Monday, January 23, 2006

Too Small to Ignore: PART I

"While you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

– Christian author/speaker Tony Campollo to a large Christian gathering

My wife and I were in Ann Taylor shortly before the holidays, looking for some business outfits. While she browsed the racks, I wandered the store captivated not by the clothes but by the people admiring them. Oh, there's nothing wrong with the clothes or even the people interested in buying them. However, I couldn't help but feel that I was watching everything that is sick, twisted and warped about Western society. The racks went on forever, perfect little copies of each outfit parading down in one homogenous blob.

One woman picked up a turquoise top, glanced at it disgustedly and tossed it aside. Another snatched three or four outfits commenting aloud, "I'm not sure if I want one or all of them."

And suddenly, unexplainably, I was awash in memories of visiting Africa — of naked, emaciated children racing about my legs, of feeble men and women clad in the same tattered rags they had obviously worn since as long as they could remember.

I felt sadness.

I felt disgust.

I felt pissed off.

Throughout the entire holiday season, with each gift exchanged, with each feast to which I sat, I was never able to shake those thoughts, those emotions. Outwardly I celebrated, but inside I was coiled in anger and revulsion.

We live in a wretched society, I thought. I am wretched.

* * *

Wess Stafford is the President of Compassion International, a child-development organization that exists to release children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enable them to become responsible, fulfilled Christian adults. Founded in 1952 to provide Korean War orphans with food, shelter, education and health care, today, Compassion helps more than 700,000 children in more than 20 countries.

I've known Wess for over twenty years. When people talk of great men, of powerful leaders, of God's heart, they are talking of people such as Wess. My mother worked as Wess's assistant for most of her nearly two decades in Compassion's employ. Wess was always a father-figure to me and someone who continues to mentor me just by being who he is, even though we see much less of each other these days.

Wess has written a book, Too Small To Ignore about his childhood growing up in West Africa and his current calling as an advocate for children the world over. In this profound book, Wess challenges the church, primarily the Western church, to step up and care for the most tiny and vulnerable among us.

“We do not have the option of ignoring poverty.”

Too long, he argues, the church has committed sins of omission by shirking our God-given responsibilities to care for kids simply because they are the smallest, weakest and most easily overlooked segment of the world’s population. Moreover, Wess argues, our action is all the more imperative because children, in particular, feel the brunt of the world’s sin, poverty and abuse.

“No matter what the setting, children seem to be a second-rate mandate. No matter what the ills of society, it tends to spiral downward and eventually land with its cruelest and most smothering impact on our littlest citizens. Small, weak, helpless, innocent, vulnerable, and trusting, they are the waiting victims for our simple neglect and most evil abuse. No matter what goes wrong, the little ones pay the greatest price. We sacrifice children on the altars of our most destructive sins.

“Because children have no political clout or even a voice in global affairs, they can become marginalized. Since they don’t vote, they have little effect on the political powers that should act on their behalf. Every segment of society seems to have figured out how to protest, march, and agitate for its individual and collective rights. But have you ever seen children holding a protest? They have much to legitimately protest, but they are the voiceless and powerless. Our selfishness and greed cause them to pay the greatest price but they suffer silently.”

We must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. Children must cease being the lowest priority on our individual and governmental hearts and begin taking the place of respect, commitment, and attention that the Bible admonishes they deserve. After all, Christ used some of his harshest language on those who ignored or minimized children.

This is a book that focuses not so much on the great Commission, but the Great Omission. Americans lives such busy lives that we hardly have time for our own children, let only the children of the world. America spends more on garbage bags than 90% of the world’s 210 countries do on everything. We have twice as many shopping malls as schools. A professional basketball player makes as much in three hours as a teacher does in a year.

Something is dreadfully wrong with our values.

But feeding a child or putting him or her through school is not enough for Wess. Recovery from poverty requires a holistic approach. All facets of a child’s life must be addressed.

“We are shaping human lives, with all their wondrous complexity. If ever there was a project that required a multifaceted, holistic view, this is it. People are not a bank of pigeonholes. Their physical health is not walled off from their emotions, their finances, their social relationships, their sexuality, their skills and talents, or their spiritual beings. If we are serious about helping overcome poverty…we must care about all areas of their lives. It is not enough to concentrate on our favorite—say, health or education—and assume this will solve the rest.

“At its core, poverty is a mind-set that goes far beyond the tragic circumstances. It is the cruel, destructive message that gets whispered into the ear of millions by the enemy Satan himself, ‘Give up! You don’t matter. Nobody cares about you.’ Poverty is an inside-out issue. It does its greatest damage on the inside, where it often cannot be seen. When a child in poverty says, ‘I matter,’ he has just taken the first teetering steps out of poverty.”

Wess sees children as the key, not simply the target. He has no illusions that Compassion or any other aid organization can save an entire country. But what he does believe is that saving a handful of children can do exactly that. Because those children--the indiginous children--will transform their nation from the inside out.

“One changed child eventually changes a family. A changed family will influence change in their church. Enough changed churches will transform the community. Changed communities change regions. Changed regions will in time change an entire nation. [A]ddressing the circumstances and conditions of poverty at the community level is not enough. There are simply too many corrupt levels of society for the benefit to ‘trickle down’ to the neediest. It just doesn’t work—or at least not often enough to make it worth life’s effort! But when the poorest of the poor are the ones changed, they come alive and ‘bubble up’ through their community. That breaks the back of poverty and brings a sustainable transformation, by transformed people, that cannot be taken away. While changed circumstances sometimes change people, changed people always change circumstances.”

Wess doesn't believe that it is the church's apathy alone that contributes to its lack of action. Sometimes, the problem seems so large that we don't know where to start...



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Good Sir.
I am often tempted to write a note here and there, and I have come to recieve your update notices with a good sense that I will respect and enjoy what I lies in wait...

I felt it a good time and place to mention that, while one of my dearest friends has two special needs daughters which she adopted from China, my other closest friend, Kim, is trying to adopt two Ethiopian girls in the coming year. They are older girls and will have a large adjustment to make- and her husband (though thrilled) sometimes wonders - are we sure this- THIS- is a better life for them?

Yes and, maybe, no. But our wealth and opportunities, where they have not corrupted us, are ours to share.
I write primarily to report that those families I know that have and plan to adopt children in need from other countries are so much the happier for it and that it is not financially impossible. Because if you are going to keep on finding ways to inspire us all ( I am often inspired and quite impressed with your posts), I would like to further encourage tangible use of such inspiration.
Best to you and your lovely wife,

12:53 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I was actually going to address just that in Part II! Thanks for your kind words.

ALWAYS a treat to hear from you Shoshana.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Andy said...

I have had this growing in me for a while. That God's blessings to me are also responsibilities. I am not ashamed or angry at God's blessings. I believe that they came from Him, and I am honored to be the recipient of them. But I am disgusted by how cavalier I can be about suffering. Then I think about Ezekial's description of the sins of Sodom and Gommorrah in Ezekial 16:49-50

"Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."

Lord please help me to NOT be overfed and unconcerned...

Well, I'm often overfed :-)

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Oh boy, where to start.

My heart breaks for each of those children lost to such a horrible and seemingly preventable condition: poverty.

However my brain reels at the accusation that I somehow caused the poverty in the world and that I perpetuate it everyday by the lifestyle I live: wanting to give good gifts to family and friends, buying trashbags for the exhorbitant amount of trash my family and I generate, that I have not done enough to make the world a better place and live by the tenets taught by my Savior... and then I think, I could do more?

Then I think, should I do more? The answer is of course, 'yes,' but where and how? Is it selfish to invest in my own family through time and love, or do I have to consider the rest of the world first? Which is more responsible?

I think being globally minded and aware is a good thing. I think teaching our children and having discussions with our friends about what is being done and what we can do is a good, resposible and right thing. But I think it can go too far.

Personally I was shocked by how much my family gave in contributions this past year. I am proud of the fact that we can give away, without thought of getting anything back, 10% of our single-family, one-person-working income. I'm proud that my wife can stay at home and teach our child to be a healthy, educated, and loving person. I'm thankful for what we can do and pray we can continue to do so. Yet is there more we could do?

I do not feel guilty for the *gulp* 30,000 children that were lost in the past 24 hours... I am deeply saddened that that is a fact of the world in which we live. I hope that someday I can contribute more to the situation in which we find ourselves in this world. But for now, I have to consider it enough to be responsible for myself and the local community in which I find myself.

I am grateful to those who can and do do more in the world, through adoption, missions, educating, contributions, building infrastructure and more.

And to you , Brandon, for bringing these situations to our awareness since many of us would otherwise live in blissful ignorance of these facts.

God Bless us all,

10:57 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

What's that Spider Man line, Andy: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Far be it from us to be ashamed of our blessings. Shame comes in how we use those blessings. Do we use them to help others or do we hoard them for ourselves.

Ezekiel's description is shocking, especially when we like to harp on Sodom and Gomorrah's destruction being a result primarily of their sexual deviance. This shows that it was obviously far more than that.

Paul, while I don't think many people would accuse Westerners of somehow causing third-world poverty (though there are certainly compelling arguments in that camp both for the genesis and sustainment of poverty by superpowers throughout the past couple centuries, a topic a friend and I discussed over lunch just yesterday), I think they insist that we should do more--especially when the vast majority of us to absolutely nothing at all.

It is not at all selfish to invest in your own family--it is, in fact, your first and primary responsibility. However, once their needs are met (met, not exceeded--a point Wess talks about at length in the book) I think we have a responsibility to then alleviate the burdens of others--the homeless man across the street and the refuge across the ocean.

Can this sort of talk really go too far? I wonder.

No one desires guilt. They do, perhaps, insist on empathy. I love the definition of compassion that Compassion International uses: "to suffer along side of."

I think overall, what I and many others would stress is that the poverty that eats like a cancer at our world is NOT a "fact of the world in which we live" but instead a VERY preventable thing. No, we will not be able to entirely eradicate poverty from this planet. But there is so very much we can do. And for those, we have an obligation to do it.

I may use some of these comments in Part II.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Kari said...

Oh, Brandon, my Friend....You know you have reached into the most tender part of my heart. One thing you always know to trust from me, is that my heart is always directed toward children, be they my own, those of friends or those most often left behind or uncared for.

As I sit holding my own little angel who is crying with a tummy ache and nearly heart hurts for those babies with no one to sit and comfort them. No mama to kiss their owies or comfort their fears or even get them that last drink of water before they settle into a sleep filled with dreams of puppies and toys and, in our case, Doodlebops.

I hurt for those mamas who ARE there with their sweet little ones, but are still unable to fix a simple sandwich for lunch or to have the blessing of telling their offspring that they can't have a third bowl of cereal for snack or they won't be hungry for dinner....because there is no cereal...and there is no dinner.

In my mind's eye, when I pray for the children that we know and for those we don't, I not only see the precious little African babies with their teeny braids and distended bellies (which, if it were feasible, I'd bring home a houseful, as you well know), or the teeny Chinese baby girls left alone with their only fault being that they are female, but also the little boy we drive past on the way to Lydia's cello lesson each week, playing alone next to the railroad tracks. I think of the children I've been blessed to touch over the years in the local missions and ministries who, without the food boxes we assembled, would not have meals for the week. I picture the young children left homeless as a result of hurricanes, tsunamis and any other of a multitude of natural disasters that have rattled our world in the past couple of years.

In my rational thought, I know that there is no reason to feel personally responsible for any of those children being in those gut-wrenching situations, I didn't personally DO anything to cause such my heart, I know that the tug of compassion that urges us to action is the same source of guilt to many. In James 4:17, that sense of guilt and responsibility is explained, "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." As human beings, created in God's image, with a basic inner sense of right and wrong, we are filled with desire to help those among us who are in need...not only across the world, but also across the street or across town.

The responsibility of the church to feed the hungry, care for the orphans and widows is a monumental task, but, if each of us would minister to those within our scope of influence and be willing to truly follow God's leading in where and when to act, then much could be accomplished.

3:02 PM  

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