By Warren Bird
The Compassion Experience exhibit allows participants to experience the sights, smells and sounds of children living in poverty around the world through an array of hands-on displays.
Dr. Stacy Spencer was close to saying “no” to what became one of the most impactful events his community-savvy congregation had ever hosted.
Stacy pastors New Direction Christian Church in the heart of one of the most impoverished areas of Memphis, TN. He couldn’t imagine how it would be received when he considered asking his more than 3,200 weekly attenders to help a poor child thousands of miles away.
“I know where my people are, and they are struggling to find employment, struggling to find living wages,” Stacy says. “I seriously wondered how it would go if I asked them to help rescue kids out of poverty on the other side of the world.
“But I prayed about it, and the Holy Spirit told me to preach a message about it anyway. And God moved.”
In response to New Direction’s Compassion Sunday and child sponsorship focus—fueled by Stacy’s sermon, the interactive “Compassion Experience” from Compassion International, and the moving testimony of one of Compassion’s graduates—New Direction attendees sponsored close to 500 children in one weekend.
Dr. Warren Bird interviews Pastor Stacy Spencer on his life-transforming experience of visiting impoverished area in South America and how he challenged his church members to sponsor children with Compassion International.
“The response was remarkable,” says Stacy, who was approached about doing the Compassion weekend after taking an overseas trip with a group of pastors pulled together by Leadership Network. “I challenged my people to give out of their poverty like the Macedonian church, and they got it.”
Complementing Local Ministry
The ask was simple: Seriously weigh Jesus’ call to make disciples in your community and around the globe. Take 20 minutes to experience the moving Compassion Experience in semi-trailers in the church parking lot. Then survey the wall of photographs of children from impoverished nations, and commit $38/month to help feed, clothe and educate one of them.
New Direction’s people were plenty familiar with meeting needs in their community. The 13-year-old church has extensive benevolence ministries, and has developed an award-winning charter school in an area where public schools are lacking.
“The Compassion weekend complemented what we’re about,” Stacy says. “It was a perfect extension of what we do locally to help kids in Jesus’ name.”
The 20-minute “Change the Story” experience includes two trailers totaling 3,500 square feet, featuring replicas of the homes of three children who live in extreme poverty
“I Saw a Lot of White Faces”
The piercing words of a former Compassion kid helped seal the deal. Owen Githanga, a guest for the Sunday morning services, recounted how he spent his young childhood in Kenya digging in dumpsters or begging for food door-to-door every night. In the second grade, Owen’s mother enrolled him in Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program, where he received daily food and fresh water, and things he never knew about—like Christmas and birthday gifts.
After high school, Owen joined Compassion’s Leadership Development Program to attend college, and eventually earned a Master’s degree and became a Certified Public Accountant. Today he sponsors several African children through Compassion.
“In 19 years of being involved with Compassion in Africa, I never saw a sponsor with a black face,” Owen told the congregation that morning. “I saw a lot of white faces, but my friends and I always wondered why we never saw a black person sponsor one of the children.
“Is it because you think, ‘We can’t do it’? I want to challenge you to break this bad habit of thinking we can’t do it. It’s a lie from the devil.”
A Moving Experience
With their hearts moved, the Compassion Experience then gave attenders practical and tangible action to take.
A self-guided, pre-recorded tour through replicas of actual living situations in third-world countries—complete with chairs that are used for beds, one-room homes that house large families and family photos—immerses visitors in the daily life of children growing up in extreme poverty. Visitors hear the voices and stories of people who live on less than $1.25 a day.
“We let them go to that country without a plane ticket,” says Chelsea Vocal, who works with The Compassion Experience. “They get to walk the streets of Uganda, and the market place of Bolivia.”
Independent research recently conducted at the University of San Francisco and published in the University of Chicago’s prestigious Journal of Political Economy reveals that children sponsored by Compassion International are more likely to graduate both secondary school and college, have salaried employment, and be leaders in their communities.
Coming Full Circle
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
“At times, helping can actually hurt,” says Scott Limerick, Southeast Regional Manager, Church Relations, for Compassion International. “So our ministry approach is to empower – not enable. If a ministry truly works, it eventually meets the need it was created for, and is no longer needed.
Compassion is actually seeing its model come full-circle. Started in the early 1950s in South Korea, today that country no longer receives aid from Compassion, and is now one of 12 countries to sponsor children.
Compassion focuses on supporting the programs of local churches in underdeveloped nations, where food, clothing, shelter, medical—and spiritual—needs are met.
Dr. Stacy Spencer on an overseas group tour with Compassion International. Compassion Tours allow sponsors have the opportunity to visit their sponsored child.
“All four poverties—spiritual, physical, social and emotional—are addressed by Compassion,” Scott says. “That’s true, holistic child development. We believe you develop the child and he will grow up and change the community. And it works!”
It certainly was a winning proposition for New Direction, and Stay Spencer says the church will likely do another Compassion Weekend in the future to keep the fires burning for global ministry.
“Our people learned a valuable lesson—that even the poorest in America are far richer than kids in third-world countries,” Stacy says. “They realized we have to help people in our community and people abroad at the same time. It just made sense that we would help kids in failing schools in impoverished communities—that’s what we do here—and make sure they have a chance to get an education, get fed and most importantly, get salvation.”