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Wess Stafford with Dean Merrill

Author of  Too Small to Ignore

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt  |  Interview

CBP: So you were a child of a missionary family. Tell us about that.

Wess: Well, whenever I see a child walk by, a four- or five-year-old child, the question I always is, ďSo whatís under construction there? Whatís God building there?Ē When I was that age, I was Compassionís president, I think, in training. He knew what He had for me, what He would entrust for me. And so He very lovingly let me be raised among the very people that I now minister to.

My parents were missionaries. I grew up in a little village in Northern Ivory Coast about 500 miles inland, the poorest, hottest, most undesirable outpost in the mission station you could ever want. But I was raised, my sister and I, in that little village just as part of the village. They all took us in as their kids. My only difficulty was the color of my skin. I was different from everyone around, but that didnít matter to them. Every child belonged to every grown up, and so they comforted us, they scolded us, they taught us. I tell people everything I needed to know to run this worldwide ministry, basically, I learned in that little village from the poor. My prayer every night would be, ďPlease, Lord, if You love me, let me wake up black like all my friends. Iím so tired of being different.Ē And every morning, the first thing I would do is throw the sheet off and look. ďOh, still white.Ē But my heart was shaped by the poor.

CBP: Regarding childhood, we only get one pass at it. Tell me more about that.

Wess: Well, what we have to recognize is that it is a precious, precious span of time. It goes so fast, as any parent knows, but it is the most strategic time in a personís entire life. When a child is small, their spirit is like wet cement. You can see how wet it is, and it takes no effort to make an imprint. You can make an imprint for good, and many people do, or just as easily you can do an imprint for bad. And some people carry the scars their entire lives, from 30 seconds of abuse, or 30 seconds a put-down. And so they are in a very sacred trust.

I think thatís why Jesusí message was so clear how precious they are to Him, how scary it should be to cause one of these little ones to stumbleóhow about a 2-ton rock around your neck? Itís a very strategic, precious span of life that the rest of life is built off of.

All of us who surround kids are experts in this. We have all spent 18 years in research on what it is to be a child. We know what it feels like when itís done right. We also know what it feels like done wrongly. They are a very sacred trust.

CBP: So weíre involved in shaping a child, not only caring for them but modeling what a parent should be. Itís not just us as parents, you said it really does take a village and weíve lost a sense of community. Whoís lonely?

Wess: As I travel around the world, and I do, Iím back and forth between these two worlds almost on a monthly basis, loneliness is one of the saddest things. But the ones that tend to be lonely are the ones who are the wealthiest. You rarely see lonely poor people. They donít have big fences around their yards, they donít have big back decks on their houses. They donít have their own bedrooms where their lives can become so isolated. They live in community, and in some ways thatís one of the great salvations for them. But thereís a lot of loneliness on the other side of the equation.

I tell people my job is tough. On one side itís to comfort the afflicted, and on the other side itís to afflict the comforted. And to do that with the same love is a challenge. My heart goes out to children. In fact, this book is not about children in poverty, itís not about compassion at all, itís about children as a whole and the needs that they have.

My heart aches for children who have too many toys, who are being sort of smothered in the lap of luxury, as opposed to struggling against poverty.

CBP: If we ignore this sense of community, this village, what do we sow seeds of?

Wess: I think in the long run weíre sowing seeds for a disastrous future. The reason I say white children are the next big thing, is a reality that right now 3- and 4-year-olds will climb right up in your lap. They will listen to you talk, they will play with you, as long as youíll play with them. But if you miss this moment, and you wait 30 years, now suddenly youíre going to be the marginalized one who needs attention. Youíre not going to have access to their corner offices of power. Youíll be the marginalized one. Now is the time to literally shape the future.

CBP: As adults, weíre uptight, weíre driven, and if weíre not surrendering to Him, how do we affect the children of tomorrow?

Wess: Children are avid learnersódonít ever think that youíre not on. The record light is not going in the life of a child, because they watch very, very carefully what goes on around them. They pick up far more than whatís said, they pick up appearances, spirits, they can tell.

One of the great things I think about Jesus, that tells me what kind of man He was, is that children know whoís sincere and whoís real. Just like a dog really can tell whether youíre someone he should bite or wag his tail for. Children are given, I think itís a defense mechanism from God, but they can tell. And it wasnít like, ďBring the children to Me now,Ē like itís 11:20 in the morning, time for that in service. They were literally so eager to come to this warm, gracious young man, that the disciples had to hold them back. Which tells me that they knew ďIf these grown ups would just get out of the way, I could get to Him. And if I got to Him, He would pick me up.Ē

CBP: I think another one that stuck with me was talking about having certain services and groups for the youth.

Wess: I mean the six- to seven-year-olds. I understand the need at times for solitude and worship and such. But I think we miss a golden opportunity. I can remember, one of my earliest memories as a boy was listening to my mom sing in church, sitting on her lap. I remember I used to love put my hand up on her neck and feel her throat vibrating as she sang. And now, to this day, she has Alzheimerís now, she can remember anything from five minutes ago, but we can sit and sing hymns for hours. And we do. She knows every verse from every hymn.

Iím thinking, weíve missed the chance for our children to really watch us worship. For our children to watch how a sermon affects us, for our children to hear us pray for others. We have so sanitized the whole thing for the sake of silence and relief from the kids for a while, that weíve missed a golden opportunity.

CBP: You mention several things that a child deserves to have freedom from.

Wess: These are not the only things a child ought to be free from, but they are the things that I can tell you came out of my childhood. And one of them is freedom from drivenness.  Children need time to be children. Sometimes in our world, as parents in our great love for them, what we want to do is give them every opportunity. So we fill their schedules up with soccer and piano and violin and ballet, and the kids rush from thing to thing. And in between the times from thing to thing, they watch video screens on the back of the van. Weíve absolutely missed the chance to spend quality time with these kids, and let them enjoy being a child. Every child deserves the right to be a child.

Another one that I think, and again, I think it comes down to our busyness and our desire to show our kids that we love them, is that we heap way too much stuff on them. Way to much materialism. Our houses are getting bigger, and bigger, now we have to rent storage facilities for even more. We just canít seem to give our kids enough stuff. They are surrounded by toys and as bored as ever. I maintain that thereís a poverty beyond enough that is equally sad to the poverty of not enough. We need to free children up to understand that it isnít about stuff. He dies with the most toys is not the winner. You donít take any of that with you.

Another one that Iíve found to be relatively controversial, but kind of new to people, is I maintain that children need to be freed from the kind of competition that pits child against child, winner against loser. Iím a great sportsman, I play soccer, I played it all through college and on into the army. I love a good competitive game. But in my little village where I grew up, they didnít have a word for competition. The concept that I should win at the expense of your loss was completely foreign and unacceptable to us. The place for competition, if thereís a place for it in the kingdom of God, is to mobilize or motivate us to excellence. You look at the very best athletes, the Olympics are coming in a few months, the Super Bowl coming up, the very best athletes when you interview them, do not talk about anyone else. They donít talk about who they beat, and how pathetic those guys were. They donít make excuses about how lousy the officiating was. Inevitably, the world-class athletes will talk about themselves: did I perform up to my expectation? up to my training? what could I have done better? They will almost always give credit to teammates as opposed to taking it to themselves. Thatís a very powerful force that the whole competitive team environment brings into place. But if you go to our little league games in city parks, or, worse still, the soccer games nowadays in our parks, the screaming that comes out of the parents on the side, itís a completely conflicting message. What theyíre saying is that itís all about winning, itís all about winning, get the big trophy. I think children need to be freed from that. Children need to have the fun. They need to learn the sports. They need to learn character. They need to learn social skills. And that can come out of it. But this corrosive competition, I think is an unhealthy thing.

And then, finally, freedom from fear. I think children deserve the right to know that there are safe havens where they can trust. Our schools should be a safe haven for children. Our churches, of all, should be a safe haven. Our homes should be safe havens. Children should know that I can be safe. And you know, from the book, I lose a good bit of each year in a very unsafe place. Nine months of each year I was in a place that children should never have to be in. And I am useful in the kingdom of God only by Godís grace. Many of the kids I grew up with who went through exactly the same thing, are completely, socially inept. Theyíre wounded. They fell down in that place and never got up.

CBP: Not only falling down in that place, but actually not being here today. Not just falling away from their faith, but truly not being present on this earth. As you could have been.

Wess: Absolutely, precisely right. That is what happens, and again, that is the reason for why I ultimately have written the book. That is what happens when children are considered unimportant. Disposable. A second-rate mandate. Mission work was wonderful work, but there was a policy that children cannot be under foot, or the kingdom will not go forward. So letís send them somewhere.

CBP: I think weíve alluded to the fact that there were some difficult times in this boarding school, but maybe you need to say a couple of strong words of what was there.

Wess: First of all, the people who were in charge of it were completely without authorities over their heads. I donít know ultimately how they were chosen for this, but they certainly werenít called to childrenís ministry. They certainly werenít trained. And they didnít want to be there. As always, it was the lowest thing you could do, just go take care of kids. But they had nine months to take care of kids in the jungle where very few visitors came through. They had the ability, and complete authority, to just vent on these children their frustration and anger.

And so, there were eighty of us at this school. But we suffered in every way a child can suffer. We were terrorized of God. We suffered spiritual abuse. How I accepted Christ was begging Him not to destroy my life with a hammer, for Peteís sake. Emotionally, we were completely scarred. We didnít matter and we knew it. I was a little boy, and basically ran around in that school like a hunted animal, hoping no one would notice me. I didnít speak clearly, I didnít write clearly. If I could have been invisible, I would have. And many times I tried to be.

We were physically beaten. Their choice of controlling that many kids was with a belt. Beaten for silly little things. I mean, youíre six years old and you bed canít have a wrinkle. Every day, to this day, you see Iím relatively thin. Food brings me no joy at this point. Much of it is because at the end of meals they would ring this little claw bellóI actually have one in my office, my children used to ring it just to tease me because they knew it would bring terror into my heart. But it was the bad news list, and they would read what everyone had done wrong. And then we were beaten.

Finally, when I was nine years old, I started learning mathóhow to averageóI started averaging, ďHow often do they do this to me?Ē And I kept track over several months, and it averaged out to seventeen beatings a week. I wasnít a particularly bad kid, I was just one of the kids they just whaled on. And then, there was such an atmosphere of distrust, that we were sexually abused. Older kids had learned, they had become predators, they had learned how the system worked. They learned how to blackmail. So us little ones were sexually tormented, and we had nowhere to run. The very people who should have been protecting us, were in fact beating us and humiliating us. And so we just went deeper into our silence.

I used to put my face into my pillow and scream for mercy from God. One of the really diabolical things was that we never told our parents. We were not allowed to tell our parents. There was such a silence of the lambs, if you will. But the club that they used to keep us quiet was, ďYour parents are called to be missionaries to Africa. If they know that youíre not happy here, youíll be Satanís tool to destroy their lives. So donít you tell them what happens here.Ē And we wrote letters every week, but they were full of lies. To this day, I have a hard time putting a pen to a piece of paper because I lied to my parents. ďIím having fun here. We went on a bike ride.Ē We never told them. They used our love for God, our love for our parents, and our love for Africans to silence us.

And that was good during the school year, and it lasted during the three months when we were home with great threats. With eighty of us. Child psychologists understand this now, but eighty of us never told our parents.

CBP: That is an extreme form. But some people go through that in various forms, and are discounting what they are going through. I think they could be very touched by that story. But talking about not mattering, and in poverty people donít matter. What are the wheels of the six spokes?

Wess: Poverty and abuse speak exactly the same language. They speak into the heart of a vulnerable person, usually a child, and the message is simply this: ďYouíre a nobody. Give up. Nobody cares about you. Nothingís ever going to change. Give up.Ē Abuse will do that, I know, because I have been on that side of the equation.

Poverty, ironically, is exactly the same thing. So many of the organizations work among the poor, basically attacking the symptoms of poverty, the circumstances of poverty. Poverty isnít about bad housing, itís not about bad water, itís not about economic challenges, itís not about health even. Those are all symptoms that exist where poverty reigns. But if you get to the bottom, and you ask, ďWhy doesnít this go away? Why does it go on and on?Ē You come to the very crux of what poverty is. This is something that we understand in the church, and that is this message that gets in and rolls down through the generations, and it says to a child, ďNothingís ever going to change for you, so give up.Ē

I maintain, one of the most loving and strategic things that can be done for a child is to bring them to their heavenly Father. And when thatís done by a little church thatís in their village, which is what Compassion Ministry does,

CBP: Which would be one of the spokesÖ

Wess: Absolutely. If you look at poverty, itís like a wagon wheel. The hub is abject poverty, the rim would be opposite of that. Well, many people would say the opposite of poor is rich. The opposite of poverty is wealth. No. In the kingdom of God, the opposite of poor is enough. But poverty strikes on many, many fronts. One of those wagon wheels is spiritual, and I maintain that it shouldnít just be one of them. It is the single-most pivotal one. When the Bible says, ďWhat does a man profit if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?Ē But the point of the wagon wheel is that any one spoke that is weak will ultimately crumble the whole wheel in time. So itís not enough for an organization to go in and say itís all about help, so weíre just going to deal with the help part of it. Or some will say itís all about social justice. Iím thinking those are all important, but in a childís life you need to be addressing multiple components of that. We have a whole list of development.

CBP: I think thatís what we do, is we go in and focus on one thing, and you talk about that as being, what kind of band?

Wess: Well, my argument, and I grew up in poverty and I got a Ph.D. in the field Iíve worked in for 29 years, I know something about this. I would simply argue that itís simply not good enough to just do good in poverty. If youíre going to be doing good, you might as well take the time to understand poverty and be strategic. And thatís where I maintain that it always sounds like a spiritual answer to a very complex question. I believe the spiritual component is the pivotal one. When a child understands that God knows their name, knows how many hairs are on their head today, knows the pattern of their fingerprints, knit their DNA in their mommaís womb, according to Psalm 139, and He sent His Son to die on the cross for you. A child comes to a very important conclusion, and that is, ďMaybe I do matter.Ē And what Compassion does essential is say, ďYeah, you matter to this pastor, you matter to this local body of believers, you matter to someone all the way across the world whoís watching you and has your picture on their desk praying for you.Ē As we watch in our program, when a child understands that they matter, suddenly they begin to think that what they think matters, and people just canít do things to them.

When a little child in Bangkok has her body sold for one dollar, that can go on when a child feels like, ďIím not worth anything anyway.Ē But when a child understands their worth, they take the first steps out of poverty.

CBP: Weíre not really making up how to handle poverty, how to handle the children, etc. Jesus, and various parts of Scripture, and you have pages and pages of instruction that have been there all along. Can you give me a little bit of highlights?

Wess: The good part of this book is, in fact, not my story, and not even poverty. A good bit of it is straight out of Scripture. I maintain that if you study carefully, you can see the priorities of the kingdom of God. And everything about the kingdom of God is upside down from this one. The weak are strong, the strong are weak, the rich are poor, and oftentimes the poor are rich. If you listen to the things that Jesus actually said, well, two things. If you go through Scripture and see children, almost anywhere you see a child mentioned in Scripture, God is doing something pretty exciting. Probably something He couldnít entrust to a grown up, because we think too much, or we feel too much, we donít have enough faith. But I mean, it took a child to kill the giant. It took a child to believe that a lion wonít eat you or fire wonít burn you. It took a child for God to speak to His wayward high priest when Eli spoke. It took a child to tell Captain Naman to jump into the river when nobody else would dare do that. Jesus was ministering as a child of age 12. It took a little child to give his lunch to feed five thousand. You go all through Scripture and it is filled with instances of where God said, ďI need a child, because this is a huge, important job.Ē

CBP: I loved how you talked about how God sometimes chooses to use a child. I want to include that word Ďfatalismí which sums up a lot of what youíve been saying about not mattering.

Wess: If you donít intervene into a child whose circumstances all around him are saying the same messageógive up, you donít matteróthat leads to a phase thatís called apathy. I give up. Children who spill their glass of water are so sure that they have no control over the world will say, ďThe water spilled itself.Ē Their not trying to not get in trouble, but thatís their worldview. And it leads to a sense of apathy. I donít know what I need to know; I canít do what I need to do; I donít have what I need to have. Itís not my fault.

And that leads to the next step, because these are spiral downward to fatalism. And it has the word death in it. And that is when that overwhelming message has gotten to a child to the point where they absolutely give up. And it can happen at age four, age five. Iíve seen it across the world. You can see that the twinkle goes out of their eyes. They have given up on their hope for life by age four or five. And essentially what we have to do, those who care about children, is get in there and fan those little flames. And bring it back to life.

Jesus said, if you want to wonder if children matter, Jesus made it very, very clear. They matter greatly to Him. Some of His most powerful threats He saved for those who caused a child to stumble. How about a 2-ton rock?

CBP: I get an overwhelming sense that I need to sponsor all children. But youíre really talking about, dream with me, what if each family sponsored a child and believed in that child and wrote that child letters. If someone believed in them.

Wess: It could absolutely transform the world. I believe. I mean, I got a Ph.D. in this field. I think it is one of the most strategic, loving things anyone can do. And you donít have to be like my parents, and leave everything to go to Africa as missionaries. You can stay in the context of your life, do what Godís called you to do, but reach out in one of the most loving, strategic things you can do. And so weíre helping that little church develop that child, but that sponsor is much more than a source of money. There are letters of encouragement, there are prayers, there are reasons to support that child that are huge.

CBP: Your role is like a wheel with all these spokes. But if you were to sum up your role as one thing, who are you?

Wess: I can look back over my life, clear back like we started to age five, and I can see Godís fingerprints on my life. I can see that from the path of abuse and the path of poverty Iíve been raised up at least to be one of these champions for children. I believe one the most powerful verses I can put on my life is Psalm 31:8 that says speak up for those that canít speak for themselves. That He would entrust to me one of the largest child-focused ministries in the world, me, as damaged as I am, tells me that He can use any of us. He can use any of us to champion, not only the children all the way across the world, although we do have that as our mandate, but the children in our own family, the children right next door. We can all do this. And what Iím trying to appeal for in this book is we all need to rise up. The children belong to all of us. Our futures are in their hands, and we need to all stand up and champion the cause of kids.