In light of recent media attention on abuse taking place in missions and the church, Interaction International wants to help by sharing archived articles from Among Worlds related to this topic. We stand first with those who have been traumatized. You and your story matter. Second, we stand with organizations who are working hard to make changes to systems which allowed for an environment of abuse in its many forms to take root and live.
Wolves Guarding the Lambs
by Wess Stafford
Among World – September 2012 (Volume 14, Number 3)
In the process of writing a book, Too Small to Ignore, my whole story finally got told. My idea was to present a manifesto- strategically, statistically and Scripturally sounds- about the importance of championing children that would awaken the Church. But my publishers challenged me, “Wess, they won’t care what you know until they know why you care. Are you going to just write a book, or are you willing to really fight a battle for children?”
Some people have endured more pain than others, but we have all suffered. We all have a story- of a pilgrimage or sometimes just a brief moment that defined our lives. A story that explains our passion, our mission- who we are, why we do what we do, lead what we lead. We should take the time to listen more to each other’ stories. Maybe you’ve never seriously pondered your own story. It’s worth the effort because in light of your story, the most profound question you may ever ask is: What am I trying to prove, to whom, and why?
I received my calling, my life’s purpose, my mission- and performed my first and most courageous act of leadership- all at the same time, in my darkest and most painful moment, in about 90 seconds at the age of ten. For me, the moment involved a candle- a pink birthday candle. Sounds nice, but it had been trimmed with a pocketknife at the blunt end to create a tool of torture that could burn from both directions. I was forced to hold it in my trembling fingers as both ends were lit by the man who was in authority over me- the houseparent at my boarding school for missionaries’ children in Africa. This school had been my “home” for nine months of each year since I was six years old. I will tell you the story of the candle, but it’s important you understand it was a watershed event in my life. My whole life can be timelined B.C. (Before Candle) and A.D. (After Damage).
The houseparent had marched me to the school’s dining hall, dragged a metal chair across the concrete floor and slammed it down in front of all my schoolmates. Then he threw me up on the chair and jammed the candle in my hand. “Children,” he said, “you cannot serve both God and Satan. Wesley has tried. You cannot burn a candle at both ends without getting burned. Watch what happens when you try!”
Fifty terrified children stared in total silence. Nobody dared even breath.
Striking a match, the man lit both wicks of the candle, “Watch!” Standing on the chair, my knees knocking in fear, I stared incredulously at the candle in my shaking fingers as I contemplated what this would mean very soon. Beyond the two flames, I could see the faces of my little friends- missionaries’ children who, like me, had been gathered up from the villages and mission stations of West Africa.
We learned to be silent, like lambs. We had no idea our silence was enabling the perpetuation of the evil against us
Mission policy dictated that all MKs leave their moms and dads at age six and travel 700 miles across Africa- a week by truck- to this isolated jungle school. They, like me, had experienced unspeakable cruelty and abuse in this place. The people in charge were missionaries who had gone to Africa to save souls, but didn’t measure up linguistically or cross-culturally. Consequently, they had been assigned to the lowest, least desirable task on the mission field- taking care of other missionaries’ children. They were resentful, angry and unsupervised. They took out their frustration and rage on their most convenient targets- the innocent children in their charge. I learned early that terrible things can happen when children are deemed unimportant- the lowest of priorities.
The stage for this horrendous moment had been set by four long years of abuse. All of my young life at this school, I had endured daily beatings. Belt buckles and truck tire-tread sandals had bruised and torn my flesh since I was six. There were a million ways to earn a beating in that place. The unspeakable infractions included having a wrinkle in your bedspread or being caught with your eyes open during nap time. When I was nine years old, we were taught in math class how to average. The most frequently recurring thing in my life I could think of was how many times they beat me, and for a very sad span of weeks, I kept track of my beatings, hiding the tally under my pillow. When I did the math, I discovered I was being beaten an average of 17 times per week. So, I knew pain, but this! This was something new.
The staff at this boarding school abused us in every way a child can be abused- not only physically and emotionally, but also spiritually. We children were terrified of their powerful and vengeful God, painfully reminded daily that we were “little sinners” in the hands of their angry God!
I won’t dwell on the sexual abuse we endured, but anywhere evil reigns unchecked, this favorite weapon of Satan always lurks. Tragically, the same people who read us Bible stories and beat us during the day, also prowled our dormitory halls at night preying on the defenseless innocents. Older boys, victims themselves, learned how to mimic their elders in that environment of depravity to serve their own lustful desires and abused younger children. They used blackmail and physical pain to silence us. There was no one to protect us. We had no advocates and no arms to run to. The very people who should have been our trusted defenders were in fact our attackers.
Now, standing on that chair with the cruel candle gripped between my fingers, I was at my lowest, darkest moment. I cannot describe to you cumulative hurt, rage, hopelessness and despair that welled up and wracked my ten-year-old soul. At this man’s hand, I had always lost and had always been manipulated, hurt. Plain and simple, he was bigger and stronger. He was a man, I was a boy. So I was resigned to this new level of humiliation- why not yet again?
He spoke angrily to the assembled children. “this little boy standing here is Satan’s favorite tool. He told, and the devil used him to destroy his parents’ important ministry in Africa. There will be Africans in hell because of this boy, Wesley.”
At hearing those words, suddenly there arose in me a rage, a passion like I had never experienced before and have not since. I had felt I could endure almost any treatment at his hands- I had for years. But this time, with the candle, it was different. Never had words cut so deep.
Yes, I had told. That was the greatest of crimes. As a desperate boy, I had cried out to my mother for help. For years, fifty of us little children had courageously maintained our silence. We were repeatedly told, “If you tell what happens here, you will destroy your parents’ ministry in Africa.” Our abusers used our love for God, our love for our parents and our love for Africans to secure our silence about the horrors of that place.
Our abusers used our love for God, our love for our parents and our love for Africans to secure our silence about the horrors of that place.
Oh, we wrote letters home every Sunday. But we couldn’t even hint at our sadness, loneliness or the abuse. All our letters were censored, and the slightest attempt to cry out to our parents resulted in a beating, and then a forced rewriting of the letter. We learned to be silent, like lambs. We had no idea our silence was enabling the perpetuation of the evil against us. Even in the three months at home with our parents every year, we all kept our silence. We loved them so much. We knew how passionately they spread the Gospel, and I loved my African village friends. If my silence about my abuse could win their salvation, I would endure anything.
At school, we were not allowed to have pictures of our parents or to cry from homesickness. Each year, my mind would capture the final image of my parents saying goodbye. For the first month, I could see them every time I close my eyes, and at the tender age of six, seven or eight, risking punishment, I couldn’t help but cry myself to sleep every night, as silently as possible. But by the ninth month of school, I could no longer remember what my parents looked like. I was so afraid I would break their hearts by not recognizing them when I went back home.
My big crime that led to the candle happened at age nine after a year on furlough in America. I found myself at the airport with other MKs saying goodbye to our parents. We were about to board a propeller plane that would take us back to Africa, and our parents would follow by ship. At the gate, I took my mother’s face in my hands and couldn’t let go. I stared intently at her beautiful, kind face. “What are you doing, Wesley?” she asked. “Mommy, I just don’t want to forget what you look like.” That broke her heart. She dissolved into tears and so did I. I saw a moment of opportunity, a glimmer of hope for rescue. And in 30 seconds, I blurted out my desperate plea. “Mommy, please don’t send me back! Please don’t send me back! They hate me! They beat me! I’m scared!” I begged, crying “Please, please!” I will never forget the look of horror in my mother’s eyes. “What?!” She gasped in shock. She held me tightly. “What…what can I do?” I could feel her sobbing in my embrace.
But not a minute later, my sister and I were whisked away with all the other children. My friends, who had overheard, looked at me with a “dead man walking” look in their eyes. They didn’t even want to be near me for fear of sharing in my punishment, which was sure to come. I had done the unthinkable and had broken the code of silence! I had told!
On the ship, during my parents’ month-long voyage at sea, my mother, brokenhearted and confused, experienced a major emotional and psychological breakdown. When she arrived in Africa, she was sent back to America for treatment. Word of her illness and what had caused it spread like wildfire. When the news reached the boarding school, the staff was enraged.
I had been resigned to my coming humiliation- in minutes, I would scream and throw down the candle- until I heard his last phrase, the cruelest of all: “…parents’ ministry ruined…Africans in hell because of this little boy!” That broke my heart more than the humiliation and more than any pain that may come my way ever could. I loved Africans. In my heart I was African. After nine months of hell at boarding school, my spirit was restored by the living-kindness of the poverty-stricken Africans in my village. They shaped my heart and soul.
I used to pray every night in that village, “Lord, please- if You love me, let me wake up black tomorrow, like all of my friends. I know You can do this!” I would check every morning to see if I had, in fact, been turned black, only to be disappointed. I was still white, but maybe tomorrow.
I was my dad’s right-hand man. We opened villages to the Gospel together where no white man had ever gone before. I shot my slingshot into the trees to keep noisy birds away so that my father’s voice could be heard as he shared the Gospel. I was a missionary as far as I was concerned, convinced my dad couldn’t do his ministry without me.
So, Africans in hell because of me?! Suddenly, from deep within me, rose a strength I cannot fully explain to this day. As the flames licked closer to my skin, I had a desperate through, “I could win this time.” All throughout my childhood, I had lost everything to these people. But this time, he had unwittingly put himself in a place where I could actually win, if I was willing to endure enough pain. I knew in my heart that he was wrong. He was lying, and I felt the evil and injustice to the core of my soul. I was not “Satan’s tool.” I was just a little boy with a broken heart who had found his voice and cried out for rescue. So, enough– enough shame, enough abuse, enough lies! It had to stop somewhere, sometime. I made my decision. It stops now! I’m not letting go! Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to make me cry out or drop that candle. Here is where I would take my stand- this was my little Masada!
I shook violently in my fear, tears brimming in anticipation of the pain of my burned flesh. He turned his back on me, his tirade growing in intensity. But I could no longer hear his voice. All I could hear was the pulsing of blood in my ears as my heart pounded wildly. I clenched my teeth, tightened every muscle in my body and pinched the candle as fiercely as I could. I stared as the edges of my fingers turned red. A blister popped up, then another. Suddenly, I was transported out of my body. I floated above this terrified little boy, watching as if it were happening to someone else. I saw a wisp of smoke rise up on either side of my fingers. I could not let go! I would not let go!
Just then a child in the front row could stand it no longer. He jumped up and slapped the candle out of my hand. Then children scattered in all directions- the meeting was over. But standing there alone on my chair, I had received my calling. In an instant, I had gone from victim to victor. I would, from that day forward, protect children! I would forever speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
After I left that school, I entered a span of more than three decades with a different code of silence that was self-imposed. I never spoke of that painful part of my story. My story was so painfully confusing to me that I didn’t speak of it out of love of my Lord. I felt like I couldn’t do it without having to apologize on God’s behalf for allowing this to happen to me, a vulnerable little boy. Where did my prayers go, my cries for mercy and rescue screamed into my pillow? Did I have the laziest guardian angel in all of Heaven?!
The school was shuttered up, and many, many years later, the abusers were held accountable- not jailed like they would be today, due to the statue of limitations. But after an official inquiry, they were “censored” by the mission and no longer allowed to work with children. That school’s children limped away from their childhoods, many with lifelong scars that did not heal.
My story is what fueled my passion against injustice, my crusade against abuse, and my fight against poverty. It is what drove me to Compassion International. I am honored to shepherd one of the most strategic and dynamic ministries on earth. For 32 years I have fought for children- littles ones who have no voice and no choice. The passion that gripped me at age ten, still rages in me today.
Poverty and abuse speak the same message into the heart of a child, “Give up. Nobody cares about you. Nobody is coming to your rescue. Nothing will ever change. You always lose, so give up!” As I travel across the world I see the fingerprints of Satan, still using the same weapons he used on me. In children the world over, I see empty, hollow eyes where the flame of a spirit created in the image of God is reduced to a smoldering ember. With all I have, I joined the Church and Compassion sponsors to fan embers until “poof” they spark and burst back into flame. A child rescued to the glory of God!
My job now is to champion the cause of children, as I work with churches across the world to see that children understand the love Jesus Christ has for them. Imagine my joy that every single day across Compassion’s ministry hundreds of children accept Jesus as their Savior- at the knee of their pastor or with a Sunday school teacher under the mango tree! Imagine my joy that we vaccinate thousands of children every day! Imagine my joy that I get to fight to challenge the Church about the importance of children, to explain to them that their budges devoting 10% to children’s ministry make little strategic sense considering 85% of people who come to Christ do so before the age of 14. We’re not going to bring in the harvest that way. Imagine my joy when churches truly grasp the importance of ministry to children!
I am never more than ten seconds away from tears. But my tears are not all from sorrow. Just as easily, I can be moved to tears of great joy at what I get to do. Through my work with Compassion, I see victories in children’s lives as poverty and evil are defeated. What a privilege it is to lead a ministry that, for over a million children, addresses the very cry of my heart.
I have a question for you today: Your cause or what you lead, does it move you to tears! Can it? Do you shed tears of sorrow at the need, tears of joy at the victories? What moves you that passionately! If you answered, “Nothing,” don’t live like that. Certainly don’t lead like that! God crafted our specific stories for His reasons. Nothing is wasted, everything can be redeemed.
I’ve noticed over the years that in those people whose leadership was launched from pain or sorrow, hardship or abuse, one of two things usually happens to them. One, they remain damaged. They don’t expect good things to happen to them. They accept mediocrity. They lead, but nothing much happens and they wonder why. Life if passing them by. They’re stuck. They lock themselves in a prison of their own making.
On the other hand, there are those who enter into an equally tragic prison, one where they are driven to prove their abusers wrong. They never miss an opportunity to advance, to climb, in an effort to prove their worthiness. They’re always striving to achieve, achieve, achieve. They may rise high, but there isn’t genuine joy in their accomplishments, no authentic satisfaction and no deep assurance in their soul that they really are worthy, even without all the striving.
Whichever path you may have taken, I want to give you a homework assignment. Give yourself a 30-minute appointment, half an hour for you. Not outreach, but in-reach! Sit in front of a mirror and look at that reflection like you’ve never looked at yourself before. Who is that little boy or little girl deep inside? What really matters to you? Why do you do what you do? If after this time of personal reflection, you determine that what you do is fueled by pain caused by someone else, even long ago, I have one word for you, the word that redeemed my broken life. That word is forgiveness.
Forgiveness. I learned when I was seventeen years old, after two years of living in America, that if you don’t forgive people who have hurt you terribly, you will carry them around on your back like a burden. You’re letting them live rent free in your heart. Your anger and resentment are not hurting them at all, but are destroying you. That person who hurt you may not even remember, or think the did anything wrong. So, you are only punishing yourself. I first came to understand this while at a campfire service. I remember gritting my teeth and saying, “Okay, you people. I know you will never apologize, and I know you are not sorry, but I choose to forgive you. Now get out of my mind. Get out of my heart. Get out of my life! What you did to me will not define me. You stole my childhood, but I will not give you the rest of my life. You took yesterday, but you cannot have tomorrow! Get out- I forgive you!”
What you did to me will not define me. You stole my childhood, but I will not give you the rest of my life. You took yesterday, but you cannot have tomorrow! Get out- I forgive you!”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, or staying what happened to you was okay. Forgiveness doesn’t release someone from the consequences of their actions. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation. But it does mean giving up the right to demand revenge. Neil Anderson, in his book Victory over the Darkness, said he has discovered in his counseling that “unforgiveness is the number one avenue Satan uses to gain entrance to believer’s lives… unforgiveness is an open invitation to Satan’s bondage in our lives.” Don’t give Satan that power in your life. By God’s amazing grace, we can cut ourselves free and soar if we can find the heart and courage to forgive.
In May 1999, the denomination organized a weekend reunion for all of us MKs, at mission expense, to formally apologize and offered assistance to us. It was, of course, one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of our lives. Some eighty of us classmates showed up, along with another seventy parents, spouses and officials.
For all of us, the pain had in one way or another absolutely dominated our lives. As in my own case, the pain was ever present right under the surface.
When it came my turn to tell my story, I saw expectant looks. What on earth had become of the boy with the birthday candle? I looked around the circle at my childhood friends and said, “Believe it or not, I serve as the leader of an evangelical ministry- to children.”
A silence swept the room. Then through tear-filled eyes, the responses came one by one: “Why?” They went on to say, “You don’t owe anything to anybody. We remember how they tried to destroy you. Why do you still care?”
I had never had to answer that to anybody, not even myself, until that moment. I felt such love for these people. This was the most profound question that could come from a group whose lives had been so torn by cruelty and abuse- the same abuse I had been through.
I wiped the tears yet again from my eyes and said to my dear friends, “It was probably the same rage and determination that made me hold that candle until it was slapped away. I simply refuse to let them win again. They had stolen the joy of my childhood. I would not let them have the rest of my life. Call it whatever you want, I simply chose to turn it for good.”
By the end of the weekend, they were calling me Joseph.
Just as I fight poverty on behalf of the Nielle children (my village in Africa), I now keep my boarding school friends close. It motivates my battle against child abuse. Both are at the heart and soul of everything I do at Compassion. I am by God’s grace, a survivor of both.
In finally telling my whole story, I have discovered the other side of my life’s tapestry. Thankfully for me, my story- a story that Satan intended for evil, but instead, God redeemed for good- has a different ending. Where I once saw only ugly knots and tangles, I now see a beautiful picture of God’s grace- His deliberate orchestration in a life lovingly entrusted to me. My story shaped my life and through it, God shaped my heart of leadership. Sure enough, He had heard every scream, felt every blow and wiped every tear as, through the pain, He crafted me- a tool He could use, redeemed for His glory.
I am a living testament that God can redeem anything- that the pain, sorrow and loss in our lives can be leveraged for good in the hands of our Heavenly Father. My passion to rescue children from poverty and abuse has its origins in my own traumatic childhood. That I would one day serve in the ministry of Compassion, much less lead it, is purely a miracle of God’s grace. If He can use me in His Kingdom, trust me, He can use anyone!
Wess Stafford- ATCK (adult TCK) who has lived in the Ivory Coast and the United States.
Interaction recommends his book Too Small to Ignore
Among Worlds is a publication of Interaction International.
(c) 2012 (ISSN # 1538-75180)
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The views expressed in Among Worlds do not necessarily reflect the views of Among Worlds or Interaction International.