There Are Kids In the River…Thoughts from El Salvador

I’m flying over El Salvador on my way back to the States. The beach is below, waves crawling to the shore. Not far beyond are rolling green mountains, clouds perched above them. No doubt there is a mother somewhere in that shadow walking out of her shanty, wiping the sweat off her forehead, saying “Gracias” in her mind for a welcome breeze.

There are kids below that cloud, still young and eyes full of hope. They run out of their small cinder block hut, maybe to fetch something for their Mama or to kick a deflated soccer ball. They do not yet know that the deck is stacked wildly against them. They have not had the news broken to them that they are what the rest of the planet calls “third-world”, which is a very politically correct way of saying, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.”

I’ve been in this breathtaking country all week with a ministry called Compassion International. They brought 15 or so pastors down here to show us what their ministry does on the ground. I’ve been in third-world countries before and I’ve known about (and had a great impression of) Compassion for a long time. However, I had never seen it up close.

Compassion started with the vision of one man who saw something tragic in Korea during the Korean War. He noticed that the trash men would poke each trash pile before picking it up, and after said poking, they would pick up some piles and put them in the truck, and others they would leave alone.

He soon realized that the deciding factor for the fate of each trash pile was that if said pile moved when it was poked, it would be left there. If it did not move, it would be taken up.

And what was the thing moving under the trash pile? A war orphan, finding shelter in the only place he or she could.

He went back to the States with the crazy idea of a 1-1 sponsorship program. Pair up someone from the US with a kid like the ones under the trash piles, and through a small monthly payment provide hope and a future for them. With the help of 2 financial sponsors, Compassion International was born. Today there are over 1 million children who are sponsored through Compassion.

After touring their country headquarters, visiting several projects, and even going into the homes of children who are sponsored through Compassion, I could not have a higher opinion of their ministry. I was beyond impressed with their ministry model and their execution. Some of the more cynical among us, upon seeing the packets of children available for sponsorship, may think that there’s no way that specific kid exists. It’s just a marketing ploy, a sad picture and a made up name.

And you would be wrong. I know because I’ve been in their homes. I’ve seen them pull out pictures and letters from their sponsors like those little tattered papers were treasure.

David sponsor letter

(I met an amazing college student named David who wants to be a pastor. This was the first letter he had ever received from his sponsor.)

There were many reasons to be impressed by Compassion on this trip, but I’d like to highlight a few:

  • They are Christ-centered. Far from simply being a social justice or relief organization, they are spreading good news. They are proclaiming the love and hope of Jesus with abandon. By no means is being a Christian a prerequisite to getting help, but unlike other relief organizations, they do not ignore spiritual poverty.
  • They are church-based. This was, by far, the most surprising part of the trip for me. I assumed that a Compassion project was just that–a project. A VBS on wheels with no lasting connections. That is far from the truth. Each Compassion project is intimately tied to an evangelical church led by local, indigenous pastors. The kids in the project naturally connect with the church, and the pastors love & care for the kids and their families. Several times I was brought to tears by seeing the fierce love and commitment that these pastors have for their communities. Honestly at the projects we visited, I could not see the dividing line between Compassion and the church, in many ways because there is not a dividing line. I did not see Compassion signs anywhere–I saw the church on display in the community, and Compassion simply came alongside to empower and resource local churches to practically meet the needs of their community.
  • The ministry model is incredible & comprehensive. They have 3 different major programs.Their Child Survival Program starts when a child is 0-3, working with impoverished mothers and babies to work toward both survival and health. The Child Development Sponsorship Program (4-18) is the typical child sponsorship program (what you probably think of when you think about Compassion), which provides food, medical care, job skills, and other resources to kids who desperately need it. The Leadership Development Program (19-22) is for kids who excel and show leadership potential through the program, and it provides them the opportunity to go to college and receive training on how to impact their country with the same help that they’ve received from Compassion. That may not seem as glamorous as the first two, but I quickly saw the overwhelming value of this as I met several of these kids and heard their stories. I watched them shed tears over how God had changed their entire lives through being a part the program, and you can easily see that each of those kids is going to explode grace and hope all over their country.

As we sat with Compassion’s country director for El Salvador the other day, all I could think about was this sociology illustration that goes like this: suppose you happened upon a river and, to your great surprise, there were tons of babies floating down the river. An unrelenting stream of kids are actively drowning, gasping for air, helplessly swept away by the current. You’d basically have 3 options:

  1.  Get in the river and pull babies out. This is the most direct response to the problem, and indeed what we would be compelled to do. However, the problem is you would only be able to save a few of them. It is an incomplete response. Option number two would be:
  2. Run and get help. Raise awareness by sprinting to get as much help as possible. This would greatly increase the number of babies you’d be able to save in the long run. However, it’s still not entirely sufficient, because the babies just keep coming. Even if you could get them all, it doesn’t solve the problem that babies are in the river in the first place. A la option number three:
  3. Go upstream and prevent babies from being put in the river. Why in the world are babies being thrown into the river? Fixing the root of the issue is essential to have a true solution to a problem.

As I sat there and listened to this man pour out his heart for his country, all I could think, over and over again was: “There are kids in the river.”

There are kids in the river.

There are KIDS in the river.

The problem is, most of us for all practical purposes hardly ever see the river. We don’t live near it and when you don’t see something for so long it’s easy to forget or believe that it’s not really true–that there is actually no such river with kids perishing by the day.

That may be an inconvenient truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless.

There are kids in the river, and after seeing it firsthand, I don’t know of a more simple or effective way to do something about it than to sponsor a kid through Compassion for $38/month. And then telling other people to do so. Compassion is doing an incredible job of all 3 areas, and after seeing it the only thing left for me to do is to pick a new child (or 17) to sponsor and hope I can go visit them one day.

And if you’re asking whether this whole approach really works, I’d like to tell you two things. First, go read this article.

Next, I want you to know the end of the story of Compassion in South Korea, it’s inaugural country. Decades later, the people of Korea kicked Compassion out in the best way possible. They invited them over and explained to them that they were now a country who could take care of their children–that Compassion was no longer needed. Thus, there is no longer a Compassion program in South Korea. Of course there were other factors in South Korea’s success, but it is undoubtable that Compassion was one of them.

And not only that, but as of today, South Korea sponsors more kids through Compassion than every country in the world beside the US & Australia.

This trip hit me especially hard in light of the fact that we are in the adoption process in one of the poorest countries in the world (Ethiopia). Kristi and I think and pray for our yet-to-be child often, and we are thrilled to meet him or her one day. However, this trip more than ever made me realize that as we quite literally help pull one child out of the river, we need to do everything in our power to prevent kids from being in the river in the first place. We pray that in 50 years Ethiopia will not need to have their kids adopted. That they would not be the ones in the river, but the ones helping to pull others out.

So we’re gonna sponsor a kid in Ethiopia and pray that that will help keep him or her out of the river. I believe we have to in order to work toward a holistic response to the heart-wrenching tragedy in a country that God has embedded deep into our hearts. And we have to raise awareness, to run to our proverbial town with the news that there are kids in the river and we can help them. Be on the lookout, because we’d love to try to get an entire project in Ethiopia sponsored.

If you’ve never heard of Compassion, check out their website. Think and pray about sponsoring a child. If you do, write to them often. You can do so (and even send pictures) online now. It was super sad to talk to kids who never received letters or got dropped by sponsors frequently. They want relationship as much as anything else.

By all means, ask me any questions that you have. I don’t know all of the answers, but I know a lot more than I did before going on this trip. From everything I’ve seen, I’m a huge fan.

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