Shaping a Child
About the Guest
Children are like wet cement. The time to impress their hearts for good is when they're small. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, tells how easy it is to be a positive influence in the life of a child by just taking time to notice and talk to those children God has placed around you.
Wess StaffordFrom 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. Wess joined the staff of Compassion International in 1977 and has worked with the ministry, both overseas and at headquarters, for 34 years. He has served as president since 1993. Wess l...more
Children are like wet cement. The time to impress their hearts for good is when they’re small.
Shaping a Child
Bob: How aware are you of the children around you at any point in your day? Wess Stafford, who is the President of Compassion International®, says God has a divine mission for each one of us to bless children.
Wess: You notice I wear a Mickey Mouse watch. Executive of this massive big thing, I still wear a Mickey Mouse watch. Know why I do it? I use it to remind myself of my mission. We’ve all been children. We’re all experts at this. We don’t need one more day of education. We remember either how childhood should be or how it shouldn’t be; but either way, we are all fully equipped and, I believe, mandated to bless the children around us. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 12th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Blessing the children around you is not something that is that hard to do. It doesn’t take much time or a lot of effort. We’ll talk about how to do it today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. If you were to come over to our house, you would see, on the front of the refrigerator, a couple of pictures of kids we’ve corresponded with but have never met. That’s been the same for about, I think, about 30 years. I think, when our daughter Amy was born, we decided, “Well, if we’re going to have a daughter of our own, we ought to support a daughter somewhere in the world who doesn’t have enough.” So, we had our first Compassion child that year; and it’s continued now for 30 years.
In fact, last year, Dennis, I came home—and, usually, MaryAnn and I will sit down and talk about giving decisions, where we want to give money, and organizations we want to support. I came home and she said, “I decided we should support another Compassion child.” I said, “Oh, you did?” She said, “Yes!” Of course, I didn’t mind that at all. I was glad we were able to do it. I just thought it was interesting that, just as we started having grandchildren, she said we’re going to up the ante a little bit.
Dennis: I think that’s a good challenge. Frankly, a good way to start the broadcast as we introduce our listeners, again, to our friend, Wess Stafford, who is the President and CEO of Compassion International. Welcome back, Wess.
Wess: It’s nice to be back.
Dennis: Wess has served in the compassion area of ministry now for more than three decades. He and his wife Donna have been married for 32 years. They have two daughters, and I love your bio. It reads, “He has a dog that worships Wess and a cat that doesn’t— (Laughter) –who worships herself.” I love the line. I really do.
Wess: Don’t we all have that going on in our house?
Dennis: He has written a book called Just a Minute. It is, really, just a bunch of great stories that I think—it is the heart of God for children. It’s all about children. You begin the book—you actually talk about how a child is like wet cement.
Wess: Yes. Actually, this book sprang out of the last one, Too Small to Ignore. That was a 300-page book. Three pages of it, I made the case—because in that book, as you know, I was trying to make the case of the importance of children. I made the case that the spirit of a child is a lot like wet cement. It doesn’t take much effort at all to make an impression that can last a lifetime. If you wait until they’re teenagers—well now, you need a hammer and chisel if you want to make a mark. If you wait until—
Dennis: And that may not work, by the way.
Wess: There are no guarantees. If you wait until they’re grownups, now you need a stick of dynamite to make an impression. I was trying to make the case that the time to make the impression is when the children are small and they are a lot like wet cement, at that point.
Bob: This book that you’ve written now, Just a Minute, is a way to illustrate how that’s been done as you’ve heard stories as the President of Compassion International; right?
Wess: Exactly right. It is 68 stories of people from all across the world, famous and not so famous—people who remember the moment when their life got launched. I love the quote form Graham Green. He says, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Knowing that to be the case, I have collected stories, ever since I sat here in this studio with the last time on the other book. For five years, I’ve collected stories of people who can point to that minute when someone said something, someone did something—that now they can see that defines who they are, their personality, their relationships, what they might be doing as a vocation. These are people who can say, “I can tell you the minute. I can tell you where I was. I can tell you what was going on—”
Wess: “—in that moment.”
Bob: You break the stories in your book up into a number of different sections or categories. I guess, as you gathered them, you began to get some common themes where you said these minutes in a child’s life come at strategic times, around strategic issues.
Wess: Exactly. We kind of organized them because I just gathered them as I went. We organized them around, you know, spiritual awakening, or character development, or the discovery of talent.
One of the stories on that, that I love, is the story of Andre Crouch. Surely, many would remember him—this amazing musician, this writer of many, many of the worship songs that have built our faith over the years. When I was describing to him this concept of “just a minute”, he said, “Oh, I’ve got one!” He described the story of his father, who was a pastor in Los Angeles—of an inner-city church, a very small church, only a handful of people. He says they were mostly homeless people. He says, “The thing I remember most about them, as a little boy, is that they all smelled like old cheese.” (Laughter)
He said, “You know, you can image, with a handful of street people, we had no music. I’m age 11. My father comes to me and he kneels down in front of me so we’re eye to eye. He puts his hands on my shoulders and he looks me in the eye and says, ‘Andre, if God gave you the gift of music, would you use it for His glory?’” Andre said, “Well, yes Pappa.” His dad went down the street a few houses, and he found someone who had an old abandoned piano in the basement. Andre says, “I looked up and down at those black and white keys, and I found myself.” He said, “Within two weeks, I was playing the hymns in my father’s church,” and he says, “Ever since then, I have been writing.” He says, “Sometimes I write five songs a day”; but he says, “I know when it began. It began the minute my father knelt in front of me and said, ‘Andre, if God gave you the gift of music, would you use it for His glory?’”
Bob: You know, I hear you tell that story. I’m no Andre Crouch, obviously; but in the second grade, my teacher came up to me. It was Christmastime and she said, “You have a nice voice. Would you pick a Christmas carol that you would like to sing for the other students in our school?” As you’re telling the story, I can take you back to the school cafeteria where I sang The First Noel because—
Wess: How old were you?
Bob: Well, I was second grade; so I would have been seven years old, maybe. I don’t think I sang it particularly well or that any of my school friends came up affirming me; but just the fact that a teacher had said, “You have a nice voice. Would you do this?” Something in the back of my mind said, “That’s something I could do.” We have no idea how much life is given when we affirm just a simple gift that we see present in a child; do we?
Wess: That’s the thing that I’ve watched over these five years—as I’ve been speaking about the first book—as I’ve got to this point of, “Who was it that said something, did something, that really launched your life?”, I’ve watched audiences kind of glaze away from me. I can tell that all of a sudden they’re little seven-year-old boys again. They’re remembering that moment. It’s an incredibly powerful thing. It is often a teacher. I had to actually glean out teacher stories—only the best of the best—because teachers are amazing heroes among us.
Dennis: They really are. The Proverbs remind us in Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken”—we can almost repeat it, can’t we—“is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” A word fitly spoken—as adults, we’re keepers of those words. One of the things I enjoyed, as I was reading your book, Wess, is how—and it had to happen as a result of writing the book—you began to have some kind of spiritual radar out, looking for ways to just affirm children. You’re driving down the freeway, and what do you do?
Wess: Every child within sight is a moment.
Dennis: You’re waving at them—
Wess: You can wave to strangers at the stop light.
Dennis: —and smile at them!
Wess: Exactly right.
Dennis: And pass it on. What is your favorite moment, in your life, where someone spoke one of those fitly-spoken words?
Wess: As you know, from the first book—let me just preface—that a life can be launched in a moment, and a life can be destroyed in a moment. You remember from the last time I was here with you, one of the moments—and I had to include it in this book—and the fact that the good stories and bad stories are interwoven here, just like they are in real life. One of the bad stories, of course, was that moment of great pain and agony when I refused to drop a candle because I refused to lose one more time, as it was burning my fingers. That story is one of the bad ones, but one of the good ones was my first day in the United States.
Dennis: Now, wait a second. You can’t run by that story. You’ve got to give them a context of what was taking place there. You were, what, nine—nine years old?
Wess: Nine years old.
Dennis: And you were in a school. Your parents were missionaries; right?
Wess: I was raised in West Africa—all of us kids. Mission policy was to send all of us kids off to boarding school—in large part, to get us out of the way so the Gospel could go forth. Sadly, the people put in charge of us—there were 50 of us—you know, weren’t called to do that and didn’t want to do that. Nobody held them accountable for how they did that. They weren’t trained to do that. It was a very cruel, very harsh—harsh place to be a little boy.
Probably the cruelest part of it all was they made it very clear that, “You cannot tell anybody what happens.” I mean, we were abused physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even sexually. They said, “You can’t tell anyone what happens here or you will be Satan’s tool to destroy your parents’ ministry in Africa,”—powerful that they used our love for God, our love for our parents, our love for Africans, to silence us. In all 50 of us, it actually worked. We wrote letters every week but we never told. We were home for three months out of each year, and we never told—none of us, 50 of us—until I finally did.
I finally broke at one moment because one of the things they did—they didn’t allow us to have pictures of our parents. Some genius thought that would be too tough on little kids, away from home nine months a year. So my—the first month I was gone—every time I closed my eyes, all I saw was my parents. By the ninth month, I could not conjure up what they looked like any more; and I was afraid I would break their heart when we came face-to-face—I wouldn’t know who were my parents.
So I, one time, leaving home, I took my mother’s face in my hands. She said, “What are you doing, Wess?” I said, “Momma, I just don’t want to forget what you look like.” Of course, she burst into tears. Who wouldn’t? I burst into tears. I grabbed about 30 seconds, not even a minute, 30 seconds to just spill out how, “Please don’t send me back! They hate me. They beat me.” This look of horror on her face—
In the long run, the whole story is I had to take off on a plane. We, kids, were leaving ahead of the parents. The parents came by ship. My mom had just that information—and then, 30 days at sea to deal with it, with no more information. Sure enough—when she got to Africa—she’d had a nervous breakdown and had to be sent back home. When word spread up to school that I had spoken, the house father took a moment to make the case to the kids, in his rage, that I was Satan’s tool. Basically, what he said is, “You can’t serve God and Satan. This little boy, Wess, has tried to do that—just like you can’t burn a candle from both ends.” In a moment of sick genius, he grabbed a birthday candle, carved off the other end so that it could burn from both directions, stuck it in my hand and said, “You want to serve God and Satan? Watch what happens when you try.”
Well, by then, I was ten years old. I had just turned ten. I had been beaten, 17 times a week; I had been sexually abused. I was at the end of my rope. Now, I knew that I believed them—that there would be Africans in hell because of me. I had had all I could take. Unwittingly, he had sort of leveled the playing field, for the first time in my life. He had always been bigger, always been stronger, he could always beat me. I could never do anything back to him; but this time, I had this desperate thought, standing on this little folding chair, in front of my little friends. “If I am willing to endure enough pain, I could win this time.” I determined that I would. This was my Masada. This was—I would not retreat from this. This would be his Waterloo, but it would be my Masada.
At age ten, I had enough rage and hurt that I would not drop that candle, as it burned closer and closer to my finger. I clenched it tighter. I clenched every muscle in my body, my teeth. I watched it burn until it was actually making both sides of my fingers red. I watched a bubble pop out. Then something mysterious—I floated outside of myself—hovering overhead, looking back at this little ten-year-old skinny boy, with a candle in his fingers, as if it was happening to someone else. I didn’t feel the pain at that point. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears when one of the kids jumped up and slapped it out of my hand. Everybody screamed, and scattered, and there I stood on that chair, all by myself.
I had my calling. I knew, from that day forward, I would speak up for children. I would fight for children. I went from victim to victor in a minute. The rage that I use to lead Compassion International, and to fight for children, is the same I had at age ten. People wonder, “How do you work so hard? Why are you so passionate?” Well, it all came from a minute. Truth be known, it was actually 90 seconds. I actually got a birthday candle and retimed that as I was writing this book. It was 90 seconds; but that was—that was a minute of mine that I included—which was a desperate, dark valley—but, ultimately, launched my life.
Bob: As you talk about that rage fueling the ministry that you’re involved with today—I just want to make it clear for listeners—you’ve had to, in your own heart and mind, go through the process of forgiving, of letting go of, the right to punish those who oppressed you. You’re now talking about a righteous indignation at any who would oppress. The heart of God is for the child and those who would oppress them. You’re on God’s side; right?
Wess: I surely see that now. As a little boy, I wasn’t sure where I was. People often wonder, “How is it you are productive after what you’ve been through?” I tell them, “Well, it’s one word. It’s a hard word, but the word is forgiveness.” I learned, at age 17, when I finally came to America—a young man, filled with hurt and rage. One speaker, at a camp in Colorado, said, “Some of you have been really, really hurt by people; and they’ve never said they’re sorry. You are carrying around that hurt. Let me tell you something. They may not even remember it. The only person paying the price is you. Unless you forgive them, they will always be living, rent-free, in your life.”
At age 17, this is just seven years after I’d been so hurt by the candle, I said, “Alright, you people. I know you’re not sorry. I know you don’t care. I know you will never apologize, so I choose to forgive you. Now, get out. Get out of my heart. Get out of my mind. You get out of my life. You stole my childhood. I will not give you the rest of my life. I forgive you. Now get out.” Pretty crude; pretty angry forgiveness—but it was the best I could do at the time. The Spirit of God really used that to start bringing healing. Now, I know that forgiving is the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes it’s more painful and difficult to do than the original thing that needs to be forgiven. It doesn’t mean that you will forget. We say, “Forgive and forget.” Well, those are nice words; but when you’re really hurt, it doesn’t work like that.
Bob: You’ll never forget what happened to you in Africa. You can’t forget that.
Wess: I’ll tell you what I know. I know that you will never forget what you will not forgive.
Wess: It doesn’t mean you have to bring that person back in and risk being hurt by them again; but it does mean you’ve got to unclench your fist and give up your right to revenge.
Dennis: Wess, I’ll tell you a little story along those lines. I wrote a book, a number of years ago, called The Tribute. A lot of people really got angry at me for writing that book and got angry at the book. They’d throw the book across the room. Some pitched it in the trash because they’d been hurt profoundly by a parent, or by their parents, and didn’t want to do what you’re talking about.
But to a number of people—they had that same kind of emotional reaction you did, where they were angry, and filed with rage, and resentment; but they did the hard work of going back to the fifth commandment and realizing that you can’t honor someone that you want to murder. You can’t honor someone that you won’t forgive. They did the hard work of moving all the way to honor. To get to honor, you have to go through forgiveness to get there. One of the most oft-repeated phrases in the letters that have been written over the years was, “I thought it was my parents who were in prison; but as I moved toward honor, I realized I was the one who was in prison by my resentment. As I forgave my parents and honored them, I actually had the picture of letting myself out and becoming free.”
That’s what forgiveness ultimately does. It doesn’t perhaps happen instantly, like flipping a switch. It may have to happen over a period of time; but, in reality, the process of forgiveness, as Bob said, “You give up the right to punish, and then you replace it with something positive—not honoring them for what they did wrong—but honoring them because they are your parents.”
Wess: Yes, exactly.
Dennis: Or respecting another human being because they are a human being. I want to reemphasize what you said. It doesn’t mean you go back and reestablish the relationship, and let them do you more damage, and more harm. I think what you’re talking about here—there is a lot of good things we can take from this broadcast in terms of realizing children need to be respected, believed in, encouraged—but children can also be harmed by us, as adults.
Bob: Well, moms and dads can walk away, knowing the things you say today will mark your child. In fact, just last night I was with some folks at church; and we were talking about parenting and talking about how often we tend to be directive and critical with our children. “You need to do this. Have you done your homework? Have you cleaned up your room? Are you taking care of everything?” How infrequently we’re saying, “You know, I’m proud of you. You did a great job here. You’re a fine young man.”
Just those moments—just those things that, Wess, you’ve made habit of doing in your own life—and now, you’re encouraging all of us to do in your new book, Just a Minute. Those kinds of statements can have a profound impact in the heart and in the soul of a child. I want to encourage listeners to get a copy of Wess’s book and then start to put into practice, what you have been doing and what you’ve seen others do, in the lives of children around them—what we all need to be doing—speaking words of affirmation. I’m thinking of Sam Crabtree, who was on our program not long ago, Dennis. He wrote a book called Practicing Affirmation. That is something we need to be doing with one another, but particularly with children.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about Wess Stafford’s book, Just a Minute. Again, the website is FailyLifeToday.com; or call us toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
If you’d like more information about the ministry of Compassion International—it is a great organization, doing a great work. If you’d like to find out more about child sponsorship, there’s a link on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com that will take you right where you need to go and get you the information you need. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com; click on the link for Compassion International to find out more about how you can have an impact in the life of a child who is in need, somewhere in the world. Again, our website is FailyLifeToday.com. You can also call for more information about Wess’s book. Our toll free number is 1-800-“F’ as in family, “L” as in the life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I wish our listeners had an opportunity to read some of the emails we get here at FamilyLife Today. In fact, I read one just this morning that said, “Thank you. Thank you. Praise God. Thanking you for your broadcast today. It was beautiful. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve heard that God loves wives and that they have worth.” Now, you stop and think about that. That’s pretty significant. That can be one of those things that changes the direction of somebody’s life. Those of you who help support FamilyLife Today—you’re the ones who make that kind of ministry in someone’s life possible. We appreciate your financial support.
In fact, this month, we are hoping that one listener in each of the cities, where FamilyLife Today is heard, would consider becoming a Legacy Partner. That’s somebody who helps support the ministry of FamilyLife Today on a monthly basis. We’re heard in about 1,100 cities; and actually, our goal is about 1,500 new Legacy Partners this month. There’s a thermometer on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com if you want to see how we’re doing toward that goal.
We’d like to ask you, “Would you consider being one of those families that makes this kind of ministry in people’s lives possible? Would you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link that says, ‘Become a Legacy Partner’?” Find out what’s involved. When you sign on as a new Legacy Partner, we’ll send you a welcome kit. Then, each month, we’ll make available resources to help strength your marriage and your family. Again, find the information at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call us. 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number, 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. Ask about becoming a Legacy Partner.
We appreciate those of you who are Legacy Partners, who’ve already joined the team; and we want to say, “Thanks,” in advance to those of you who say, “You know what? We’ll be the family in our city that steps forward to help you reach the goal of 1,500 new Legacy Partners.” We hope to hear from you and want to say, “Thanks,” in advance, for your support.
And we want to encourage you to be back with us, again, tomorrow. Wess Stafford is going to join us again. We’re going to talk about how we can love and bless children. Hope you can be here.
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 will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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