Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015: A Year In The Life...

2015 was another incredible year for me. I’ve made it my mission to live a simple life in order to help others and use my gifts and talents to glorify God, and I believe He has sustained me and provided for me as a result.

I returned from the Philippines at the end of November 2014, after ten months serving at the Ruel Foundation orphanage on the island of Mindoro. It was a fantastic experience but ultimately there were too many cultural and gender related barriers which I was unable to overcome.

When I returned to Australia I faced two months of unemployment, as it was the long school vacation period. So I got straight to work:  

The Book
I had been working on my Compassion book, ‘GoInto All The World,’ all through 2014 and it was published just as I arrived back in Australia.

I held two separate book launches for friends early in the year and I had opportunities to appear on TV and radio ( to talk about the book.

I have not sold as many as would have liked, but right from the start I dedicated it to God and I look forward to seeing what He does with it.

The Business
A few years ago I worked for a small YMCA-owned business called “YMCA Funworks.” We would go to schools, birthday parties and community events and play games, such as the giant earthball, parachute, tug-o-war, jumping castles, mini-golf etc. Unfortunately it folded after a couple of years, since it wasn’t marketed effectively and ended up costing the YMCA money. I always thought I could turn it into my own business idea, so in the period of inactivity at the start of the year I took the plunge, creating “DC Fun and Games.” I bought the business name, created a website and purchased equipment. The business did not take off this year because I ended up getting a teaching job, but I have the business name for three years, so who knows what could happen? 

Compassion kids
I have been a Compassion sponsor and advocate for nine years, and it was a major reason I returned to Australia; I missed being involved. When I returned, I was re-connected with nine kids I sponsored before I went to the Philippines and then sponsored eight more, making a total of 17, plus I am also a correspondent sponsor to five kids from Kenya, which means they have a financial sponsor but I write to them.

During the year I had the opportunity to speak at four churches about Compassion, and approximately 20 kids were sponsored as a result.

Overseas travel has become a pretty normal part of my life. In July I headed to New York (the city of my dreams since I was 12), where I saw U2 (my favourite band) play a concert at Madison Square Garden (definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience)!

Then I headed down to Guatemala and Nicaragua to revisit four of my Compassion kids I had visited previously: Yeymi, Josefa, Antonio and Kelle. It was an interesting experience to visit them for a second time and see how things had changed.

Sports Journalism
If you’re a regular follower of the blog, you know that I love to write, and I also love sport, so this year I made a decision to combine the two, with a view to possibly taking it more seriously in the future. I enrolled in a couple of online Sports Journalism courses through Australian College and Open Colleges and set a goal for myself: “Down the track I would like to be covering Basketball and Australian Football, and get myself published.” Little did I know that within three months I would have already accomplished that goal.

The Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) is the third tier competition in Victoria and my brother was involved with a club in a lower division. So I jumped on the website and they were advertising for scribes to report weekly for their various competitions. I enquired and all of a sudden I was writing for Premier B, which is the second highest VAFA division! My role involved writing a roundup of the five Premier B matches each week, and my work appeared in the weekly VAFA publication which was online and read by many people at the matches as well.

With basketball, I was involved in doing stats for the Werribee Devils in the Big V competition (third tier comp in the state) for several years and I felt the Devils were not getting much coverage in the local newspapers, so I contacted the Wyndham Leader and offered to submit a match report each week. My offer was accepted and I had eight articles published in the local paper, as well as increased coverage for the Werribee Devils.

I also did my first feature interview with Devils veteran Andrew Johnston on his 200th game and my first media release, announcing the new Devils coach for 2016, Michael Czepil.

Basketball coaching
I have coached junior basketball since 2002, and it was another thing I missed when I was in the Philippines. This year I took on an Under 8 Girls and an Under 10 Boys team for the Heathdale Hornets in the local domestic competition. They were both beginner teams and while the first season was difficult with ordinary on-court results, they all came back for more and in the last few months it has been great to see the confidence and skill level improve for both teams and they’re enjoying their basketball.

I also served as an assistant coach for the Werribee Devils at Junior Representative level, joining as a sidekick firstly for an Under 14 Girls team, and now in the Under 12 Girls first team.

I am blessed to have a good relationship with both my siblings and their families, and I am a very hands-on uncle to my three nephews and two nieces aged three to seven. I know they really missed me last year and I can tell you the feeling was mutual. We met together regularly as a family and I was able to help with babysitting, creating memories and having lots of fun with them.

Tenpin bowling
Because I have bad knees (trochlear dysplasia, four dislocations, one operation), I’ve never really been able to play sport. A few years ago I had a go at tenpin bowling and found I was pretty good at it, so this year I decided to invest in it, bowling in a couple of leagues. Earlier in the year I won the Phantom League at Wyncity Bowl and Entertainment with an average of 176, which I was pretty happy with. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to back it up in Season #2, finishing second.

In addition to everything else that went on this year, I somehow found time to make a living as an educator. I have been a teacher for eight years now and worked in a variety of classrooms and schools. A week before the school year began in February I was watching the Australian Open tennis on TV and I received a phone call from my old school where I attended as a student and also taught Grade 1 in 2013, before I went to the Philippines. They had a part-time job come up at the last minute, teaching Middle School (Years 5-8) Physical Education. An hour later I was sitting in front of the senior staff in an interview and later that afternoon I had the job!

So I spent this year as a PE teacher and ‘gap-filler’ in the Middle and Senior schools, and while working with the older students was out of my comfort zone, I really enjoyed it and God provided me with more than enough work.

2016 is uncertain at this point but it is shaping up to be just as awesome with possibilities, opportunities and above all I know God has it all under control.

What I Wish I Had Said {Looking back at Guatemala}

As a male sponsor, I have often wondered what it would be like to be a father in the developing world. I know gender roles are changing, but in most countries a father is still seen as the provider and protector of his family. But what if you were unable to fulfill these roles due to lack of education, resources or opportunities? What if you had to rely on help from some stranger on the other side of the world just to put food on your family’s table?

I am not yet a father myself, in the biological sense, so I can never really put myself in their shoes, but at a guess I think that resentment, jealousy, anger and helplessness might play a part.

Over the last nine years I have sponsored over 60 kids with Compassion, many of whom didn’t have a father in their life, or he was absent or often working in another city. The idea that I would be considered some sort of ‘replacement father’ was never my intention and, to be honest, makes me feel uncomfortable. I believe that part of the role of a sponsor is to partner WITH the child’s parents and provide them with access to education and skills to be able to get themselves out of material poverty. However I am aware that God has placed me in their lives for a reason and if they need a father-figure or male role model in their lives, then I am happy to bear that honour/privilege/responsibility.

In July I visited Guatemala and Nicaragua on another of my Compassion trips. One of my sponsored kids is Josefa, who lives in a Mayan (indigenous) community in the mountains. She’s 17 and the oldest of five children. Instead of going to school and working toward her dream of being a doctor, Josefa and her brother are forced to work for a pittance because her father has chosen to deal with his family’s poverty by drinking alcohol, often leaving them without anything to eat. I met him when I visited in 2013 and he was a nice enough man, he was just making a lifestyle choice that negatively affected his family.

To partly explain (but not excuse) her father’s choice, this is an excerpt from a book called “Fast Living” by Dr. Scott C. Todd which goes into detail about the realities of living in extreme poverty and what the solution is:

"Hopelessness is the deepest trench of poverty. It cuts through the heart and mind and is very difficult to climb out of. It whispers “It won’t get any better. Just give up. This is the disempowered state – a fatalistic outlook and condition. When you are disempowered you shrug in defeat. You don’t soldier on. You just sit down and wait for a rescue you don’t expect to come. It’s a condition in which you no longer hope for a better future and you don’t see yourself capable of making positive changes. Instead, you see yourself as a victim of unchangeable circumstances. The voices of fatalism burrow deeper into your mind: “You can’t. You’re worthless.” To get out of the pit of hopelessness you must climb, yet the very strength to climb requires the hope you’ve lost. You must believe a better future is possible in order to strive for it. Everyone knows that a better future requires getting and keeping a job. For this, you to strive and take risks, you need determination and hope. But when you’re disempowered, your hope is beaten down, so you have no energy with which to strive. You have no faith, so you don’t take risks.

The “rescue” strategy requires Truth to combat the lie. Poverty whispers “You can’t.” But God says “With me, you can. You matter. You are loved. You’re made in my image. I hear you and I will walk with you on the difficult road. I have a plan, so don’t give up. It can get better.” The good news of Jesus Christ is a matchless, unrivalled rescue strategy in multiple dimensions. If there is anything that exposes the lies of poverty, it is the gospel. But the proclaimed gospel is not enough. Disempowered people need Jesus’ spoken truth and they need His disciples to live it. They need to see the muscles of the gospel flex, expressing love in gritty, persevering, intelligent, effective action.

The good news of Jesus, proclaimed and demonstrated, is the most powerful anti-poverty strategy. Jesus offers the restoration of hope, a new supportive and caring community in the church and a strong foundation from which to try, to risk and to succeed or fail, knowing you’ll be loved either way. The gospel leads us to love others and forgive, to see the image of God in our enemies as well as ourselves, and to discover a genuine basis for dignity and integrity. The gospel can raise a generation of men and women of integrity – servant leaders – to displace corruption and restore social trust upon which a nation can rise. The gospel creates people who work for the Lord in the humble service of causes much bigger than themselves. Sharing the gospel is anti-poverty work. It is more profound than any other effort because it penetrates layers of the human condition that cannot be reached with a vaccinating needle. The gospel brings healing and hope. It ignites new initiatives by bringing hurting people from all economic levels into relationship with God. His Holy Spirit fills us with vision and we can see that anything, absolutely anything, is possible! Even the end of extreme poverty."

On the day I visited Josefa and her family, they hadn’t seen their father for three days. From the way she interacted with me, it was so obvious she missed his love and attention, and had never really had it. We visited the Project at the church and as we were leaving to go to the family’s house, her father showed up. He was soaking wet and clearly affected by alcohol.

I was well aware of the family’s situation, as Josefa mentioned her father in nearly every letter she wrote. I had rehearsed what I would say to him should I meet him, but when he turned up I was completely taken by surprise and you know what they say about the best laid plans…

I waited breathlessly to see what would happen and as he approached I breathed a prayer that there wouldn’t be some sort of confrontation. He reached out his hand and, thankfully, he was full of nothing but gratitude to me and to God for taking care of his daughter through sponsorship when he knew he couldn’t.

We were in front of all the Project workers as well as Josefa, her mother and her four siblings, sitting in the car waiting to go. I felt so sad they had to witness their father in this state. He was rambling and swaying from side to side, tearful with gratitude but wrestling with his wretched state and the knowledge of the impact his choices were having on his family. My translator had a brief conversation with him, saying the only solution to his predicament is to give his life to Jesus. He seemed to understand this and nodded along, but it was clear that the alcoholism had him in its grasp.

We then drove to the family’s house nearby, leaving Josefa’s father behind. When we arrived we had a lovely conversation with lots of laughs, threw my Australian football around a bit and exchanged gifts. At one point there was a knock at the door. It was Josefa’s father. Begging to be let into his own house. The youngest sibling went toward the door but his mother stopped him. She was a strong and feisty woman and was adamant that her husband was not going to spoil this occasion.

Aware that the man was alcohol-affected and being locked out of his own house, I waited to see what would happen. I felt uncomfortable at the awkwardness of the situation. Fortunately he only tried knocking one more time, then sat down outside and started to sing. My translator said he was singing a Christian song he had learned at church.

In a sad twist, the father’s lifestyle choice ostracized the family even further because as an openly Christian family they are a minority in the community. The other families, many of whom are going through the same thing with their husbands and fathers, look at Josefa’s family and say “Well, what’s different about them? What difference is God making in their lives?” and they are criticized and judged.

This day has impacted me, even six months on, and I often think about what I would say to Josefa’s father if I met him again. I have settled on something like this:

"I know your life is hard and you are dealing with it the best way you know how. But God has given you six precious gifts - a wife and five children - and He wants you to provide and care for them. Jesus wants to help you and to heal you. No matter who you are or what bad things you've done, He wants to forgive you and have a relationship with you. You just need to give your addiction to Him and trust Him to provide your needs. And He's already doing that. He has provided a sponsor for two of your kids, as well as a family of people at the church. They are there to support and care for you."

Whatever you think of Jesus, He is the only reason that I, or any of the people involved in Compassion (office staff, Pastors, volunteers, tutors) do what we do. His love is real, transforming and relentless and we want to share it. Ultimately, what people do with it is up to them, and I'm praying that Josefa's father comes to know that Love and it transforms the lives of him and his family

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Love Letter to Brazil...

Dear Brazil…

I am missing you right now.

Like, heart-ache, missing you.

My experiences in Brazil with Compassion have irrevocably changed the purpose and direction of my life. I spent a week there in September 2012 and returned in September 2013.

In Brazil I experienced pure joy and happiness like I never had before, but I also had my entire worldview, beliefs I had held my whole life, severely tested and put under the microscope when I came face-to-face with the stark reality of what life was like for one of my sponsored kids.  

Both the happiest and the hardest days of my life occurred while I was there, and this paradox is difficult to get my head around.

I will never forget walking the streets of Fortaleza at night with brand new friends. I was a sheltered, wealthy, undersized white guy, but not once did I feel unsafe with these wonderful people around me.

I will never forget the content of our conversation: as we were walking, my friends would point out how many drug dealers lived in each street.

I will never forget relaxing in a beautiful park in the middle of the day, only to be told at night it transforms into a godless, lawless place where evil takes over and police won’t go anywhere near it.

I will never forget the feeling of oppression, violence, despair and hopelessness literally hanging in the atmosphere like a roof over our heads.

I will never forget the incredible feeling of standing in a church filled with ‘worshipping warriors.’ These people lived in the same streets I had just been walking; their very existence was a daily battle and lives were being lost every day to drugs, violence and abuse. Yet somehow they choose to hold on to God and trust Him. He is their only Hope.

Something did not add up for me. I was being violently yanked out of the comfortable culture and version of Christianity to which I was accustomed. There was a cognitive dissonance between what I was seeing and what I had believed about God. I was challenged way beyond what I was comfortable with: If life was like this for these people and they are still holding on to God and giving everything for Him, where does that leave me? I still wrestle with it today, trying to live out my faith in a culture that puts self, wealth and possessions above everything else.

I will never forget meeting and sharing with Compassion graduates. Incredible young adults who, thanks to God and their sponsors, have come through the program, graduated and gone to college and now have a future and a realistic opportunity to impact their communities and help their families out of poverty. I loved seeing some of them return to their Projects as staff as the cycle of hope continued. They were providing the kids with a real-life example of the way Compassion works and that, contrary to what they see in their communities and home lives, they do indeed have a hope and a future.

I will never forget the privilege of sharing Jesus with a group of children who have already been through more in their short lives than I can possibly imagine.

I will never forget visiting Project BR-458 twice in the space of a year and seeing their church go from construction zone to sanctuary, entirely from the funds of their church members.

I will never forget visiting a young lad and his family on behalf of his sponsor. His mother left and his unemployed father was doing his best to raise three children. There was one word carved into their front door: "Jesus." He is their only hope.

My Brazil connection begins with Ana Cristina, who I started sponsoring in 2010, when she was 10 years old. You can read more about her story here (or read about it in my book). In short, her family life involved murder, drugs, revenge and living in fear. When the reality of her life sunk in, God moved my heart and I ended up sponsoring a total of 12 children from the same area of Brazil.

I won’t go into details of the visits here (once again, check out my blog and my book) but I will say that I cannot deny what I saw and felt. If I had embarked on those visits purely as a humanitarian mission or a “good deed,” that all changed when I entered the Compassion Projects, which were located in local churches. I mentioned earlier about the violence, hopelessness and despair that pervaded the atmosphere in the communities. Well, when I entered the churches it was a completely different universe.

Peace, love, joy and life were tangible and the only conclusion I could possibly come to was that the love of God was in these places. It was the one safe place that these children had; an oasis from the reality of their home lives. A place where they were free to be kids, to laugh, dance, sing and play. A place where they had their material needs met through healthy food, clean water and medical care.

Most importantly, they had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Jesus, since He is the reason that Compassion exists at all. He is the reason that the church volunteers give up their time to care for these kids and invest in the lives of the families.

The Birthdays
A few years ago I read a story about Gloria Jean Coffee co-founders Nabi and Angela Saleh. They sponsored 250 kids in Brazil through their business and threw a big party at a resort where they spent the day with the kids and their family. This captured my imagination and I decided to do a similar thing (albeit on a smaller scale).

So, when I organised my trip to Brazil in 2012, instead of just going to the Projects and their homes I arranged to take all ten kids and their families to a special park which had a pool, mini-zoo, horse riding and soccer field. Kids were able to be kids, even just for an afternoon, and I was able to share the simple joys that come with birthday parties which I think many of us take for granted.

The highlight for me was seeing the teenage band from Project BR-329, who I had met earlier in the week, come to the park with their instruments to surprise me with some tunes. I had no idea this would happen, and I can only imagine what they gave up and sacrificed to be there for me on that afternoon.

It was such an incredible day, I decided to do the same thing again in 2013. This time, however, there was only one place I was going to have it.

Compassion Project BR-329 is without doubt the most amazing place I have ever been (read about it here). In the middle of an urban area near Fortaleza, this Project serves close to 1000 kids and it is a place filled with life, love, joy, music and hope for the future. I experienced incredible kindness, generosity and hospitality and they taught me to not limit God. When I visited they were in the middle of a massive three storey building Project, for which they had no choice but to trust God to provide for them. Their dreams and hopes for their community and the children in their care were huge and limitless.

So I arranged for my 32nd birthday to be held at BR-329. I paid for a jumping castle, trampoline and cotton candy machine and it was a day of chaotic and glorious joy and celebration, with lots of singing, dancing and cake! Honestly, a slice of heaven. The teenage band were there again, and they had set up an extra drum kit just for me! Normal Project activities were on that day, so as well as my sponsored kids there were lots of other kids around and once again, to be able to give them a day of pure fun and enjoyment was a privilege and a profound experience.

Best of all, when everything had settled down and all eyes were on me, I was able to share with them the true reason I sponsored lots of kids and had come all the way to visit them. I wanted to share the love of God them. Simple. I had to let these precious people know that they were valuable and worthy, and had been created in the image of God for a purpose. He has given each of us different gifts and abilities in order to glorify Him and serve others. Through Compassion they have the opportunity to find out what those gifts are and use them to help their families out of poverty.

The Hardest Day

While the two birthdays in Brazil were the happiest days of my life, the hardest day came straight after. It was the day I visited the family of Ana Cristina. I have visited 31 of my sponsored kids in 12 countries, but this particular visit impacted me more than any other. In 2012 I had not been able to visit because the family had been in hiding, but this time I made a special request to see the family.

This is a snippet of the blog I wrote on the day of the visit.

To get to her house, we walked down a narrow rocky path, next to a stream of sewage. I tried to imagine living here with no other options or no way out. We came to her house, which was very well secured, and met her parents. I was greeted quietly and cautiously.

I found out that they had moved back to this house about five months previously. 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 Cristina’s grandmother.

At the time, neither parent worked. 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 were 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 was 20 at the time, fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, and they had 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. 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.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix for poverty; no miracle cure. Even as much as I love Compassion, I have never said that it’s an instant solution to all life’s problems. The Project workers come alongside the family, and offer support for the children and their parents. It’s a long term process.

This was the reality for my precious Ana Cristina. And yet, when I asked her if she was worried about anything, or what she was afraid of, she shrugged and said “nothing.” She could have been bluffing, but I got the sense that she has a quiet confidence in the protection of her parents, despite their inability to provide materially for her, and also in the Compassion staff. She has been shown enough love over her time at the Project to be secure in the fact that God loves her, no matter what else happens in her life. 

I gave some gifts, which were received with quiet gratitude. I thanked Mama and Papa for their honesty and trust in sharing their lives with me, and I left Ana Cristina with these words: “As much as I love you, God loves you SO much more. He created you for a purpose. Please always trust Him to protect you and provide for your needs.” I was then able to pray for the family: provision of jobs, protection, safety, first and foremost.

As we walked back up the rocky path, past the sewage stream, a thousand things were going through my head, and yet I was composed. Halfway through lunch, the reality and the tragedy of what I just witnessed hit me so hard. I excused myself, went outside and cried out to God. I can’t even remember what was said, but I was just shellshocked. I begged and pleaded for Him to intercede on behalf of that family and my precious girl. God had to remind me of
my own words to Ana Cristina: “They’re mine. I love them so much more than you do. Trust me.”

I am trusting God that my journey with Brazil is not over, and am planning to go back in September 2016.

Thank you Brazil, for your kindness, hospitality and generosity to me. You have shown me the love of God and I will always be grateful.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

You Are Never Too Young To Make a Difference...

I spent 2015 working in a local Christian school. I was part-time and did a lot of gap filling, so during the year I was able to take many of the Year 5 to 8 students for morning devotions. More often than not I would share one of many stories from my travels with Compassion with this overriding message:

"Never think that you are too young to make a difference to the world of another person." That is just not true.

Just last week, something happened that proved my point. Earlier in the year I shared about Compassion at a Grade 5/6 Assembly. The idea was to give these 10-12 year olds a glimpse of what life is like for many children around the world, and to remind them that God wants us to use what we've been given to help others.

Overall, I will never find out what happened as a result of that talk. I was hopefully sowing seeds of generosity and maybe down the track they will be inspired to make a difference.

Last week, I accompanied the Grade 5 students on their annual camp. One of them, Charli, told me that she had made the decision to sponsor a child, a 5-year-old girl from Togo. To do this, she uses ALL her pocket money, money she could be using on things for herself, to help this little girl.

I was amazed and inspired by Charli's generous heart and her sacrifice. I made sure to encourage her that even though she will probably never meet her sponsored child, I had seen the difference sponsorship makes, and she has already literally changed the little girl's life because she knows there is someone on the other side of the world who loves her and cares about her enough to be a friend and provide her material needs. This little girl has a future now because of Charli's generosity.

However, the story doesn't end there.

Charli's teacher, Mrs Hernandez, had been considering sponsorship for a while with her husband and when she saw Charli's example, giving so much from the little she received, she knew they could not put it off any longer and made the decision to sponsor a child.

Even though Charli is only 11 years old, her decision to think of others ahead of herself has now positively impacted the lives of many people, and the story is just beginning...

It's stories like this that make me continue to tell young people: "You are never too young to make a difference..."