A couple of years ago, already a passionate Compassion sponsor, I was singing the song “Hosanna” in church, when the reality of the lyrics hit me. Since I have been in church basically my whole life, I have a habit of singing words without really thinking about them much. When you’re singing about and to God, this habit is best avoided.
On this day, the words that stuck out to me were: “Show me how to love like you have loved me….Break my heart for what breaks yours, everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause….” I prayed “God, I want you to make those words a reality in my life, no matter what the cost.”
Well, I can tell you that God honoured that request, and there have been many times since that day that I wish I kept my big mouth shut. He has certainly given me but a glimpse of what breaks His heart, and this has come through the home visits when I have been to visit my Compassion-sponsored children in 12 developing countries.
In the developed world, it is fairly easy to hide reality. You can tidy up a bit, put the kettle on, engage in meaningless small talk and pretend to your guests everything is okay.
When you visit a home in the developing world, what you see is what you get. What is before you is reality. There is no hiding, no pretending everything is okay when it clearly isn’t. And more than once it has floored me.
I have a fairly wordy phrase I use on occasions: “face-on-the-fridge-and-monthly-bill sponsor”. These are people who sponsor children, but are hesitant to go any further with it than putting the picture on the fridge and paying the money, and often can’t tell people where their child is from, how old they are or even their name. No effort is made to write regular letters or do some research to find out about their community.
I can understand this deliberate ignorance or disconnection to a point: If I keep them at arms length, my heart can’t get hurt by what I might find out about their reality. It is a risk for those of us who are rich, comfortable and materially blessed.
However, after I said that prayer asking God to break my heart, I know it was a risk worth taking. Growing up in Australia, my own upbringing was idyllic, blessed and somewhat sheltered, being in churches and Christian schools the whole time (I wouldn’t change it for anything). I was always safe and comfortable, and I had everything I could ever want or need. God knew it was going to take something massive to change my perspective.
In January 2013, I made the crazy decision to visit 14 of my sponsored children in 7 countries in South/Central America over three weeks. What I saw and discovered on that trip, particularly with the home visits, rocked me to my foundations, and it honestly took me months to recover once I got back to the materially blessed, prosperous, abundant land of Australia. Out of the 14 visits, I went away from maybe three of them with a positive feeling. With the rest, the needs and situations I encountered left me wide-eyed and shellshocked.
I might start with the good stuff. There have been a couple of home visits where I have left thinking “WOW!” Funnily enough, those two homes just happened to belong to committed Christian families.
Rosa In El Salvador
I started sponsoring Rosa from El Salvador back in 2007, and went to visit her as a shy 9 year old in 2009, so the visit in January 2013 was like a reunion. Rosa has both her parents, a younger brother, older sister and twin sister.
On this visit, my heart was full the whole day and I didn’t leave with a sense of sadness or despair at their circumstances. This is due to one fact: They are a committed Christian family, heavily involved in their local church. The atmosphere in their home is thick with love, joy, hope, faith and contentment, because they know God is looking after them and providing for them.
This was once again a wake-up call for me, because once again, the disparity between their circumstances and their perspective didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Rosa’s father earns money by making a local drink called Horchata. On a good day, when the weather is warm, he might make $20. Otherwise, not much.
The four kids all have dreams to work in the medical field – doctor, nurse, and lab technician were all mentioned. The thing is, spending time with them and being in their home, you get the sense that their dreams are not pie-in-the-sky distant wishes, but because of their faith in God as their provider and protector, they have confident assurance that these dreams will be fulfilled.
Kelle In Nicaragua
I also had a joyful day with Kelle (11) from Nicaragua, her parents and three brothers. Once again, the home was small and their circumstances were humble, but you could feel the love, joy and unity in the atmosphere of the home. We had some great conversations and passed the Australian football around in their yard. I was in the presence of, and inspired by, committed Christians who fully trusted God to provide for their needs.
Joy and Contentment In The Philippines
In April I did something different and went on a group tour with Compassion, rather than one of my usual individual visits. We visited a variety of different churches, Compassion Projects and homes, in rural and urban settings. It was very different doing a home visit and not having that connection that comes when it is my own sponsored child I am visiting. I was still overwhelmed by some of the conditions they were living in, but the two things that really stood out to me on each home visit were the joy and contentment the families displayed. Life was very simple and often very hard, but their faith in God and the assistance they were getting from Compassion was enough for them.
Now onto the hard stuff. Here is a sample of what I have learned and witnessed during the home visits:
- Olga (10) lives in Mexico, in a family of 11. Her house had two and a half walls around it, and they have no access to clean running water.
- Josefa (15) lives Guatemala, the oldest of 5 children. She has to work 6 hours a day as well as go to school, because her father is an alcoholic.
- Yeymi (10) lives in Guatemala, one of four girls. During the day, they have neither of their parents around to protect them (they’re off looking for work). They share their house with two uncles and their grandmother. The sisters all sleep in the same bed because, as they told me, “we’re afraid of being alone.” All the family owns is a box of clothes each because a relative came into their house over a few days and stole all their possessions, even the kitchen sink. He also tried to take the door off the hinges.
- Mayra (10) lives in Guatemala. I thought bringing her to the Guatemala City zoo would spare me learning details of her home life. I was wrong. Her mother couldn’t join us, and one parent always has to stay in the house because if they leave it vacant they are sure to get robbed. I learned after the visit that her father had asked the translator to ask me for money, because they simply cannot afford the basics. I could not get a smile or a word out of her the whole day. From what I learned of her situation, she just doesn’t have reason to smile and is just not practised at it.
- Julissa (15) lives in Nicaragua.
Her father is the only breadwinner in the family. He is gravely ill, but works making coffins anyway, because he has to do what he can to support his family.
- Katherine (6) lives in El Salvador.
She is growing up in a broken and fighting home, as her father is openly seeing another woman, despite still being married to her mother and living in the family home. Her mother has no real choice but to stay, since her husband is the breadwinner.
- Insecurity is rife in the families of Jacqueline (6, Ecuador, family of 7) and Carolina (18, DR, family of 10) who are renting, and could be kicked out any time.
I wanted to go into a bit more detail about a couple of the visits that have impacted me the most.
Visiting Antonio in Nicaragua
This is his mother’s story. Take yourself back, if you can, to when you were 15. Imagine having a baby at that age. Then imagine that your partner leaves straight away. Imagine living in a brick box with holes in the roof and a dirt floor. 8 years later, having never worked or finished school, you’re married and have another baby. Your husband is younger than you, and scratches an income selling newspapers at the market.
Her loneliness and brokenness was palpable. Normally when I visit my sponsored kids houses, I ask to take photos, and can manage a “Oh this is lovely” even when I’m churning inside and thinking “How does this family possibly live like this every day.” This was the first time on my trip I did not ask to take photos of their house. I could not bring myself to do it, to preserve their dignity.
We stepped into the backyard, and this is when I broke. One thing I love about the Bible is that it is living and active and the words come alive in certain situations in life. For me the verse that applied to this moment was 2 Corinthians 12:9 when God said to Paul “My grace is all you need. My power is made perfect in weakness.”
In this moment I knew the truth of this verse. As I fully grasped the reality of this family’s situation, I could not move, and I had no words. I think often in the developed world, our comfort, security, and material possessions create a bit of a cloak, or a barrier around us that prevents us from seeing the world the way God wants us to see it. I know that’s been true for me in the past.
In this moment, for the first time in my life, this barrier was completely torn away. All the pride, self-righteousness, confidence in my own ability apart from God. It was all gone. I finally knew what it meant to be utterly and completely dependent and reliant on God. For all the possessions, knowledge, money and "stuff" that I've been blessed with, standing in this family's backyard, looking at the hole in the ground that is their toilet, thinking of the lack of privacy and dignity that this woman has as she tries to raise an 8 y.o. and a new baby, all I could do for this Mama was hold her and lift her up to almighty God. The only word that came from my mouth was “Jesus”. Over and over again. It was a holy moment. She was so broken, but God was there, and I could feel her respond in her spirit.
Even as I fervently prayed for this family, with all the faith I could muster, I was wrestling. What I was seeing and who I was praying to just didn’t add up, didn’t make any sense. Without Jesus and the help of Compassion, she has nothing.
However, for this mama God has given her two little flickers of hope for this life. One of them comes in the form of her 8 y.o. son, my sponsored boy Antonio. This kid is a riot, joyous and full of life, and "smart as a whip" (whatever that means). He is a fount of knowledge of all things animals (from the Discovery Channel) and I could see the pride and love emanate off this Mama as we squeezed into their house, and she sat feeding her baby, while her boy rattled off fact after fact and entertained us all.
The other is Antonio’s grandmother. I was amazed and thankful to hear that even though Antonio’s father deserted them after he was born, Antonio’s grandmother did not leave. She stuck around, and looks after Antonio and her other grandchildren when his mum is unable to cope with an energetic 8 yo and a brand new baby. That’s the love of a mother.
Visiting Ana Cristina in Brazil
While in Brazil recently I was able to visit the home of Ana Cristina. I knew it would be a hard day. I had done my best to prepare myself for what I would see and experience, but it was far worse seeing it first-hand.
Ana Cristina was my first sponsored child from Brazil. She is one of six kids, and her mother was 13 when she had her oldest son. The family has endured a couple of shocking years, involving drugs, murder and revenge killings, resulting in them being on the run. If it wasn’t for a wonderful Project worker called Victor, who went and picked Ana Cristina up when she lived far from the Project, we would no longer be connected.
I have shared about this day here, but here is a summary: I found out that they had moved back to this house about five months ago. Eleven people share this three-room, 1-bedroom house, with a fence that is laced with the jagged edges of broken bottles. The rest sleep on hammocks. They had been renting a house in a slightly safer area further away, but Papa’s building work dried up, so they could no longer afford to rent, and had to come back. The house belongs to Edna’s mother.
Currently, neither parent works. They receive help from Compassion, where Ana Cristina and her younger sister are sponsored, and also a government assistance program, from which they receive maybe 50 reals a week ($25). There is a marshland over the back fence that floods when it rains, and contaminates the water
There are only three occupied houses in their street. The rest moved away because it is too violent and dangerous. Gunshots are regularly heard. They cannot leave the kids alone in the house, or leave the house after 7pm, because it is simply too dangerous. Their oldest son, who is 20, fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, and they have a baby together. They also live in an area which is more dangerous than the one we were standing in.
The extent of their dreams for their children are to be able to move to live in a different, safer area. This was survival and existence at it’s most raw. The more I heard, it kept getting worse and worse, and I kept thinking "There has to be something in their story to give them a glimmer of hope, a bit of "It will be okay." I was staggered and stunned at what I was hearing, and yet I was still on my feet. Right now there was no happy ending with a bow and a cherry on top.
The existence of Compassion in that community is literally the difference between life and death for that family and many others.
Visiting the home of your sponsored child in the developing world will be among the most challenging things you will do, regardless of the strength of the connection you’ve made through the letters. The reality, the harshness, the challenges of their life is now real to you. There is no hiding or remaining blissfully ignorant. However, if you look hard enough, you will also see joy, hope, faith, generosity, hospitality and contentment.
All I can say is I am grateful for Compassion, and the tireless work they and the churches do in easing the burdens of these families, in the name of Jesus.
I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story: