Last year, Mike Handler and Bethany Cook got to sit down and talk with Wess Stafford about his story, partnerships between Awana, Compassion International, and much more.
Mike Handler: So Wess, for those not familiar with your story, what would you say would be the single catalytic moment or event that launched you into being an advocate for children?
Wess Stafford: Well I remember it well, actually. You know, I’ve written a book called Just a Minute. And basically in there, I make the case that sometimes, all it takes is a minute for a person to find their way forward. And I maintain that if God stands a child in front of you for as little as a minute, it might be a divine appointment. You might be the hero that says the right thing or does the right thing that launches that life.
So many of us, we ponder back and ask, “Who am I?” and “Who do I owe for who I’ve become?” and we can identify a minute. This minute I remember very well. It takes a little bit to set that up because I was living in a little African village in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. My mom and dad were missionaries there. And I was the only white child for about 100 miles in any direction. And I was just one of the children of the village. They raised me. They had a saying, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” And I was the wrong color, but as far as the village was concerned, I was their son. So, they taught me all my values. I’ve told people, everything I needed to know to lead Compassion, I learned from the poor in that village. But we were poor, and we were very vulnerable to the things of poverty. We lived right on the edge of the Sahara desert. 120 degrees was typical day in that place. So we were very poor, and this brought about a minute.
We had gone through a year of drought, and everybody in the village was weak. We had eaten almost nothing for almost a year, when an epidemic of measles swept into our village. Now, measles should keep you out of school for a few days, but because we were so weak, it was a killer. And I was probably seven years old, and in comes this disease, and in the span of about 2 weeks, 1 out of every 4 of my little village buddies died of measles. And some of them, you know, right in my arms. And I remember running to my father, who was translating the Bible in a hot tin shed, I remember the big rack of Bibles along his back wall, and he looked up and he saw his skinny little son standing there and he says, “ Yes, Wess?” and I said, “Daddy, I’ve got a question for you.” And he says, “Well, what is it son?” I said, “When do you think it will be my turn?” And he said, “Your turn for what, Wess?” and I said, “My turn to die, Daddy. All my friends are dying. When do you think I’ll die?” And my father said, “Oh son, you don’t have to worry about that; you’re not going to die from this.” And I said, “Well, how do you know?” And he said, “Well, roll up your sleeve.” And I rolled up my t-shirt and he says, “Those little scratches on your arm. Those are called vaccinations. And you got those in America before you came here so you wouldn’t get measles and other diseases.” And it was a moment where I think I became Compassion’s president even though I was only 7 years old. Because I will never forget this moment. Suddenly, I could no longer see my father’s face. It had blurred in with my tears and I stammered, “Papa, that’s not fair! Why don’t all of my friends have scratches on their arms?” My first inclination that the world isn’t fair, and I was just like everybody else, except I had scratches on my arms. Well, that led me, ultimately to Compassion International, and one of the great joys I had as president there, was to put scratches on the arms of children, tens of thousands of children, every year, all across the world. And I believed in that broken-hearted moment that the world isn’t fair, and that those of us who have been blessed have an obligation, first of all, to be grateful, and then to do something about those who haven’t, and that was a pivotal moment that shaped my life.
Bethany Cook: I have to say I’m a little jealous, because I’ve heard you’ve gotten to see Awana, internationally, partnering with Compassion, on occasion, and I’ve only been on staff here for two years, and I have yet to take an international trip with Awana, so I was curious, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with Awana’s international work, would you be willing to tell us a little bit about what you’ve seen and how Awana and Compassion have partnered in the past internationally?
WS: Yea, well, I’ll tell you what. I am a great fan of Awana. I’m obviously a great fan of Compassion. I spent 38 years at Compassion, but I have, on occasion, had the opportunity to see what it looks like when these two ministries join together in the context of a little poverty stricken church. Because, as you know, at Compassion, the only way we ever touch the life of a sponsored child, is through a little local church. And you don’t see any Compassion signs on that church. We don’t have it on our vehicles, we don’t wear Compassion t-shirts. Because if anyone is going to be thanked, we want it to be that local pastor, and that local body of believers. And we want the people of that community to eventually ask, “So why do you love our children like this?” And it gives the pastor the privilege of saying, “You know what? It’s about the love of God.” And so, having already lived out the Gospel in the context of Compassion’s holistic program, they now have the invitation to speak it to the rest of the family. I think it was Saint Francis of Assisi that said, “Preach the Gospel everywhere you go, and if necessary, use words.”
Well, what Awana and Compassion have been able to do, where we have teamed up in these little churches, is, Compassion’s program is a holistic child development program, so we’re feeding children, maybe the only meal they’ll get in the course of that day. We’re helping tutor the children of the very poor in school because even mom and dad can’t read. But, we want these kids to succeed. And so we do that. We have healthcare programs that we teach. We teach kids to brush their teeth, and how to wash. We have health programs where we vaccinate children. So, we have this holistic program going on in this church, about 8 hours a week, the children come to that church. It’s either all day Saturday, or it’s after school every day, depending on how the government school system works.
So with the very same church, with the very same workers, the very same mission of discipling these children to reach their full, God-given potential, along comes the Awana club, right smack dab in the middle of that same group of people. And it is so amazing to watch these kids alive about the Scripture, first of all. These kids are so smart, and I’ll tell you what, most colonial schools from colonial countries that were once under Europe or someplace, the whole school system is rote memory, and so, these kids, oh my goodness. I have heard kids recite entire books of the Bible in a single standing.
So those of us, at Compassion, the only reason we do all that we do is for these children to have a chance to accept Christ as their Savior and then be disicpled to reach their full, God-given potential. So along comes Awana, and it buries God’s Word in these kids’ hearts-this fertile soil-and then the very same people who are ministering to those kids in that church, feeding them and such, now sit down with them and talk about what those verses mean, and disciple them to reach their full, God-given potential. And it is such a perfect dove-tailing of ministries, that we both come out of it with our missions accomplished, and stronger because of each other’s influence and it is quite a thing to see.
And the leader, that lives right there, in their community. It’s not someone from Kansas, flying in.
MH: And that’s the beauty of both organizations, it’s not just Americans- go save the world, or Canadians- go save the world. It’s putting the power in the hands of local leaders. Equipping local leaders to do the work.
WS: That is exactly it. When a child hears the Gospel, or they read Scripture, that helps them with that mentor, get through a hard time, what they learn is, “There can be victory, even in my slum.” “There can be victory even in my little poverty stricken setting because that person who just prayed with me- I know where they live.”
MH: And well, the love of God doesn’t have to just be translated English. The love of God can be in my own dialect. The love of God can be in my own language. The love of God can be in the accent that’s familiar to me.
WS: Exactly. In my own culture’s stories and fables. I do not think there’s a more loving or a more strategic joining of ministries than when that happens. Now, it doesn’t happen nearly enough. It should be everywhere.
MH: What do you feel, with your experience, seeing things all around the world, also with being very familiar with what’s going on in the church in America, what’s the single biggest challenge you feel the church faces in reaching kids?
W: First of all, there’s a lot. You have to understand that what Awana is trying to do is going right up against the gates of hell. I mean, it’s hard enough to organize a program like this, in many many locations. But you’ve got to understand that we’re also up against spiritual warfare. So I would say, the hardest thing, that I’ve watched in 38 years that I’ve been fighting this battle with Compassion. I have watched that the biggest challenge is getting the church leadership, or mission executive leadership who make the decisions about what gets done, to understand the strategic importance of children. I don’t know how it is they forget they were children. I often tell them, “You know, you’re all experts, you all deserve an honorary doctorate in this because you have done intense complicated research for 18 years of your life- all your life- all you did was be a child. Don’t you remember? “ So I think the biggest problem is vision of leaders, and that’s why I am out, you know, in the battle all the time.
Second thing, though, in the United States particularly, is disengaged parents, who have the understanding in their minds apparently, that the spiritual component of their child’s life- that’s what the church down the street does.
MH: Cause we pay teachers to teach, we might as well pay pastors and such to disciple our kids.
WS: Precisely. So we outsource it and it’s so incredibly wrong. Children will spend one or two hours in the church maybe, but they’re in the home of these Christians all the rest of the time. And yet, we miss the opportunities to seize the powerful moments. I maintain any Christian father, who is home, I don’t care what game is on TV, unless it’s the Cubs, of course, when it is bedtime, it is ministry time. And you should drop anything, and you should be the one who puts the little ones down, you should be talking about their day, you should be singing songs with them, you should be praying with them. And so we have parents who have said that’s the job of the church, and even God-fearing parents do not step up to the task. The other thing that I think, is that kids now days are living an incredibly busy, pressured, lives. And whether you belong to the Awana club or you play on the soccer team, is a decision families are making. And you know what, we need to give kids the privilege and the time to be children, and we as parents need to stop and ask ourselves, “What does success look like? What am I trying to achieve in my children’s lives? And if we understood that, I mean, there are so few of us, who are going to turn into professional soccer players, but we can all turn into Christ followers who change our world. And so we’ve got busy kids, and what gets lost in the midst of it is the spiritual formation of children. My heart actually breaks for the United States.
The other thing is fractured families. They don’t all fracture overnight, so you’ve got years, perhaps, of unhappy families. Where there’s fighting and there’s discord, there’s stress in the home, and children, with their sensitive little spirits, inevitably blame themselves. “You know, mommy and daddy would get along better if I cleaned my room or if I did this or if I did that.” And so, even our irresponsible behavior as moms and dads and husbands and wives, children pay the greatest price. And so I look overseas and I look in the United States and what breaks my heart in the States is lack of vision in the church, the fractured families, children’s lives just way too full, and parents who outsource the spiritual development of their kids.
BC: What would you say to parents that may be a little overwhelmed and not quite sure where to start. Do you have a starting place that you would recommend for how they might be able to identify and seize those teachable moments?
WS: Well you have to understand that I don’t know how you make your money, or how fast you are climbing through this organization or how hard you hit the ball and get paid for it. You are doing nothing more important than raising your little children. And you’ve only got one tiny little window to shape them. God blessed my family, for example, with two little girls. I was Compassion’s president; I was responsible for the welfare and the development of literally a million children across the world back when my little girls were small. My wife and I determined, before we ever had Jenny and Katie, our daughters, that if God ever gave us children, they would never be able to say to us, “Oh you cared for all those children around the world, but you forgot us.” And so we determined, that if God would give us children, they would be our highest priority. You can argue, leading world-wide ministry, that’s a higher calling, don’t you think? And I’m like, “No, I don’t think so. These little ones that I’m putting to bed tonight are my highest responsibility.” So I worked far harder at “Papa” than I did at “President.” And when I got home from work, my briefcase sat down at the door by the garage, and I stepped inside, and I no longer was Compassion’s President, until after bedtime.
Up until then, we had tea parties, you can really get into the heart of your children if you’ll just get on the floor and play with them. To this day in my house, whenever we serve coffee, we always ask, “Do you want sugar and creamy?” That’s what our kids always asked us. And so I listened to my children, I knew that they weren’t going to learn hymns in church, which was the foundation of my faith, so I taught my children a hymn every week at bedtime. One verse per night, and then on Saturday night we would go down in the living room and we would do a concert for Mama. And we would sing that hymn, the old hymns that were so important, and I would tell them the stories behind the hymns.
And then we sponsored tons of kids, way more kids than we could afford. Emmanuel, Renee, Diego, Laura, Alba, Mercedes, Yolanda, Vanessa, SiSaifan…I mean, it got up to like 30. And I’m working at Compassion, so you know we’re not making very much. And my wife used to say, “Every trip cannot result in another sponsored child.” But what I would do when I was gone, my children always knew, that no matter where in the world I was, I would rather be home with them. And when I got home, I had kept notes through the trip, and I would sit and tell them everyone I met. It was a huge debrief and we would laugh and giggle, and then we would pray. And the reason I can enumerate those kids is that so could my daughters, we prayed for them every night, and I often met them on follow up trips and I would tell the girls about them. I knew that I had succeeded as Compassion’s president when both of my daughters, when they finally got jobs that paid them money, the first thing they did with their money was sponsor their very own kids with their very own money. So I knew that my ministry had not left my own children behind. And so, I would argue, I don’t care if you’re a filthy rich businessman or if you’re a banker, or a famous athlete, or whatever you are, the most important thing going on in your life, if God entrusts children to you, is the raising and discipling of those children.
And by the way, the most powerful thing you can do for your little children is love their mama. They need to see what it looks like when a mama loves a father or when a father loves his wife. And little girls learn, I think I know what a godly man looks like. I think I know what I’m looking for. So I guess the answer to your question is, I don’t care what you’re doing, there’s nothing more important than loving and discipling your own children.
You must actually love your children. And it’s not a chore. The big game we used to play was down in our unfinished basement. The girls would come up with every beanbag and every pillow they could, and they would form an airplane because I was always on an airplane. So they had their dolls and we would try to get the dog to stay seated. And I had a monkey puppet, and I was always the passenger in 7D, and so I would be there, and we were the most demanding passengers- another coke, another glass of water- my wife would be a couple rows behind us being the perfect passenger. And our girls- what it let them do was just get into my world. So when I’m gone, they know what’s going on. So it’s not a chore. Love them. Just love them. They will out-give you every time.
MH: Even just being vulnerable, right? Singing is a vulnerable activity. We sing a lot in our house. Wrestling, there’s a lot of wrestling with the three daughters. It’s fun, its just fun.
WS: And it’s an honest relationship. I guess I would say, especially to fathers, if you mess up, if you lost your temper, and you yelled at your children, at bedtime, apologize. Even daddies make mistakes. We’re not perfect. “I got really mad at you today and I am so sorry. Please forgive me, sweetheart.” And they learn how to be loving and how to be forgiving and how to be gracious.
BC: With your 38 years at Compassion, you have experienced so much, and all manner of leadership challenges and ministry opportunities, and I’m curious, if you could go back and re-do anything, is there an opportunity, or a couple maybe, that you wish you could have done differently or handled differently?
WS: You know, this is really sad. But I saw that question, and I pondered that for 3 days. And I, and this sounds horribly arrogant, but I cannot think of going back and an opportunity that I didn’t throw myself at, or something that I did along the way that was just so obviously wrong, so I don’t have a very good answer. Obviously, my wife, if you asked her, she would have a dozen of those…
And the reason, I think, ultimately for that, is I found my way into the sweet spot of my calling. Like I said about the measles experience, by the time I was 15 and left that village, half of my boyhood buddies had died, and it wasn’t just measles, that was a big surge, but it was all along the way. And I found my calling. I knew that the world was unfair. I knew the village life, but now I had lived in America for a while and I knew the American life; I knew the American values. Originally, I was so angry when I came to America cause I thought, these people have all this stuff and they don’t care. And I went through a rage all through my high school years, thinking, “What’s wrong with you?” Until I had lived here long enough to realize, you know what, the issue isn’t that they don’t care, the issue is that most of them don’t know. And when they know, there’s never been a more generous nation in all of the history of the world.
So I knew even at age 15 that somehow I was going to have to bridge these two worlds. I had lived in both places. I was about to start this work for the United Nations or be an ambassador or something to bridge these worlds, when I stumbled upon this tiny little organization in Chicago called Compassion. It was a storefront; I mean it was the size of a 7-11 store. But all they did was blend these two worlds- a sponsored child and a sponsor. What I knew is they actually need each other. This little child needs vaccines to survive, but this sponsor needs love and hope and joy in the midst of it all. And so somehow they had to come together. I found that that’s all this organization does, is bring them together. And the minute I understood that, I was so relieved cause I didn’t have to go start something, I could just go throw my hat into the ring, and this was Compassion. We had like 25 or 30,000 sponsored children at that point. It was a 25-year-old organization, but we clawed our way up to that number. I joined it and when I finally left it we were at a million and 500,000 children. And so I was doing what I could clearly see I had been knit in my mama’s womb by God to do. I threw myself at it, there’s not a day that I regret that I didn’t give it my full concentration and my full effort. And so when I look back I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I found my way into the sweet calling of God’s hand on my life, and I was pretty faithful with it. I gave it everything I had. And God turned around and blessed it.
And so Awana, a podcast for Awana, here’s my great joy. I know this: every single day, across the ministry of Compassion, and this, is 7,000 churches in 26 countries. Every single day, 400 children accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, at the knee of their pastor, or the Awana leader, or a Sunday School class under a mango tree somewhere. And that, that is my great joy.
I spoke at a huge church in Jacksonville, last Sunday in Florida. Sat 1700 people. And I was able to tell them, “Between now and the next time you gather in this sanctuary, the number of children who will come to Christ in the ministry of Compassion would more than fill every seat in this auditorium. And they were like, “Wow, that does sound like the mission field to me.” And so I feel so so blessed that I found what God really called me to do. That He blessed the work of my hands, and now there’s this great ministry blessing children. I love it.
MH: Reaching kids around the world is a huge concept. Almost to the standpoint that as a whole, it almost seems overwhelming. But there’s a point for all of us, whether we’re parents or pastors, or leaders in a church, or whomever they might be, we have our own worlds. How do we make a difference there? While we may not be able to affect the rest of the world, how do we make a difference in our own worlds?
WS: You know, reaching children for Christ, fighting poverty. Both are massive global issues, and it’s easy to look at the sheer magnitude of the problem, and the challenge, and to just be overwhelmed. “It’s so big that I don’t know what to do.” Consequently, I wind up doing nothing. And I think on the side of poverty and the side of bringing children to Christ, you’ve got to break the problem down to one person at a time. And so, the Haitians have a proverb, “Bloom where you’re planted”, they say. And I just love the truth of that. And so, I maintain that anytime God brings a child across your path, even for just a minute, my book Just a Minute, even for just a minute, it might be a divine appointment. It might be your chance to say something or do something that launches that child’s life. And so, be ready for these divine appointments.
Not all of us actually get the privilege of praying with a child to accept Christ, but we can move them toward that, with words of encouragement, with words of love, with seizing moments, that’s why its so important to have God’s word hidden in your heart, so you can just speak it. And so its one child at a time. I mean, think about it. Jesus came to earth to save all mankind. He could have simply written it across the sky, in ink, “I love you, world, come to me” and you’d see it every sunrise and every sunset. He could do that but he chose not to do that. He chose to entrust that to us frail, inconsistent human beings. That was his only plan to bring this world into a relationship with Him. And so it all lands on us. That wasn’t by default, that was the original plan. That was not plan B. And so, whenever you encounter a child, I maintain, its been said by Graham Green, he said, “There’s always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” And so, you might be someone who moves that little child from this point to this point on their journey to someone having the privilege of fully explaining the Gospel. So just cause you can’t do the whole explanation of the Gospel or you’re an introvert and you’re not sure that you want to pray with this child out here on this playground, you can move a child in that direction.
My daughter Jenny taught me that so clearly when she was about 4 years old. We were having a daddy daughter breakfast at McDonalds, and we were in the playground area, and there was another father and his little daughter, who were obviously doing the same thing, having their little breakfast together, and I needed to get some more coffee. So I said, “Now Jenny, stay right here because I’m going to go get coffee and I’m coming right back. You can see me the whole time, you don’t have to worry. And I come back and sit down, and sure enough, there she is in her seat, good as an angel. And all of a sudden, she announced, “They love Jesus!” And I looked across and the man said, “Yea, she came over and asked us, and yea we do!” And I’m like, “I should have done that…Why didn’t I do that?” So, it’s one child at a time. It’s one conversation at a time. It might be one hug at a time, one brief little prayer at a time. You’ve got to get over the sheer magnitude and realize it’s one at a time.
I’m not a great hero but I do remember one time I actually got it right. We were at a carwash in Colorado Springs, where I live. And it was one of these carwashes when the car comes through the machine, you know? So we were sitting on a bench waiting for the cars to come through and there’s this mother and a little three year old boy beside her and they were talking like the best of friends. The mom was explaining how the carwash worked and the son was teasing her and cracking jokes, and their car got ready before mine, and so they got up, and they were just walking away, and I said, “Excuse me mam, can I just say something to you?” She says, “ Yes sir” And I said, “I’ve been listening to this conversation with you and your little boy and that is one lucky little boy to have you as his mama; you are doing a great job.” And she said, “Well, thank you, sir.” She walks to her car, gets her little boy in his car seat, stands by the door for a minute, and then she comes all the way back to me and she says, “Can I give you a hug? I’m trying so hard to be a good mama and nobody has ever said that to me. Thank you.” We should all be doing that. We can, we should.
MH: If you could transfer one bit of wisdom, or passion, or any type of nugget, to each person listening, what would that be? You can do more than one- you’re Wess Stafford. We’ll allow that.
WS: I guess I could say one thing that would cover them all. Here’s what I think. I think everybody needs a cause. Everybody needs something outside of themselves, you know, not about themselves, something that is worthy of your time, and your talent, and maybe your treasure. I maintain, everybody needs something going on in the world that can move them to tears in 30 seconds. I’m talking about either tears of great sorrow at the hurt that needs to be addressed, or tears of great joy at the victories. Awana people know all about those kinds of victories. And I maintain, if you don’t have such a cause in your life, I beg you, don’t live like that. We do not have time for you to live stuck in second gear. You are not fully alive. And so I urge people, look around you. Ask God to shape your mind and your heart around some issue. I will often tease people, “If you don’t have one, I don’t know, take mine! Join me! There’s room in my cause, come join me!”
One of the greatest joys of my life, like I’ve said, is that I have found my cause. I have given it everything that I have, and I know the joy that it brings. And I see so many people who haven’t taken the time to ask themselves that, so they do the job, they live for the weekend, they make lots of money and they spend it and think that it’s going to bring happiness, and then are disappointed when it doesn’t. As followers of Christ, we don’t have time for this. This world ultimately, is not home. You know that. This is a campsite. We are camping here. You know in Colorado, I go camping, but I don’t put a big fancy foundation under my tent. I’m not going to be there that long. Well, we belong to a different kingdom. If you listen carefully, we hear a different drummer; we march to a different beat. In fact, everything about the Kingdom of God that we belong to is completely upside down. The first are last. Well, that’s a concept. The last are first. The weak are strong. The strong are weak. Beauty is on the inside not the outside. It’s surrender that leads to victory. Everything is upside down. And I maintain, even the little are big. And that’s why the ministry of Awana and the ministry of Compassion is so a part of my heart- is I think we’ve got an insight into the values of the Kingdom of God that are pretty much lost on the rest of the world. And so those of us who have gotten this insight need to throw ourselves into it with all that we’ve got.
I have had a front row seat for many years watching the ministry of Awana and what it can do disciple a child, inspire a family, and awaken a church to the strategic importance of bringing children to Christ, planting God’s word in their hearts, and then discipling them to grow in their faith and reach their full God-given potential. And these aren’t just words for me because my own two daughters, Jenny and Katie, in our town of Monument, Colorado were in the Awana program and I saw what it did in their lives. Today they’re all grown up and they are two wonderful, godly, young ladies and my very best friends.