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A Lifetime of Compassion

A Lifetime of Compassion

Alumnus of the Year Wess Stafford has fought childhood poverty and abuse since experiencing both as a boy
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • February 8, 2024

From a poor, abused child in West Africa to author, speaker, and president emeritus of Compassion International, Dr. Wesley Stafford ’70 has devoted his career to one cause—helping children out of poverty through Christ-centered discipleship. The Christian child development organization he has served nonstop for 46 years now works with more than two million sponsored children being discipled in 8,600 churches and 29 countries. One million children have completed the program.

Wess holds a master’s degree, PhD, and six honorary doctorates, but during Founder’s Week on October 19, 2023, he received what he considers one of the greatest honors ever presented to him: the Alumnus of the Year Award.

Looking Up: Wess Stafford points the praise to God while accepting the 2023 Alumnus of the Year Award.

Looking Up: Wess Stafford points the praise to God while accepting the 2023 Alumnus of the Year Award.

“This is a moment I will savor and treasure the rest of my life because this place was really important to me,” Wess says.

“No school profoundly impacted who I am and where I went with my life more than Moody—just a very precious place in my heart.”

Jeff Bope ’11, executive director of Moody’s Alumni Association, presented the award to Wess. “Our recipient this year has shown a life of standing in the gap between children and those who seek to harm them,” he says. “Though a victim himself, he chose to see himself as an advocate for children on behalf of Christ. And I can testify that this recipient is the same on stage, in a book, and in person.”

From poverty to God’s calling

Wess grew up in an impoverished African village on the Ivory Coast, the son of missionary Bible translators Kenneth ’50 and Marjorie (Mason ’46) Stafford. As a child, he loved accompanying his dad to open villages for the gospel, often with the important job of keeping noisy birds away so his father’s voice could be heard proclaiming the Word of God.

Wess’s fight against his two greatest enemies—poverty and abuse—began after experiencing both firsthand in childhood. With the nearest hospital 100 miles away, he grieved over the hundreds of children who died from malaria, snake bites, starvation, and other problems. After the village would gather to tell stories about another departed child, Wess would listen to the funeral drums and “cry and cry and cry,” he recalls. “I kept thinking, Lord, why do You keep taking the best? Why do You let me live?

Wess Stafford

 

One reason Wess survived was that he had been vaccinated in America against childhood diseases like measles. Later, as president of Compassion International, he would make sure the more than two million sponsored children had access to vaccines for childhood diseases.

The other enemy Wess experienced was abuse. From age 6 to 15 he lived in a boarding school for children of missionaries in West Africa. He and the other children were beaten for tiny infractions, even a wrinkle in a bedspread, then held to secrecy under threat of ruining their parents’ ministries.

Abused physically, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually, Wess was 10 when his cruel houseparent lit a birthday candle on both ends and made Wess hold it while standing on a chair for all to see. As the man ranted, telling the other children that Wess was Satan’s tool causing Africans to go to hell, Wess grew more and more angry at the lies and injustice. He considered himself a missionary, not a tool of the devil.

Wess determined to not let go of the burning candle. The abuse and shame had to stop. As the flames reached his red fingers, a blister popped up and smoke began to curl upward. Just then, a child in the front row slapped the candle out of his hand, causing all the children to scatter.

At that moment Wess knew he had gone from victim to victor. After enduring this particular act of cruelty, he also had received his calling. He decided he would protect children from then on: “I would speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Falling in love with Moody and ministry

At age 15 Wess left for America to attend high school, then enrolled at Moody, his parents’ alma mater. In between he attended a Bible camp where a Moody graduate, Glenn Ruby ’57, challenged the campers to forgive anyone who’d hurt them profoundly. Sitting at the campfire, Wess chose to forgive his abusers, gave up the right to revenge, and promised to fight for vulnerable children.

He planned to attend Moody for just one year but soon fell in love with everything about the Institute—the deep Bible teaching, the Communications courses, the Moody Chorale, and the soccer team he organized with a few other students.

While at Moody he also got his start as a dynamic advocate for children in poverty. After recruiting students in chapel one day, he launched the first tutoring program to serve impoverished children in the nearby Cabrini Green housing development. “I had 50 Moody students that I trained with the juvenile court system to serve children in the ghetto,” he says.

After Moody, Wess joined the US Army as a linguist in military intelligence, later completing his undergraduate studies, master’s degree, and PhD from Biola University, Wheaton College, and Michigan State University, respectively. In between he applied to Compassion International in 1977, first serving in Haiti, where he also married the love of his life, Donna.

Wess became president of Compassion International in 1993, working both overseas and at the ministry’s headquarters. During his first year, the Rwanda genocide took place. As government and non-governmental organizations evacuated the country, Wess wrestled with the decision to keep Compassion in Rwanda or withdraw. Considering Proverbs 3:5–6 (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding . . .”), he convinced Compassion’s board to remain, rescuing children and helping them survive the massacre.

“That was 25 years ago,” Wess says. “There are now college graduates who came through Compassion’s programs in Rwanda because I did not pull the plug that weekend.”

Family Life: Wess Stafford with wife, Donna, and two daughters.

Family Life: Wess Stafford with wife, Donna, and two daughters.

Married to Donna for 44 years with two grown daughters, Wess tells his life story and mission in two books: Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most and Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment . . . Can Last Forever. Wess became Compassion’s president emeritus in 2013 and remains active at age 74, speaking and fundraising for the organization.

Interrupted by Heaven

“I long for the day when the trumpet blast comes. And I hope that I’m right smack in the middle of my calling, doing something in my calling, because we’ll look up and the sky will roll back like a scroll, and we’ll go home,” Wess says.

“And in my case, we’re going home where there’s no hunger, there’s no snakes, there’s no sickness, there’s no death. In fact, there’s not even a tear. Because God says He will ‘wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

“My prayer is that while He wipes the tears from my eyes, He notices He also has to wipe the sweat from my brow.”

Wess desires to be found working as a faithful servant when Jesus calls him home—“because I lived the life He called me to live, I fought for the poor, and spoke up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, until I was interrupted by heaven. That’s the way I would like to go out, with sweat on my brow.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni & Friends magazine and is a senior editor for Marketing Communications at Moody Bible Institute.