Compassion Child Sponsorship—Does it Help or Hurt? (Part 1 of 3)

In 2015, my husband and I learned of Compassion at a church event. Compassion aims to support children who need better nutrition, clean water, and/or adequate shelter and employs local “Christ-centered church(es)” to share the gospel in addressing these “immediate physical needs” (www.compassion.com).  

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Who wouldn’t want to help God’s little ones? We studied the cards introducing children from different countries, the literature explaining the nature of material poverty in each locale, and connected to the picture of a 6-year-old named Juana, who wore a beautiful traje dress. At a follow-up Compassion event, we also “met” five-year-old Wilmer via photo. Since we have a biological son and a daughter, we liked the idea of sponsoring a child of each gender. Though it might seem crazy to choose children like they were baseball trading cards, at least this practice empowers in decision-making at least one side of the team…albeit my side.  If I were CEO of Compassion, how would I better spark a connection between individuals? This working of the Holy Spirit, Divine Appointment, what some might label “gut feeling” or “impulse,” lays the cornerstone for Compassion’s program: If a child is hungry or sick or needs clothes, find a connection point to correspond, provide a monthly stipend, and encourage and pray.    

To expand on our story, choosing Juana and Wilmer wasn’t solely based on snapshots. We were drawn to their homeland, Guatemala, the Land of Eternal Spring, because our daughter chose it first, or, rather, Guatemala chose her: Our daughter’s life work calls her to study its tumultuous history, to be in awe over the beauty of its people, its rivers, its waterfalls, its volcanoes, yet despise its hideous political and human rights travesties, some at the hands of our own government. But that’ll be discussed later…  

Our hearts called us to support these beautiful children, yet my head said check it out further. Charity Navigator is in the business of rating nonprofits and like organizations. No CPA license is needed to read the simple facts at www.charitynavigator.org: what percentage of money reaches the children, CEO annual salary, IRS transparency filings (or not). For this year, 2015, Compassion earned the 4-star (highest) rating (1).  

We still mulled over our decision, and I shared with my husband what I’d read in books like Nurturing the Nations (Miller and Guthrie), Serving with Eyes Wide Open (Livermore), and When Helping Hurts (Corbett & Fikkert), along with a semester-long course, Perspectives. These books and others speak of well-meaning NGOs destroying indigenous business…and local people’s incentive to work. Would my gift smack of what development practitioner Jayakumar Christian refers to as “god-complexes…a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority” where I’ve been blessed materially through my own efforts and that I’ve “been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people” whom I view as inferior to myself (Corbett & Fikkert 61)? Did these Guatemalan families really need or want my money?

According to the World Food Programme, 2/3 of the Guatemalan population lives on less than US $2 per day. “Almost half the population cannot afford the cost of the basic food basket. As a result, the prevalence of stunting in children under 5 is one of the highest in the world—and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean” (www.1.wfp.org/countries/guatemala). A Google of other websites confirmed this dire report. In Guatemala, children are hungry. Children need to be fed.  

Money aside, the Guatemalans certainly don’t need me to tell them about Jesus. “The State of the Gospel” describes “evangelical growth in Latin America in the 20th century as spectacular,” rising “from 700,000 in number to over 55 million” (Perspectives 364). Juana and Wilmer are best equipped to hear the gospel in their own beautiful language, and in terms of relying on God for every need, I echo Corbett and Fikkert, who say that our Guatemalan brothers and sisters who are impoverished through daily needs have “…a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably will ever have in my entire life” (65). Christian neighbors can best relate and advise Juana and Gilmer on coping with their unique environment and set of social mores.

As I often do when struggling with a decision, I seek a “live voice, so I phoned Compassion headquarters. With honesty and integrity, a representative acknowledged that God-complexes may exist within the ministry, as may the “poison of paternalism:” doing for others “what they can do for themselves” (109). Would a parent feel helpless and angry that some foreigner had to step in and feed his children? Possibly. Would neighbors be jealous of those who get stuff from a faraway place, mainly colored by its whiteness? Might be. Would I by my gifts inadvertently diss a culture which had survived through atrocious regimes, and often done so with what Livermore calls “communal decision making (37)? If I sponsored Juana and Wilma, I wanted to affirm the good things about their culture…after I learned about their culture, that is.

The Compassion representative validated my concerns yet encouraged me to revisit Compassion’s pluses: local control through indigenous centers and churches; personal communication between sponsor and child, all in Jesus’ Name. If I took this role seriously, Juana, Wilmer, and their families would be my neighbor, one step, one day at a time…though nearly 3,000 miles separates our homes.   

With a click of a link on Compassion’s website, we’d committed to pay $38 a month per child, which would provide “life-changing opportunities…an opportunity to attend or stay in school, medical care, which often saves lives, nourishing food, mentoring and a safe environment through a local evangelical church, and most important, opportunities to hear the gospel” (www.compassion.com).  

By email, I received confirmation of our support and instructions on how to start writing Juana and Wilmer. It took several months to get correspondence flowing, but I learned that Juana loved to play soccer; Wilmer loved to draw. Juana was from the Ixil indigenous people group and Wilmer was Kaqchikel, so Spanish was most likely their second language. What fascinating and beautiful children!

We developed a rhythm of me writing back after receiving their letters, using the super-convenient Write Your Child tab on Compassion’s website. I downloaded photos of my dogs; did they have pets? I asked what school subject they liked, declaring math stumped me. I used my best Spanglish and practiced reading the Spanish sections of their letters. With every sentence, I longed to know more—about their families, their lives, their dreams, their needs. The Spanish I’d loved in high school and college seemed more alive than ever. As months passed, I wrote more and more in the second language of Juana and Wilmer. Would they notice that I too loved Spanish, perhaps a commonality we shared?  

One year into my Compassion relationship with Juana and Wilmer, my daughter invited us to visit her in Antigua, where she did archival research related to her doctorate degree. As I packed colorful tops and Googled sites that sold exotic fabrics, I couldn’t help but wonder how this trip would change my perspective on Guatemala and its people, especially those two I already loved.