The subtitle of Dr. Wess Stafford’s memoir, Too Small to Ignore, is “Why the least of these matters most.” The “least of these” are the poor children of the world and, after reading this book, they will indeed matter to you too.
Wess Stafford is the president and CEO of Compassion International, one of the most well-respected christian NGOs in the world. What makes this book so special, however, are his childhood experiences of growing up in a small tribal village in Ivory Coast, West Africa. The wisdom he learns from tribal elders, the relationships he develops, as well as the hardships he endures after being sent away to boarding school are what form the basis for an adult life which would be dedicated to serving “the least of these.”
The spirit of a little child is a lot like wet cement. When a child is young, it takes little effort to make an impression that can last a lifetime.
The son of American missionaries, Wess has an idyllic childhood growing up in the remote West African village of Nielle. Here, even very small boys are given the very weighty responsibility of guarding the village cornfields from monkeys…using slingshots. In this tiny village, children are never viewed as helpless or in the way, but as the future fathers and leaders of the tribe who need to learn about and participate in village life at every stage in their lives.
I don’t want to include any spoilers (since I want you to read this book!), but let’s just say that Wess goes through a life-changing experience before moving back to the U.S. to complete his education. It is these experiences of having his heart broken and seeing the dreams of his childhood friends in Africa dashed by the cruelties of poverty that fuel his passion to help the poor.
I learned in my childhood in Africa that a child may be born into poverty, but poverty is never born in a child. The worst aspects of poverty are not the deplorable outward conditions but rather the erosion and eventual destruction of hope and therefore dreams. When a child gives up hope, dreams are forever shattered. With lost dreams goes the potential and ultimate impact that a child might have had.
The above quotation from Wess perfectly sums up why we at Real LIFE Foundation are fueled by the vision of “transforming lives through HOPE and education,” and why our ultimate goal is “empowering dreams.”
I am absolutely convinced that each and every child is lovingly knit in the mother’s womb with the gifts, talents, and potential to accomplish great things — if only given a change. Every child matters to God. Once that child, through our intervention, comes to understand and believe the awesome truth, the cold fingers of poverty are pried loose once and for all.
This is truly one of the most inspiring books I have read and will surely shape your views on what it means to have “compassion.”
I remember the first time I watched the Sandra Bullock movie, “The Blindside.” I think I was already crying about 5 minutes into the movie…it was a one-pack-of -pocket-tissue kind of movie…
Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of feisty Leigh Anne Tuohy, the mother of a family who took in a homeless, African-American teenager and made him part of their family. “I Beat the Odds” is the story before (and after) “The Blindside” – written by Michael Oher, the young man and central figure of the movie.
If “The Blindside” was five stars out of five… “I Beat the Odds” is a six.
As the title implies, Michael Oher really did “beat the odds.” Michael was born in a ghetto in Memphis, Tennessee to a crack addicted mother who had 12 children from a dizzying revolving door of fathers (none of whom ever stuck around). When she was doing crack, she would lock her children out of their apartment, even when the youngest was just a year and a half. Michael and his brothers and sisters were left to them to fend for themselves until, eventually, they were all taken away from their mother and put into the foster care system.
I really can’t explain to someone who hasn’t lived in poverty what it’s like to struggle to find some kind of hope.
What makes Michael’s story so inspiring – and why it is one of my favorite books of the past several years – is that despite growing up in the worst of circumstances, he somehow managed to maintain a positive attitude and to hold on to the HOPE that he would make it out of the ghetto.
Just because your life begins in a bad place doesn’t mean it has to end there.
One of the core messages of this book is that it is possible to get out of poverty and to change your life. Contrary to what the movie presented, Michael always believed that he would make it out of the ghetto – the Tuohy family (and many others) helped him to not only make it out, but to make it all the way to the NFL. However, if they hadn’t come along, he still believes he would have made it some other way, because he was determined to make it happen. He also knew how he would get there – by getting a good education, by choosing to hang around with positive role models, and by never letting go of his dream to be a pro football player.
Having some kind of a goal is absolutely essential for kids trapped in poverty and bad family situations, because if we can’t hope that things might be better someday, then we basically lose a reason to live. It’s a lot easier to fall down, or to stay where you are, than it is to fight gravity by trying to pull yourself up.
“I Beat the Odds” is a true story and, even more than “The Blindside,” will inspire you to live your life to make a difference in someone else’s.
I always felt that God had something special planned for my life… He wanted to use me to show the world anybody can be successful, no matter who they are or what their history is. But I had to trust in that plan and be an active, real part of making it happen. I had to believe that it was possible even when it seemed it wasn’t, and work for it even when it seemed pointless. I did, and I think that’s what made the difference. (Michael Oher)
by: Lynn Nawata (Executive Director)
The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns is probably the book that has had the most impact on my life in the past ten years. It is the true story of Rich, who is living out the American Dream. He works his way up the corporate ladder, becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation at a young age, complete with seven-figure salary and company-provided Jaguar. Then, a headhunter asks him to take a massive pay cut to become the president of World Vision USA…
Rich puts up a good fight — continually reminding the headhunter (and God) that he is: a) not available, b) not qualified, and c) not interested. The tipping point comes when Rich is faced with the fact that, despite being a “good” christian, he has become the “rich young ruler” of Luke 18.
[SPOILER ALERT!] Well, as you can imagine, God changes Rich’s heart and he is thrown into the world’s most desperately needy places — coming face to face with African children orphaned by AIDS… and face to face with the God of Compassion.
One of the reasons Rich’s story had such a huge impact on me was because I saw myself in him. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to work with the poor but allowed myself to be talked out of it. I was also climbing the corporate ladder — having become the country manager for a US Fortune 500 company in the Philippines at the age of 28, with a full ex-pat package, company car & driver, etc. But despite all this, I longed to work for something I could believe in…
Then, in March 2007, I was asked to be one of the founding Board of Trustees for Real LIFE Foundation, a christian NGO that provides high school and university scholarships for the poor. A few months later, I was researching the work of Real LIFE and several other compassion ministries for a conference I was working on. During this time, my heart was gripped by a song that just would not let it go… the song was “Hosanna” by Hillsong and the lyrics that replayed endlessly in my mind were, “Break my heart for what breaks yours, show me how to love like you have loved.” I played this song over and over again for more than a month, and each and every time I heard it I would cry. And cry. And cry…
Six months later, I became the executive director of Real LIFE Foundation.
But I only fully understood what had happened to me when I read the story of Rich Stearns. He recounts how the founder of World Vision, Bob Pierce, would pray:
Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God… He prayed that God would break his heart again and again, because if he didn’t, Bob knew that he could not love somebody else’s kids the way God did. No man or woman can unless God breaks that individual’s heart.
When I read those lines, I knew that was what God had done (and continues to do) in my own life. He breaks my heart… for the poor, for the oppressed, for the persecuted, and for the downtrodden.
I often tell people that before I became a Christian, I rarely (if ever) cried. But shortly after I gave my life to Christ, I prayed and asked God for the gift of compassion (mostly because I knew I didn’t have much). More specifically, I prayed that He would give me eyes to see people the way He sees them and a heart to love people like He does. I don’t think I even knew what I was asking for at the time, but God answered me anyway. As the saying goes, be careful what you pray for! Now I cry all the time… but I feel somewhat better knowing that Rich cries as much (or more) as I do.
The sub-title of The Hole in Our Gospel is, “What does God expect from us? The answer that changed my life and might just change the world.” As Rich Stearns shares in one of my favorite quotes of all time,
What do you see when you look at the pain and suffering in the world? Do you see a malnourished child — or a future farmer? A child without schooling — or a potential teacher? When you look into the faces of the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden, do you see hopelessness — or people made in the very image of God, with the prospects of a hope-filled future ahead of them? We can look at our broken world and say, “that’s just the way things are.” Or we can embrace a vision of what could be — if we’d each pitch in. Isn’t it better to light a candle than curse the darkness? And what could be accomplished if we lit not one candle but many? The light of even one challenges the gloom, but the light of a million could obliterate it.
If you want to light a candle in the fight against poverty… please read this book.
by: Lynn Nawata (Executive Director)