A life full of secrecy and abuse can be Satan’s tactic for destroying a child. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, tells listeners how God took the broken pieces of his own youth and used it for good instead.
A life full of secrecy and abuse can be Satan’s tactic for destroying a child. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, tells listeners how God took the broken pieces of his own youth and used it for good instead.
Bob: Do we think children are as important as Jesus thinks they are? Wess Stafford, who is the president of Compassion International reflect on the time when the little children were trying to get to Jesus.
Wess: Finally, the kids get too rambunctious. Some disciple says, "Shh, children, would you just be still?" Someone must have said, "Children, would you just go away." And I maintain that that is the moment that Jesus absolutely snapped, and this powerful young carpenter, this great rabbi, shouted at him, "Don't you dare do that! Don't you remember what I told you about their place in the kingdom, how important they are? Don't you dare send them away!"
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, November 24th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Children are on the heart of God, but do we esteem them as highly as he does?
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. I think every child who has ever been to Sunday school or to Vacation Bible School has, at some point, heard the story about Jesus and the little children who are around, and they wanted to come, and the disciples tried to keep them away, and Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me," and when you're a child, that's a neat story to hear. Jesus loves the little children – we sing songs like that, and it resonates with us as children. But I think we get to be adults and maybe we forget some of those stories, you know?
Dennis: I think we do and, Bob, I think what Jesus did is He brought great dignity and worth and value to the lives of children, and I think within the Christian community there is a need for revival about the value of children for the future.
They really are the future of the church, and we need to, first of all, esteem them as image-bearers of who God is but then, secondly, we need to be about sharing the Gospel with them here in America but then thinking literally of the tens of millions of children who have no families to introduce them to Jesus Christ.
And we have a friend who joins us on FamilyLife Today for the first time – Dr. Wesley Stafford, President and CEO of Compassion International, joins us on FamilyLife Today. Wess, welcome to the broadcast.
Wess: Thank you, it's an honor to be here.
Dennis: Wess has two daughters of his own. He has been married to his wife for 26 years, and your bio said that you have a cat who worships himself.
Wess: Doesn't everybody?
Bob: I know every cat does, I don't know if everybody's got one, but that's endemic to cats, you're right.
Dennis: It really is. We share a common value, and it's the value of children. Wess has completed a book called "Too Small to Ignore, Why Children are the Next Big Thing." And I really agree with you. I think if we miss this generation of children, it's going to be generations before this thing is turned around again, Wess.
Wess: Absolutely. This is our one and only chance, those of us who are alive right now, and the tragedy is they are – I think the first thing we teach children to do in school is to stand in line. You remember kindergarten?
Dennis: I do.
Wess: Stand in line. The tragedy in our world is that they get really good at that, but they're always at the end of the line. There is always somebody bigger, somebody with more resources, somebody with more clout, and they wind up being the poorest of the poor, no matter what country, almost no matter what family. They become a second-rate mandate, I think, in our world. And they can't speak for themselves, they don't have any financial resources, they are not politically organized. So the Bible tell us speak up for those who can't speak for themselves.
Dennis: Compassion International is really a ministry that's an advocate …
Dennis: … for children. That message was imprinted in your heart as a four-year-old in Africa? Share with our listeners how that occurred.
Wess: Well, you know, I think very differently about children than I think many people that I talk to do, but I think, every time I see a little four-year-old go by, the thing that I ask myself is "So what is God up to there? What's under construction there?" And when I was four years old, surely, when I was knit in my mama's womb and came out, everybody in heaven must have said, "Well, he's not a rocket scientist, is he? We're going to have to make it kind of clear what he is to do with his life."
And God graciously did – He allowed me to be raised, literally, among the very children that I now minister to. I was raised in a little African village in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. My parents were missionaries. My sister and I were the only two white children in town, and I was raised by an entire village of very compassionate, poverty-stricken people.
So when I think of the poor, I mean, God knew that eventually He wanted me to lead something called Compassion International, but when I think of the poor, I don't even subtly, not even subtly, think downward toward the poor. As I understand the principles of the Kingdom of God, the heart of God itself, and what – the way my life was touched by the poor, I think upward, and I tell our staff around the world, "You need to earn the right to even be around them. It's pretty holy ground." A child in poverty, boy, that's about as close to the heart of God as you get.
Dennis: That same experience, though, also exposed you to profound evil that really taught you an important biblical principle that the devil of hell really wants to destroy the image of God in children …
Dennis: … at the beginning when they're just starting out. You had an encounter that was pretty evil, pretty profound.
Wess: My life – my childhood was split, really, between two settings. You know, kind of the best of times and the worst of times. Mostly when I talk about my childhood up until just a few years ago, I talked about the village, I talked about the poor, I talked about the values that those people instilled in me. I tell people, "Everything I need to know to lead Compassion's ministry basically I learned from the poor themselves in that little village." And up until about five years ago that was all of the story I told.
But five years ago I began to see some of the suffering of kids that were a part of the other side of my childhood, and that was all of us kids in West Africa were all sent off to one basic boarding school where we spent nine months of each year, and that was a very harsh, very cruel place.
So my year was split between a very loving, supportive, tender village and wonderful parents – a tremendous father who loved me and included me in his ministry, in his activities, and a boarding school that all but extinguished my flame, all but put me out of business.
Dennis: Now, I want our listeners to know that a boarding school is really standard education for many of the missionaries who are serving long haul over there. It's not that they're trying to get rid of their kids. There really isn't the kind of education locally for them to tap into, and so …
Wess: Nothing necessarily wrong about a boarding school. This was 45 years ago, nobody anywhere in the world goes off for nine months at a time without going back home at all or seeing their parents at all. This was pretty tough times, but there were no options. The truth is, they didn't even have a school in my village until I was 13 years old.
Bob: At what age were you sent off to boarding school?
Wess: I went off to school when I was six years old the first time.
Bob: And you stop and imagine, again, a six-year-old going away from Mom and Dad, that can be a traumatic experience in itself, but what you described as a "cruel place" and a "cruel period," share with our listeners some of what went on at that boarding school so that they can get a picture. You're not just saying the teachers were strict and made you sit up straight and wouldn't let you go out for recess, right?
Wess: Well, there was that and much, much more. You know, now that I'm sitting here – I turn 56 this week, I am able to look back over my life, and I can now see God's purpose in how He orchestrated that as a part of the fabric of my life, but the kind of cruelty and abuse that we experienced there is very similar to what poverty does to a child. It basically speaks this message – "Give up. You don't matter, nobody cares about you, you're small, you're weak, nothing good is going to happen to you."
Bob: "You're worthless."
Wess: "You're worthless." We fight to have compassion on the poverty side all the time. The greatest part of our ministry is helping children understand, "You are incredibly valuable, loved by God, loved by a sponsor, love by your local church." So that message was there.
I began to understand that I also had something to say about kids who are abused, kids who are hurt, not necessarily by poverty but by the circumstances and the cruelty of people in their lives, and I never understood that part. In fact, I never told that part of my story. It was like those puzzle pieces don't fit into the fabric of my life, so why talk about this?
In retrospect now I can understand how God was weaving this together, and essentially, again, we were at the end of the line. Children were the least important component out there. The people responsible for it did not really want to be there, and so they ran the place in a very cruel way.
A typical example would be – the bell would ring, you stomach would turn. To this day, look at me, I'm thin. I don't eat much to this day because food brings me really no pleasure. We were so afraid of the punishment that was coming at the end of every lunch meal that we just didn't care to eat. Our stomachs were just in a constant churn.
But a typical day would have been out of maybe 20 of us would have been on the bad news list. I don't know why Wess Stafford was on this so often, but I was a regular feature of that list. It would say, you know, "wrinkled rug," "wrinkled bedspread," and "a pair of socks on the floor," "dust in the cubbyhole." I could do the math. What that meant was one swat for the rug, one swat for the bedspread, two swats for the socks, that's two things, and a swat for the dust in the dresser. All of us kids would then line up outside the houseparents' room, we would walk in one more time, they would read us our charges, we would reach over and grab our trouser legs so it would be tight up against our little bottoms. They would read our charges like Judgment Day and then hit us, one strike for each thing, as hard as they wanted to do it.
Bob: With a slipper made out of a truck tire?
Wess: Right, it was a big, heavy slipper, much too hard for a little six-year-old.
Bob: And you would get five or six – these aren't spankings, these are beatings?
Wess: I was beaten 17 times a week in that place.
Bob: Seventeen events, not 17 individual blows, right?
Wess: That's right. This was 17 events to be spanked. Because the next event would be, we would go straight to what we called "noon rest," where children were not allowed to be caught talking, playing, you couldn't even be caught with your eyes open, and the houseparents would patrol the hallway up and down just looking for violators.
If your eyes met the eyes of one of these houseparents, they came in and beat you yet again, and they could beat you – that time – as long as they felt it took to destroy your spirit.
Bob: Wess, I would think this might go on for a period of weeks or months, but I would think there would come a point where children are going to go to their parents and say, "Mommy, Daddy, I don't want to go back there." They would get sick to their stomach with the thought of returning. How is it that they were able to keep this up?
Wess: That's the most amazing thing is that, yeah, naturally, you would expect all of us to have run …
Bob: Write letters home.
Wess: We wrote letters every week. Every week we would write letters home, but we could not tell them anything bad, and the leverage they used on us was that if you do, and you discourage your parents, or you make your parents frightened or angry, you will destroy their ministry, and there will be – I remember, literally, the words – "There will be Africans in hell because of you."
So they used our love for God, our love for our parents' calling to Africa, and our love for Africans against us, and do you know, dozens of us kids went years without ever telling our parents. Listen to our Mom and Dad on deputation, answered questions church after church – "Are the kids happy?" "Oh, yes, they love boarding school. They go on bike hikes, they climb trees," and we just kept our silence because we loved our Lord, we loved our parents, we knew their precious calling to Africa.
But I was the first one to spill the beans, and we're going back to Africa – there's about 20 of us missionary kids all traveling in a convoy airplane, but our parents were coming by ship later. One of the saddest things for us as little kids was we wouldn't see our parents for nine months. The first month, you couldn't forget what they looked like. We didn't have any pictures. They didn't let us have any pictures of them, but every time I closed my eyes, as a little boy, for the first month I could see my parents in the exact position they were in as we left, and I would cry myself to sleep every night for the first month or so.
By the ninth month, I couldn't really remember what they looked like. And so here I am, going back to this horrible place. I haven't talked for a year to my parents about the horribleness of this, but I'm nine years old. I take my mother's face in my hands at the airport, and I just look in her face, and she says, "What are you doing, Wesley?" And I said, "Mom, I just don't want to forget what you look like."
Well, of course, what mother wouldn't burst into tears at that point, and so she burst into tears, I burst into tears, they were loading up at the gangway, the jetway there, it was propeller planes back in those days, and in a desperate one- or two-minute effort, I thought, "Here is my chance. I've just got to tell her how awful it is," and so as haltingly as a little nine-year-old can tell mom, "They beat me, they hate me, I'm afraid of them, I don't want to go back there," I did, and then I had to go. There was no stopping the process of boarding a plane and getting out of there.
Dennis: You just kind of blurted it out?
Wess: I blurted it out with my little nine-year-old's desperate words.
Dennis: Any recognition on your mom's face that maybe it was the truth?
Wess: Horror, yes, absolute horror on her face. She had never heard this, it was, like – she gave me a huge hug, and she says, "I don't know what to say." She was full of tears, so was I. My voice was broken because I was desperate. I was looking for protection. I thought, "If they just know." We climbed on the plane, the rest of the missionary kids, nobody would sit with me.
Dennis: Because they heard you?
Wess: They did, and they looked across the aisle at me, like, "There is a dead man sitting there. All of us know you can't do this, you can't tell. It will absolutely destroy everything. What have you done, Wesley?"
I remember staring out the window thinking, "That was probably the unpardonable sin they've been talking about up at that school." Well, they were right about one thing, sure enough, on the boat trip back to Africa, my mom was absolutely distraught, as you can imagine, but there were no telephones, no nothing. They'd had a month and a half of ocean travel to get back. By the time she got back, sure enough, she had a nervous breakdown and, sure enough, we got word that she had had to return to the United States for treatment.
Well, when word got up to the boarding school, by then, rumor had leaked out, "Wess told. And his mom, sure enough, just like we said, that ministry is destroyed. She's back in the States, Africans aren't coming to Christ because of this."
So the houseparent chose to use that moment to put an end to this. He gathered all the kids together and said, "You know, you cannot serve God and Satan. Wess tried to do both, and his parents' ministry is destroyed because of this." And he got this clever idea, I think it must have struck him just at the moment, but he called for a birthday candle, and he carved off the other end so there was a wick at both ends of this little thing and had me stand up on a chair where all my friends could see me and lit it from both ends. I could look at this and see what was coming.
Dennis: You were holding it?
Wess: I was holding it in my little fingers, and he was – he turned to make the point, "You can't serve both God and Satan. Wess tried, and he's destroyed his parents' ministry." And I thought to myself, "This is so wrong. This is so unfair. This place is absolutely not the right place for a child to be," that I thought, "You know what? They can beat me all they want, they can make me feel guilty, they can abuse me in every way, but they are not winning this one." And, at 10 years old, I said, "I don't care how much this hurts, I am not letting them have this victory," and I watched as it got to my skin, and the skin began to turn red then bubble and smoke, and one of the children, at that point, jumped up and slapped it out of my hand, or I would have let it extinguish itself on me. I had that level of rage at the injustice of my little life.
That was a moment, as awful as that is, that ultimately launched my life, because I began to realize – no, wrong is wrong. Sooner or later, you have to take a stand and say "It stops here, it stops now, it stops with me." And that's what I did.
Bob: You know, we hear a story like that, and a lot of folks would ask the question, "Where was God in the midst of this?" Your parents are faithfully serving Christ, missionary families, how could He allow this to happen to children? What's your answer to that?
Wess: You know, I can't speak for the other children and, by the way, you may notice I didn't really use the right name of that school in the book because not all of my friends are ready still to deal with that, and I'm not ready to put them through it. Some of them – I mean, I went until five years ago without even telling my own wife what had gone on. I thought, "You know what? I have left that behind, and I'm not going to dwell on it, I'm not going to let it destroy me."
I ultimately made that decision when I was 17 in the United States. I heard a talk at a camp about forgiveness, and I thought to myself, "Well, who do I need to forgive?" And I thought, "Whoa, all those people at that school." But then I thought, "None of them have asked me to forgive them," and I thought, "Well, so what do I do? Do I wait for that? It will never happen. If they'll let me burn myself with a candle, they're never going to ask forgiveness." So I decided "I am going to forgive them."
Now I can put it into context. I understand poverty, and I understand abuse, because I have been there. I witnessed it, I tasted, I've seen it, and I recognize that God put that in my life to allow me to speak to some of these things that don't get spoken of very often.
Dennis: And, you know, no person can do it all, but the interesting thing is, Wess, I think the great lie of the enemy today is he convinces children they have no value, and he convinces adults that they can't do anything. Adults can do something, I mean, look at you.
Wess: Believe me, if God can use me, He can use anyone.
Bob: You know, I think back to a few hours ago when Wess arrived, and we were in a room with a group of other folks, and there was a mom there with a four-month-old baby, and I noticed hits – you know, Wess came in and was gracious in saying hi to all of us, but you really went after that baby.
Dennis: He greeted the baby better than I did.
Wess: Little Isaac.
Bob: Yeah, and it should be that way – that we would look at the children who come across our path on any given day, and we'd take time for them; that we'd not ignore them; that we would not see them as an inconvenience or an interruption or in the way but that we would view them the way you have learned to view children and the way that you coach us to learn to view children.
In the book that you wrote, called "Too Small to Ignore," which we have copies of in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and I'm thinking not only of parents who need to read a book like this, but the folks who direct the children's ministry at a local church ought to read it. It's a book for all of us.
You can go on our website at FamilyLife.com, on the right side of the home page you see a box that says "Today's Broadcast." If you click where it says "Learn More," that will take you to an area of the site where there is information about Wess's book and how you can get a copy of it from us. Again, our website is FamilyLife.com. Click on the right side of the home page where it says "Learn More," and you'll be on the page where you can get more information about Wess's book, and there is also information there about other resources – about adoption, about orphan care, which is really at the heart of what we're talking about here – taking care of children around the world. Not just our children but children in all kinds of circumstances and situations.
You can also call us for more information about getting a copy of Wess's book. The number is 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and when you call, someone on our team will let you know how you can get whatever resources you need sent out to you.
And I know that this is Thanksgiving week, and I know we're getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States this week, and I don't want to rush the Christmas season, but I do want to let our listeners know about the book that Barbara Rainey has written for Christmas this year called "When Christmas Came." It's an extended look at John 3:16, which, when you stop and think about it, it's a Christmas verse, and Barbara has combined new, original watercolors with her own reflections on John 3:16 in a beautiful gift book.
And we wanted to let our listeners know if you'd like to have a copy of this book to read through either on your own or with your family as you look forward to Christmas Day, we would love to send you a copy when you contact us this week to make a donation of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today. All you have to do is go online at FamilyLife.com or call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation and simply request a copy of Barbara's new book.
If you are online, you request a copy by writing the word "Christmas" in the key code box on the donation form, and if you call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation over the phone, just mention you'd like Barbara's new Christmas book, again, we're happy to send it out to you, and I should let you know it's not available anywhere other than through FamilyLife Today. It's not in stores anywhere this year, so if you'd like to get a copy, just go online and make a donation or call 1-800-FLTODAY and request it. We appreciate your financial partnership with us and your support of the ministry.
Now, tomorrow we're going to find out more about what God did to enlarge Wess Stafford's heart for children and how maybe some of that can rub off on us, and I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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