Wess Stafford with Burkinabe children
Dr. Wess Stafford gives a heartfelt expression to his joy at hearing the drumbeats of Compassion's ministry in the back yard of his childhood home in Africa.
Question: What is going through your heart as you witness Compassion's ministry entering West Africa?
Dr. Wess Stafford: I am simply overwhelmed! I am always delighted at the starting of a brand-new country ministry, at the experience of bringing hope and life to children. The start of this ministry in West Africa is the beginning of a whole new era for Compassion. In the next 5 to 10 years, I envision a ministry that will be serving over 100,000 children in five countries across West Africa.
But, in a deeply personal way, I am truly happy to finally see the start of this ministry in West Africa, a place that is very close and special to my heart. God first planted me here - actually, Burkina Faso is at the back yard of my childhood home in Cote d'Ivoire. The worship service we attended at New Life Baptist Church reminded me of how we used to worship in Cote d'Ivoire. It was the same drumming, same rhythm and fervor! It flooded my heart with sweet memories of my childhood.
Starting the West Africa ministry in Burkina Faso was also strategic on our part. The church here has courageous leaders, and I am happy that we can partner with them. The country situation has also been stable for a long time, unlike the strife that has torn some of the neighboring countries, and the church has also been very supportive.
I have no doubt that when I finally retire, I will do so with that special joy at having seen the ministry planted at my childhood home.
Q: Why did it take Compassion over 25 years to come to West Africa?
Wess: For starters, I did not want to seem as if I was pulling rank as President of Compassion! Seriously though, part of the reason why it took us that long to come to West Africa has to do with the growth of Compassion as a ministry. The last 25 years have been a period of great ministry, but growth was also constrained. In the last year, I would say that we have grown at a faster rate that we did in all the last 25 years!
However, more strategically, the need to make the most of our financial and human resources has always instructed our growth. We have always been committed to regional growth. In the case of East Africa, we started with Kenya, followed by Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia and finally Tanzania.
Q: How do you see Compassion's ministry impacting the evangelical church in Burkina Faso?
Wess: Our business is to help build the local evangelical churches and their leaders. I believe the church here in Burkina will experience the same rapid growth that happened in Ethiopia and Tanzania when we started our ministry there. In Tanzania, our partner churches registered triple growth within the first three to four years! When the church starts to become what it was appointed to be - the salt and light of the earth - it enhances its credibility in the community. Each registered child in a Compassion project provides access to homes and families in that community. The result is that the church reaches more people. When a church is changed, it changes the community, which in turn changes the nation.
Q: Any challenges you foresee? Burkina Faso's population is, after all, 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent animistic.
Wess: There are always challenges, and we experienced some of these challenges in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Sensitivity to other faiths is something we at Compassion regard highly. Resistance to the gospel is almost a given, but I believe the most powerful way of being the gospel to any peoples is to demonstrate the love of God through their children. This is what we do at Compassion.
I think it was St. Francis of Assisi who said, "Preach the gospel everywhere you go and, if necessary, use words." We enable the church to demonstrate God's love. When the community then comes knocking at the church's door asking "Why do you care for our children that much?" the church then takes that as an invitation to share the gospel. What Compassion does angers Satan, so of course there are spiritual challenges, but we have been angering Satan for over 52 years now!
Q: Why are you so passionate about Africa and the ministry of Compassion in this continent?
Wess: I am home. I guess everyone is passionate about home. I owe a deep debt to Africa and always say that I was not raised in an African village, but by an African village. In that village, I was prepared for my life's work. My values and character were shaped there. Around the village campfires, I learned from the very poor lasting values. I learned about dignity despite poverty, about love for one another, about joy despite the circumstances, and that hope is a courageous thing.
I learned that people are infinitely important - things are not. In my village, I learned how to serve, how to give, and also how to receive. I believe these are the values that also characterize the ministry of Compassion today, and to a large extent, what qualifies me to be the President of Compassion.
It is also in Africa that my heart was first broken by poverty. By the time I was 15, half the kids we had started out with had died . and many were the nights when I cried myself to sleep, lulled to sleep by the drums that carried the message of yet another death of a child, of my friend.
This sense of brokenness has never left me . despite my living in the United States or my education; I have never really left my village. In my heart, I still carry the rhythms of African drums, the laughter . it's good to come home. At another level, Africa is without a doubt one of the greatest continents. Yes, the needs in Africa are great and can be overwhelming, but the potential is by far the greatest!
Q: How does Compassion's ministry in Africa compare with the ministry around the rest of the world?
Wess: Africa is the region we entered last, and so in many ways it represents the best of our previous experiences. Africa also has every need situation imaginable - disease, poverty, droughts and civil unrest - but it also has great potential. It is also important to note that the ministry in Africa has grown up faster than any other region in which we minister. I believe this is because of the great leadership that has emerged from here, leading to quality programs.
Q: If you were to leave one piece of advice to the pioneering staff of Burkina Faso, what would that be?
Wess: Actually, a couple of things. First, never forget that it is all about Jesus Christ. Everything we do and are is reflection of that reality. I know well enough it is sometimes easy to forget this against a background of successes and growth.
Second, we must always remember that for us at Compassion, success is ministering to one child at a time. Right now the numbers in Burkina Faso are small, but over time they will grow, and growth can be intimidating at times, even leading to a situation where the individuality of each child is forgotten.
It's not about the number of projects, children or even countries in which we operate. It's about the one child whose tender heart we must minister to. This reminds me of the time Jesus healed a blind man. Jesus then asked him if he could see. The man said yes, but the people seemed like trees. Jesus then went on to finish his healing. I think the profound lesson here is that we need to see people, especially children, the way Jesus sees them, one child at a time.
Third, we must not grow weary in doing this good work. God has chosen to bless Compassion, and so we must be models to other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the churches. Our diligence comes from the knowledge that Jesus is our boss. At the end of it all, however, we will have to give God all the glory for the successes.
To read more about Wess' life and what being an advocate for children means, visit www.toosmalltoignore.com/.
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