Friday, April 4, 2014

Ten Thousand Children: Two Days

Ten thousand children. That's how many lost their sponsorships in the two days between when World Vision publicly announced that they were willing to hire married gay employees, and when they reversed their decision.

World Vision had actually changed the policy several months ago, in recognition of the fact that many married gay Christians are fully accepted by their mainstream faiths. It was only when magazine Christianity Today threatened to make a big stink about the policy that the sponsorships hit the fan.

On the second of those two days, I sponsored a World Vision child. I didn't do it to make a statement about gay marriage. I did it because I'd been thinking about doing it, because I like World Vision's community approach, and because I could sponsor a girl in South Africa, one of my favorite countries in the world.

Her name is Sanele. She's seven. In her sponsorship photo she looks mutinous, as though objecting to her photo being taken. As soon as I hit the "sponsor" button I was invited to send her an email, which will be printed out in South Africa, translated into her language, and given to her.

I love World Vision because their approach works. Some of my monthly donation will go to Sanele, but most will be spent in her community supporting their specific needs. World Vision makes master plans for each community that involve working with local leaders, creating self-sufficiency, and ending their support within 15 years when the community has developed the resources to thrive on its own.

I love child sponsorship because it works, too, though not exactly how you'd expect. I read about it in a book--I think it was one of the Malcolm Gladwell ones, not sure--anyhow, they did a specific assessment of children who became sponsored when World Vision came into their community, and their very slightly older siblings, who weren't eligible to be matched. Everything else--home, family, community support--was the same. The sponsored children ended up staying in school longer and becoming more gainfully employed. The reason: because they'd been given hope. The biggest benefit to being sponsored was that, through the exchanges of letters and photos, they developed a relationship with an adult halfway around the world who cared for them and wanted them to succeed. I've always thought our relationships with each other were what mattered most, and this study, the first wholly independent one of any sponsorship program, proved it in spades.

Reaction to World Vision's announcement about not discriminating against gay couples was swift and furious. At World Vision headquarters, the phones rang 7000 times the first day.

A friend from my old writer's group has sponsored a child in Lesotho through World Visition for years. Eventually her relationship with that child turned into a love of Lesotho and a great interest in the children there. A few years later, she and her husband adopted their son from a Lesotho orphanage; while in the country, they also visited their sponsored child. The whole community came out to welcome them, cooking for them and sharing a meal. Their sponsored child was thrilled to actually meet them.

Yesterday that friend wrote on Facebook, "Ten thousand children just like my son."

The moment World Vision reversed their decision, their phones stopped ringing. They'd lost 10,000 child sponsorships in less than two days.

Once upon a time, in one of my stints as Acting Director at Faith in Action, the food pantry there ran exceptionally low, enough so that I went to Sam's Club and loaded up the shelves myself. My mother-in-law was helping me, as were my two children, who weren't yet in high school. As we worked, my MIL kept saying things like, "This is so wonderful, to be helping The Poor," and "Won't The Poor be grateful to have all this food?" It was getting on my last nerve, how she referred to The Poor as a separate type of human, wholly removed from herself, but I knew she meant well, more or less, so I ignored it.

My son did not. "Gram," he said, very politely, "Please quit calling them The Poor. We really don't know whether the people who come here are poor or not. All we know about them is that they're having trouble, and they need some help."

My son has always been capable of these moments of incandescent truth.

Many of the donors who dropped their World Vision children said that they made up for it by sponsoring a different child from a different organization. In other words, their sponsored child wasn't real to them. Despite the photos, despite the letters, despite the call to be in a relationship, they looked at the child they'd been matched with and saw The Poor. The faceless, undifferentiated Poor.

On Wednesday I sat on the back steps of Faith in Action talking with one of our clients. She wasn't eligible for financial assistance (we only give that every 6 months) but she'd come for some food. She works cleaning an elementary school, and didn't get paid because of spring break. Nothing left to eat, and her food stamps didn't renew until April 11th. We gave her what she could carry; she doesn't drive and it was a long walk home. Before she started out we talked for awhile. She needs a new job--school will be out for the summer soon--but her lack of transportation makes finding one difficult. Anyway, we talked for fifteen minutes or so. I didn't have anything to offer except that conversation. But I told her to come back next Wednesday if she wanted to. I'd be there.