Friday, August 21, 2009

A child advocate

I recently finished reading a book called "Too Small to Ignore" by Dr. Wess Stafford (with Dean Merrill)*, president and CEO of Compassion International (I mentioned it already here).**

I seem to have picked out a lot of excerpts for review, so apparently this is going to be long...

What I found refreshing about this book was that although it's written by the representative of a specific ministry, he does not spend a lot of time calling attention to what his ministry has accomplished. Although Dr. Stafford shares a lot about his personal testimony, he manages to do it in a way that highlights problems and solutions, not a lot of numbers and lists about all the great things he has done. That is hard to do... +/-



The Book

A great portion of this book is autobiographical. As an introductory statement, Dr. Stafford notes,

"this book explains why it has been the cry of my heart for three decades to champion children to the Church. As you will see, poverty and abuse whisper the same destructive message into the spirit of a child: 'Give up. Nobody cares. You don't matter.' "(inside cover)
The book is very readable, and the description of the missionary child growing up in Africa is fascinating. I hardly wanted to put it down. The author mentions that the village life was difficult for his mother, a "city girl," but paradise for a little boy.

Sweet Childhood

He describes the village life so lovingly that you almost want to live there. At times I felt torn between wanting to criticize American culture and at the same time thinking that some practices are just cultural and not necessarily right or wrong.

One interesting cultural note is the contrast between the "gentle flow" of childhood in other countries and the forced age categories of American culture.
"Childhood in most non-Western societies, like the village where I grew up, is a constant, gentle flow that moves from infant to toddler to child to youth and on to adulthood in a steady, integrated progression. In each phase of childhood, the child is allowed to be as much a part of the ebb and flow of daily life as his or her capabilities allow. The fun and games we experienced as children in Nielle were mostly a child's lighthearted spirit being applied to the duties and chores of daily life in the village...'play' just happened as we lived our lives in the village." (30-31)
Sounds nice, right? Include your children in all your daily tasks and they will have a great time of it and learn in the process. But what if that's not possible? Not everyone can work from home, nor can they bring their children to the office. And in the demanding schedule of modern life, involving children in every household task would greatly diminish the amount of production, so goals would need to be adjusted accordingly. So how could we apply this "integration" of children into today's society?

I have heard the outcry about neglected children from many Christian speakers. But I like what Stafford says about the youth not being given enough credit for how capable they are. Instead, they are sometimes ignored or given fake tasks to do.
"I found teenagers my age who were frustrated, bored, and bitter at always being excluded, as if they had been placed on a shelf to wait out the adolescent years...for littler children, it was the same or worse. In parents' great love for them, they lavished toys on their children that would allow them to pretend they were grownups. Sometimes adults would get down on the floor and play along as if they were baking cookies in the toy ovens but would then stand up and return to the 'adult' world, feeling pretty good about themselves and their little excursion." (32)
Although he criticizes the toys that mimic "real life," he does suggest to adults that they "become like children" and enter a child's world, to encourage their make-believe play.

"If you are invited (okay, begged) by your children to join in their imaginary world, you have indeed been honored and should jump at the chance." (45)

Would these principles work in the U.S. or not? Stafford seems to think they are universal...

"I'm convinced that although the values and conditions in a remote African village were conducive to such child-focused development, the same is still within reach of today's Western society."(43)

Dr. Stafford shares many great memories of helping his father as a boy. At a young age, he was made to feel as though he were a partner in work and ministry. Indeed, giving children and teenagers responsibility for something is a way to put your love for them into action. Instead of telling them all the time how important they are, why not give them a chance to see that they're needed?

The book includes a poignant story of how the Stafford family gave their sponsored child a chance to be a part of their lives, though she was far away and living in a poverty-stricken situation.
"We asked everyone to pray for her, including Mercedes, to whom Donna wrote, 'Our little baby has been born much too early, but we believe God can spare her life. Will you pray for her? Her name is Katie.' "

[Later]...When we arrived at one of our projects, a little girl jumped up from the back corner of the room and ran toward me. It was Mercedes. She recognized me from the pictures we had sent. Wrapping her arms around my legs, she blurted out, 'How is Katie? I pray for her every day.' "(49)
More on Culture

One of Dr. Stafford's points on how the "gentle flow" of growing up is hindered is demonstrated by age segregation at church services.
"We may even enter the building through separate doors, regrouping only when it is time to go home two or three hours later. Our Sunday schools and activity clubs are tightly stratified by age and interest. Three-year-olds go here, ten-year-olds go there, senior high teens go to another place, and adults breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of being free from kids for a while." (64)
This is another of those moments when I wonder what is cultural and what is true about human behavior in general. What if all churches did away with "Sunday school" and had children and adults together all the time? What would the dynamic be? Is it possible to transition to such a model when everyone is already used to being separate?

Another good point is to keep the motive for your mission clear. He mentions both missions that neglect relief work in favor of more "spiritual" undertakings, as well as missions who do humanitarian work but are "afraid to clarify their motive." He explains, "Our official tag line at Compassion International is this: 'Releasing children from poverty in Jesus' name.' "(76)

Here's another cultural aspect: how time is divided. Dr. Stafford remembers the chief making a long speech about how outsiders (the Frenchmen) focus too much on the future without appreciating the present.

"The Frenchmen cannot wait for the future to arrive. They crane their necks to see around the bend in the river. They cannot see it any better than we can, but they try and try. For some reason, it is very important for them to know what is coming toward them."(85)

Here's the last cultural example I'll mention. Stafford mentions how while attending primary school in the village, they would get in trouble for giving answers to each other. This is something I have noticed in Russia as well: sometimes your primary motivation is to help your friend, for the good of the group. Honesty is not the number one priority. Our way seems selfish.

"Now with a PhD in education, I realize teachers would call us world-class cheaters. But it felt entirely right to us." (111)

A sizable portion of the book involves Stafford's memories of being abused and manipulated in a boarding school for missionary children. This part is fairly upsetting, but contributes to his becoming an advocate for children.

Taking Action

Along with telling his own story, Stafford describes some approaches for ministering to children. Some of these are meant specifically for children in poverty.

Like other authors writing on similar topics, Stafford mentions Maslow's hierarchy of needs and gives a few tips on how to helping people meet their needs. For example, appropriate guidelines for clothing donations. This is something I've thought about myself.

He tries to get to the root of why poverty is so destructive.

"More than anything, the poor feel overwhelmed. Without financial resources, shelter, food, education, justice, or skills to address their plight, they succumb to the downward spiral that leads to hopelessness and despair. That, my friend, is the essence of poverty." (184)

Dr. Stafford also defends his stance as a child advocate, challenging those who might dismiss his compassion as merely being soft-hearted.

"If throughout this book you have discounted my passion by saying to yourself, 'Well Wess Stafford is a sentimentalist toward children; he's the kind of guy who gets all mushy around little kids, ' let me tell you, it's a lot more than sentiment." (192)

I appreciate this comment because I sometimes feel like people have that attitude toward helping orphans...that is, they imagine that I have fallen under a spell of adorable Russian children. It isn't hard to fall in love with wounded children, but it is hard to stay in love with them, and to bear the load of loving them.

Next, Stafford explains what he believes is the biblical model for relating to children. He includes a lot of stories such as the one I mentioned in my preview post. I will admit that I skimmed over this section rather quickly. Of course the biblical basis is important, but as I'm already a child advocate, I don't need to be convinced any more than I already am that children are valued in God's kingdom.

Several chapters of the book are also dedicated toward visionary statements. For example, this comment:

"I consider it a partial victory when I hear Christian leaders speak about children as 'the church of tomorrow'...Maybe in time these leaders will come to see children as part of the church of today, too." (209)

And, a series of "What if" statements (from p.231) imagining what the world would be like if children had all their needs met (Maslow's), were given a voice, were given a place in the church, etc.

I realize as I come to the end of this review that I paid more attention to Dr. Stafford's personal testimony than to his suggested solutions for ministering to children "in Jesus' name." I think that the conclusions he has drawn directly from his personal experiences are enough. He didn't necessarily need to present lists of ideas for reform.

I have highlighted some thoughts here, and I wholeheartedly recommend the book if this kind of thing interests you!

*I am going to refer to Dr. Stafford as the author, simply because it is told from his point of view.
**Stafford, Wess, with Dean Merrill. Too Small to Ignore. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2007.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting!

    I did have the opportunity to bring my older two to the office with me, and I did rely on them quite a bit. I think that worked out well, but for some reason none of my "present" set of young children have any desire to help out at all. I don't understand that; I really don't. For Aidan and Lydia "the office" and all the parish work was sort of like the "family farm"...we all gave a hand....

    The other thing I'll note is how much I agree with his opposition to all this age-segregation we have in church....for children, but also for adults. Teen Group. Young Adult Group. Seniors. Moms of young Children. It is annoying! Is that just because there is no group for me? No; I don't think so. I think we enrich one another and will segregate ourselves naturally just as much as is appropriate, when church leaders start by letting the whole community be together....sorted, perhaps by mission, or interest. But - age? Seems so stupid. I also think it makes people less able to get along with one another. Same age groups seem the least pleasant of all groupings. My older kids went to a Montessori where there were children from 1-6th grade together. I noticed how in larger groups outside of school my kids could and did get along with and reach out to everyone....whereas other children were hesitant unless there was someone "the same age" there.

    Sounds like a great book! I'd like to read it.

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  2. I agree, I don't like the segregated groups in church when it comes to socializing. I enjoy mixed company.

    I think involving the children has to start early, though. Inviting kids to help their parents or stay up for the sermon might not be effective if they are used to a totally different way of life. I would think that a group of families would have to decide together to be consistent about it.

    I don't think sermon content is necessarily too complicated for kids if they are trained from an early age. I don't have strong feelings either way about them being taken out. Sometimes it frees up space and allows the parents to stop worrying whether their child is the one who distracts everyone from the sermon (in fact, most people love having the kids around, but the parent still worry). Of course, discipline is a separate topic. ;)

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