In case you don't know, Compassion International is a major non-profit Christian organization that works around the world to save children from poverty. They provide opportunities for people to sponsor children in developing countries, and the money goes to the child for food, clothes, school, and Christian education.
MY INTRODUCTION TO COMPASSION INTERNATIONAL
I first heard about Compassion back in the early '90s when I began to notice that Christian Rock Musicians were promoting the organization from the stage, at their display tables, and even in their CD inserts. Not too long after that, some musical friends of mine became "Compassion Artists" and included promotions for Compassion in their own performances. By the mid-'90s, some of my personal friends had become Compassion sponsors, donating money each month to help an individual child (or two, or three), with the kids' photos on their refrigerator.
When I would play shows on tour, and share the bill with Compassion bands, and hear keynote speakers do their presentations, I'd always get a slight case of the willies...something about the way that the artists did the pitch from the stage, and the huge stack of children's photos in plastic wrap at the back of the venue. And then, the frenzy of audience members after the show sifting through packets of kids, deciding which kid they'd like to "take home" and sponsor. Of course, I also felt a thread of guilt about my own feelings...how could I be so cold, that I didn't "get" this kind of service project? The years went by, and I never sponsored a child.
By the early 2000s, I had been hearing about Compassion International for a decade. Some friends of mine (who I really trust and respect) had even gone on to work full-time for the organization, working out of the corporate offices in Colorado. These friends show nothing but dedication and complete belief in the cause, so I always think to myself "Well, if THEY believe in the work so much, it MUST be really awesome."
I continued to connect with musicians who had become Compassion Artists, and I was quite amazed at the opportunities that these artists received. Compassion flies their artists around the globe to the areas where the sponsored children live, and the artist can personally meet and connect with the child(ren) they've been sponsoring, and see the effectiveness of the ministry in person. Then when the musician returns to the concert tour, they're even more passionate and committed to the work that Compassion is doing and they'll promote it even more from the stage. Personal friends of mine were jetting around the world to developing countries and seeing some truly powerful things.
A few years ago I was at a meeting with an up-and-coming Christian Rock musician who had really experienced a boom in his career. We weren't talking about outreach or service...we were talking about showbiz...and when asked "What was one of the best decisions you made in your music career?" the performer talked about the benefits of affiliating with a child sponsorship organization....they'd gather the artists for training sessions in retreat centers, offer free seminars with Nashville producers/consultants on improving your performances, fly you around the globe to meet your sponsored child, allow you to network with and befriend successful Christian rock stars, and get you booked on major festival stages with big name acts. Of course, he was very good about couching all of this in the context of "ministry" and "saving children from poverty," etc. He wasn't acting like a jerk about it, but man, it sounded pretty glamorous to me.
Despite the lures of good networking, world travel, bigger gigs, and yes, the opportunity to connect a little self-less-ness to my personal musical ambitions, I never signed on to be a Compassion Band. The whole thing still gave me a very slight case of the creeps.
THE GUILT COMES ON
A couple years ago Tony Campolo was speaking a few blocks away from my house at a big church. If you don't know about Tony, he's one of the most influential Christians in America, and Lutherans have sort of "adopted" him as one of our own (he's Baptist, I think), because he's got a real ELCA-like approach to social justice. I'd seen Tony speak at a bunch of Lutheran events, and I always enjoy his talks, so I went to see him in my own neighborhood. As usual, his lecture was exciting and funny and loud and emotional, and he whipped the audience into a frenzy, like he always does. At the end of the talk, he launches into a pitch for Compassion International. I didn't know Tony was a Compassion Artist! Interesting. Now, as a Lutheran, I'm very sensitive to calls for works-righteousness, and I can always see the red flags waving when that kinda stuff is coming around the bend.
Tony looks at the crowd and says "I'm not saying you have to sponsor a child tonight, in order to get to heaven....(uh oh, I'm thinking)....BUT, when you die and you walk up to St. Peter at those pearly gates and he reads from the scriptures 'whatever you've done for the least of these, you've done it to me,' and asks you 'What have you done for the least of these?' ...then you can know you've sponsored a Compassion child and rescued them from poverty!!" And I got that queasy feeling that I've felt before at non-Lutheran, fundy-Christian events...and I left feeling depressed and ticked. BUT, over the years I've been sort of brainwashed to think that Tony Campolo is the best Christian example and best Christian thinker/spokesman that we could ever ask for, so I'm actually BELIEVING what he said!! I'm having these feelings like "Campolo said that if I sponsor a child, I can prove my worthiness at the gates of heaven! Maybe I'd better do it, just in case all this Lutheran talk about grace doesn't pan out in the end." Like I'm gonna use Compassion International as a Tony Campolo-sponsored insurance policy for eternal life. I still didn't sponsor a child that night, but man, the pressure was on.
Last Fall I was just about to tell Dawn (my wife) that I thought we should sponsor a Compassion kid. I had seen the mess that was Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing crap in Iraq and Darfur, natural disasters in China, and everything else in the news, and I wanted to do ANYTHING to make some sort of positive difference in this world. It seemed like Compassion would be a good way to help out a bit. But I never told her...I was just thinking about it.
I'd also been reading the blog by Christian musician Shaun Groves. I've never met Shaun or heard his music, but he's a good blogger, so I always checked out his commentary from the road. He's a Compassion Artist, and throughout his career he became so dedicated to Compassion, that rather than being a musician who promotes Compassion, he became a Compassion advocate who happens to play music. Here's a link to a typical Shaun blog post...these days his blog is pretty much all Compassion International, all the time. Perhaps I was being brainwashed by Shaun Groves. He was gonna come to Minneapolis a few months ago to do a free seminar with Christian musicians about affiliating with Compassion, and I thought about going to hear the pitch, but the seminar got canceled.
Finally, we were visiting some friends last October, and I knew that they'd sponsored a Compassion child for many years. I'd always seen the kid's photo on their fridge. I told our friend "You know, I see that you still sponsor a child through Compassion, and I've been thinking it's time that Dawn and I do it, too." My friend got a shocked look on her face, and the whole room got really quiet. She stood up and walked in the other room, came back to where I was sitting and dropped a Child Packet on my lap...a photo of little Emily from Ecuador. My friend said to me, amazed: "I had agreed to help Compassion with a promotion, and I had committed to find a sponsor for one child by October 26th. I've been so busy that I have not done any work to get this child sponsored...today is October 26th, here's the kid." It was one of those coincidences that someone like Sarah Palin would call "The Lord at work." Dawn and I took Emily's packet home, did the paperwork and sponsored her. I was now a Compassion sponsor, after more than a decade of avoiding it. We put her picture on our fridge.
Soon after Emily's photo went up in the kitchen I began to have some regrets, but I couldn't explain why. As 2008 began, I got some signs that maybe we should back out of the deal. After we agreed to sponsor Emily, Compassion International sent us the big kit with instruction on how to write to her, encourage her, and develop a relationship with her. Sadly, I was not surprised to see what was written in the literature for new sponsors. Here are some direct quotes:
from the guidebook entitled Compassion Answers Your Questions About Child Sponsorship:
"we will not forward materials depicting ...the living out of a homosexual lifestyle."
and, from the "Your Letter" form, where you can write a message to your child:
"Please do not send communications...or comments condoning sexual relationships outside the heterosexual marriage covenant"
I also found out that Compassion shares a Statement of Faith with the National Association of Evangelicals. Yes, that's right,
Aw man, I didn't know any of this when I signed up!! As a Christian who stands for full inclusion (ordination, marriage, etc.) in the church for gays and lesbians, what am I supposed to do about this?
I know it's a free country, and Compassion is free to include or exclude anybody they want. If they want to pass a rule that they only take heterosexual donations, that's fine. But, that doesn't mean I have to like that rule, or stay in this arrangement with them. I know some wonderful gay couples at my church who would have a fifty dollar bill that would really help some kid in Ecuador, and I think it's lame that they're forbidden to have both their names on the return address label.
(YES YES YES, before you angrily comment, I know that the local churches in these other countries that Compassion partners with share their same conservative values, and Compassion is trying to support the values of the local congregations! I get it. I just wish it wasn't so, and I don't like being involved with it. If you love it, then you and Sarah Palin can sponsor a Compassion kid and feel great about it.)
EVEN MORE SECOND THOUGHTS
Now here's the icing on the cake. As I struggled with this problem, I went to my mailbox last winter and received an issue of The Lutheran magazine, featuring an in depth article on the work of Lutheran World Relief and the ELCA World Hunger Appeal. It was a crystal-clear and inspiring article, and right there was a column called "Why Not Child Sponsorship?" Again, it was one of those moments that could be interpreted as divine intervention. Now I had actual evidence that giving all this money each month to Compassion International might not be the best stewardship of my funds.
So, I'm really temped to pull the plug on my sponsorship of Emily, and write a polite but clear letter to the folks at Compassion International about the reasons I'm getting out. I haven't done it yet. I'm still sending the money to Emily, and none to LWR. I haven't had time to think much about it, or actually write the letter and do the paperwork. I'm too busy changing diapers and folding laundry and driving to preschool and making sure Svea doesn't fall down the porch steps.
I've been wanting to share this story for months and months, and feels good to blog about it. Does anybody relate to what I've been through? Any opinions about what I should do?
By the way, here's another blog about a Lutheran struggling with Compassion International.