Jeff Foxworthy’s genuine, it’s-not-about-me humility merits some attention. His others-centeredness is as stunning as it is refreshing in the often ego-driven world of celebrity.
Even staggering success in his comedy career — commanding some of the highest fees in the business and picking up kudos along the way such as Forbes’ Top 100 Powerful Celebrities — does nothing to blur his vision of what really matters.
“You can’t find a truly happy person who’s self-focused,” he says from his Atlanta home, just returning from a program he helps run at the city’s homeless shelter. “These guys at the shelter get [the gospel] better than most church people I’ve ever met. They’ve got no Plan B.”
A fervent supporter of Compassion International and other hands-on programs that help the poor, sick and downtrodden, Jeff says simply, “I have a heart for the underdog.”
He first learned about Compassion six years ago on a church trip to the Kibera slum in Kenya. What he saw was jolting. “I had no idea poverty like that existed anywhere in the world. … the women, the children, the sewage in the streets, the vultures, the smell so awful.
“When you make them real people, that’s when you’ve got to respond somehow.”
The experience was life-changing for Jeff and his oldest daughter, Jordan, 14 at the time and his companion on the trip. She was transformed from a shy girl who never wanted to leave the house to a passionate advocate who has traveled around the United States promoting Compassion’s efforts to reduce malaria rates among sponsored children.
The Foxworthy family (which also includes Gregg, Jeff’s wife of 27 years, and younger daughter Jules) has since remained actively involved with Compassion, sponsoring children through the Child Sponsorship Program as well as young adults in the Leadership Development Program. They even worked with Compassion to build a 15-child orphanage five years ago in Kenya.
“You see kids over there on their own. They’re 10 years old,” says Jeff. “They get raped, they get used.” Jeff and Gregg decided to forgo presents one Christmas and build the orphanage instead. When they went to visit the new facility a year later, the experience was overwhelming.
“My wife slowly walked through it, went outside, sat down in a field and sobbed.”
As a ministry aiming to change lives, Jeff says, Compassion gets it right.
“The word ministry gets misused sometimes. ‘This is our building and this is what we do.’ No. It’s everybody, whoever you meet. If you look at the life of Jesus, Jesus always cared. Every life had value.
“People on the other side of faith don’t want to hear people talk about faith. But they can see people living out that faith.”
Along with sponsorships and the orphanage project, Jeff has participated in benefits for Haiti earthquake victims and spoken on behalf of Compassion to major news organizations. He also waived his appearance fee for a sold-out performance last April in Franklin, N.C.
The event was held at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts, owned by longtime Compassion supporters Phil and Sharon Drake. The Drakes donated use of the theater and matched ticket sales, bringing the night’s total to more than $160,000. The donations went to Compassion to provide children with clean, safe water.
“Why do I give a Saturday night?” Jeff asks. “That’s the most valuable time for me to give. But, because I gave away a Saturday night, 2,000 people will have clean drinking water.”
While his desire to love others as Jesus did is based in faith that took hold when he was only 7, his empathy for the suffering is grounded in childhood experiences that left him feeling unwanted and looked down on.
Jeff grew up outside of Atlanta with two younger siblings. His dad left the family when Jeff was 9, marrying five more times before his death.
“When a parent leaves,” Jeff says, “you always have the feeling something was more important than you.”
After his parents’ divorce, Jeff watched his mother struggle to provide the basics from her wages as a keypunch operator. He still feels the sting of being mocked by other kids for his worn baseball uniform.
“I thought, You don’t know me. You’re just looking at my shirt.”
Such are the scars that keep this megastar humble and clearheaded about what matters most in life. “Whatever I’ve got, it’s because God gave me the ability to be funny. It’s not mine.”
It’s all about personal validation, he says — the very heart of Compassion’s sponsorship program.
“By being a child’s sponsor, you’ve given him worth. Even from across the world. Jesus gave children worth during a time when children weren’t given worth. To Him, everyone has worth. Think how different the world would be if everybody thought like that.”