in large part to live out their faith in a hurting world. One of the exciting things about this generation is they know that you can't just live on this planet knowing that people are poor and do nothing! There's over 2000 verses in the scriptures that indicate very clearly, God cares about the poor and has commanded us to do the same. So we don't have the option of not doing that, and that is one reason we've doubled in the last four years! The budget, the number of kids that we're helping-- all of that has doubled in the last four years. That's a 56-year-old ministry; by now we should be all bureaucratic, old line-up and red tape, but it still feels very entrepreneurial.

So many of our sponsors say, "You know, I have a five-year-old daughter that I want to grow up having a compassionate, caring heart, and I don't know how to teach that in our society. She doesn't learn that hanging out at the mall, or watching television or messages out of the movies. She doesn't even learn that from the little lectures I give about what kind of people are we. She learns about that from our sponsor child; she learns about that when we pray at night, the letters we receive from that child. And by drawing pictures at the kitchen table for her little sister over in Uganda. We keep a jar on our table where we collect the 38 dollars a month, and some of that is my daughter's allowance, so she is actually involved in this other little girls' life, so I love having a sponsor child who is growing up alongside her."

Compassion is big enough now that you can say, "Okay, I want a little girl: I want her to be five years old, I want her to be from Mexico, and my daughter has a handicap, so I would like a child like that." It's amazing what you can do with that--you should try it--just go to Compassion.com and search around. At this point you can pretty much find what you're looking for, and I often tell people, choose a country where they might visit. Does your church have a relationship with people in Guatemala? Then choose a Guatemalan child, 'cause someday you might be able to go to visit them.
Choose a country you can go to, because if you can get to the country where your child lives, Compassion will bend over backwards to get you face to face with your child. It's good for the child, it's good for the sponsor, but it also lets people know, I could check them out if I wanted to. And one of the things about Compassion is that its integrity is absolutely impeccable. We think if you lack integrity, you lack everything. Last year over 4,000 sponsors wen overseas to see their sponsored child.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this Wess.

If you haven't already, please make sure you go to Compassion.com and sponsor a child today. You can also click on the Compassion link on my sidebar. And remember that while the cost of living is rising dramatically at home, $41 can still provide a full month's worth of sponsorship for a child in poverty! It really is great 'bang for your buck!'

To see past 5 Questions guests see the 5 questions page under the tab above.


Marla said...

Rick...thank-you for doing this interview...want a wonderful ministry...really spoke to my heart!

RDA said...

Thanks Marla. Sarah and I were blessed by this as well as it spoke to us as well.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this blog Rick and this one reached me because I GET some of the things this man says. I do! It is my hope and eventually prayer more people will reach out to God and bless others with not just words but their own unique way of serving others with the talents they have... we all have... so others may see the heart of God working deeply... and see that God is not just an idea we all talk about but that He is in many ways an experiential reality. Not that we limit God to this... because we shouldn't... but I know some people see the difference between the cerebral Christian and the one who lives out the reality of God in every action... being wary of his or her motivation...

JD said...

This is one of the best blog posts / interviews I have ever read.

I have been a Compassion sponsor for over 6 years. When I started, the Compassion musician/artist that spoke really touched by heart, and I felt we should sponsor because "it seemed like a nice thing to do".

I had no idea. I had absolutely not idea how crucial a difference it would make, not only in the life of the children we sponsor, but in our lives as well.

My husband is not living for Christ, and through Compassion, he is exposed to the gospel and it is softening his heart to God's desire for his heart. The man who once had the attitude that these kids were everyone else's "problem" now embraces our support of 12 Compassion kids.

I read "Too Small To Ignore" last year while on a Compassion Advocate trip to Honduras where we spent time with many churches carrying out the Compassion program, hundreds of beautiful children transformed by the gospel brought to them by the hands and feet of Christ... powerful experience.

Our Compassion son in Ghana led us to research ways that we could serve Him in Ghana, and we discovered that child slavery is a serious problem in his country... we're raising funds to build a school for child slaves rescued by a Christian organization, and we will be serving Him there for 2 weeks in November... followed by some time with 3 of our Compassion sons at the end of our time there.

It might take a village to raise a child, but truly, it takes a child to raise the world.

RDA said...

@Ann - Thanks for that. I am glad you enjoyed the interview.

@JD - Thank you. I was greatly encouraged by your comments. I think Wess Stafford's story shows how vulnerable little kids are but also, and more importantly, how God can redeem any situation.

Anonymous said...

We need Compassion in the US now. Go look at Antioch Community Church in Waco, Tx. They are about to start helping the public school feed the children b/c the nat'l govt can't afford to anymore.