By Warren Bird
Pastor Chris Brown with a group of Compassion International kids after after a speaking at a Saint-Marc Church in Haiti.
Chris Brown couldn’t hide his skepticism when the invitation came to investigate another global missions opportunity, this one with the world-renowned Compassion International.
“I’ve been in ministry a long time, and we are bombarded with outside ministries and parachurch organizations telling us ‘God’s will’ for our people’s money and our church’s budget,” says Chris, a teaching pastor at North Coast Church in Vista, CA. “But you can’t say anything against what they’re doing—one is about curing AIDS in Africa, another about sex trafficking, still another about the poorest of the poor.”
This particular invitation several years ago included a free trip to Africa with some pastor friends and a safari at the end—so Chris had to at least consider it. Little did he know it would change the trajectory of his church’s global work.
“Our church has done a lot of work around the world, so I’ve seen it,” Chris says. “I was thinking, ‘These groups are a dime a dozen, but I’ll go. It’s with cool friends, a nice hotel in Nairobi and we get a safari.’ ”
Numbers Didn’t Move the Needle
Chris was aware of Compassion’s performance results as he embarked on the trip. He knew the organization worked with 1.6 million children around the globe, and the claims that each child is matched with one sponsor family and moved toward a relationship with Christ through a local church.
“It’s a great organization, but I’m a cynic,” Chris says. “Do you know how hard it is to get a Sunday School class of 4 year olds in line? There’s no way you’re dealing with 1.6 million kids in a 1:1 relationship.”
Chris describes himself as an extremely tough nut to crack. He wasn’t even moved when the presentations and village tours began in Africa. “I’ve seen what happens when Americans come and you put on a show,” Chris says. “Then when you leave, no one’s in church and no one’s getting the attention they say they’re going to get.”
Turning the Tide
Chris began to soften—a little—when he asked children in every village he visited about their sponsor. He also quizzed local pastors to find out if Compassion was for real. Does it support your work as a local church to bring sponsored families to Christ and help them start growing in a relationship with Him?
16 members of North Coast church had the chance to meet the Compassion kid (and a family member) that they had been sponsoring in Haiti for the previous two years. They spent the day sharing a great lunch, playing games, making crafts, and then the sponsors handed out presents to the kids before they left.
Everywhere he went, the interaction with the children was the same. They all brought a stack of letters and a photo with the one family sponsoring them. The local pastors? They said the same thing at every stop.
“Every pastor I talked to said the prize of every church is to be chosen as a Compassion church,” Chris says. “They told me, ‘When you’re picked as a Compassion church, you know you will have a ministry that will make a difference for the rest of the community.
“They loved being a Compassion church, and it was changing the lives of everyone in their village.”
“I Can’t Describe…the Dancing”
One of those transformed people Chris met years later at a Leadership Network event was a Ugandan named Richmond Wandera.
Richmond’s father was shot and killed by robbers in their home when Richmond was eight years old, leaving his mother and five siblings to fend for themselves. They were forced to leave their home and moved into one of east Africa’s largest slums. The kids had to drop out of school, and hunger forced them to a life of begging in the streets.
“I remember the morning my mother said, ‘There is no more money for food,’ ” recounts Richmond, who also suffered from malaria 13 times but couldn’t seek medical care because of his family’s poverty. “I experienced hunger I cannot find words to describe.”
See more of Richmond Wandera’s story in this Compassion video
Richmond’s mother was desperate to care for her children, so she took the advice of a friend and put them on the waiting list to be sponsored through Compassion International. Not long after, Richmond’s family got word he had been chosen by a 15-year-old girl in the U.K..
“I can’t find the words to describe the dancing that filled our home at that news,” says Richmond, whose sister was also sponsored through Compassion. “Every family that gets that news knows their life has changed.”
With the work funneling through a local church in Uganda, Richmond’s family received food rations, clean water, education and spiritual investment. Richmond’s mother and all of his siblings eventually gave their lives to Christ. He was one of the 126,000 children annually who come to Christ through Compassion.
“I wrote Heather, my 15-year-old sponsor and thanked her,” Richmond says. “Because of her, my family knows Jesus. For that reason, we are forever not the same again.”
Richmond graduated from high school and completed Compassion’s leadership development program. After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in accounting in Uganda, Richmond earned a Master’s in Spiritual Formation from Moody Bible College.
He is currently working toward a Doctorate degree in philosophy of leadership and returned to his home country to form the Pastors Discipleship Network and bring theological training to pastors there. “There is a huge gap in my country, and 70% of the pastors receive no theological training,” Richmond says. “I want to share some of what I’ve received from them because of the impact of a local church on my life.”
Richmond and his sister Doreen laughing, recalling how they used to pray that people would lose their coins on the path for them to find and yet when they dropped or lost a coin, it was like their world had ended. Doreen is now a social worker in the Naguru slums where she and Richmond grew up.
Bringing the Message Home
Those are the types of stories that are turning the tide for skeptics like Chris Brown and other U.S. church leaders. Chris was able to investigate Compassion’s work in four other countries—leading to some confession on his part.
“I did a lot of soul-searching, and had a lot of forgiveness to ask for,” Chris says. “I told God, ‘I’ve been too much of a cynic.’ ”
Along with having his three children sponsor a Compassion child for $38 a month, Chris also brought the message in a big way to North Coast—which now has families that are sponsoring more than 2,300 children. “As pastors we teach theology and principles like generosity and loving others,” Chris says. “So when people say, Pastor, I want to help. I hear these messages and I want to do something, where can I start?’
“Compassion has become a tool to put in the hands of our people who want to know what to do.”
The Compassion Experience
Compassion goes beyond child sponsorship in poor countries worldwide with child survival projects that help mothers and their babies, ministries that work to help end sex trafficking and slave labor and investment in future leaders.
Some churches are hosting “Compassion Sundays,” complete with the Compassion Experience—ready-made semi-trailer trucks with replicas of actual living situations in third-world countries that immerse visitors in the daily life of children growing up in extreme poverty. In the Compassion Experience, visitors hear the voices and stories of people who live on less than $1.25 a day.
“We get glossy photos and videos from 1,000 different needs—and they’re all good,” Chris says. “But this is one organization that as a cynic I can tell you, I’ve kicked the tires. I’ve tried my best to poke holes in it, so I didn’t have to buy into it.
“But a decade later, we absolutely love being a Compassion church.”