MICHAEL MESSENGER is president and CEO of World Vision Canada, a global relief, development and advocacy organization. He spoke to Faith Today about their shakeup of the child sponsorship model and what makes him optimistic in a world where people still suffer.
Faith Today: World Vision has just released a whole new model of child sponsorship. Can you tell us about it?
Michael Messenger: World Vision has been doing child sponsorship for almost seven decades, but we have launched what we’re calling a new invitation to sponsorship called Chosen. For the first time, rather than the usual model of sponsors looking at a gallery of children to choose to sponsor and you can choose their age or country, we’re now flipping the switch. People who want to sponsor are having their pictures taken, we are taking them to our field communities and letting the children make the choice of the sponsor. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to put the power to choose in a child’s hand. We focus on empowering children. This is a way even in our sponsorship invitation to give that opportunity for choice, dignity, and empowerment and agency right into the hands of the children that we serve.
FT: Who came up with this brilliant idea?
MM: It really came out of World Vision U.S. Their church team was experimenting and doing some innovation. At a certain level you say, "Oh my goodness, why didn’t we do this sooner?" We’ve been all about empowering children as part of our development work for years. We are at a time when the traditional invitations to child sponsorship are not resonating with Canadians the same way. This felt like a God thing, an inspiration, something very simple, which are sometimes the very best ways of innovating. We are hopeful this will spark and invite a whole new group of sponsors. This is going to be a chance to really engage and build a very different kind of relationship with the children that we partner with in our communities.
FT: How does someone go about trying to become a sponsor?
MM: Chosen is an experience that will happen sometimes in group settings, so it is going to be a key way of engaging with churches. A World Vision speaker or local pastor will preach and invite people that day to be "Chosen." They’ll go out to the lobbies of the church and have their photo taken, and in this model the pastor actually goes with the World Vision staffperson the next day or the day after, and flies to a place like Kenya, Guatemala, Bangladesh, or another place where Chosen is in place. We then host what we call a Chosen party where the community comes together in a celebration, and all the photos that were taken have been sent and put up, and the children can go and choose their sponsors. There’s a photo taken with the child holding the picture of the sponsor. There’s a chance for the child to write a letter to the sponsor to say, "Let me tell you why I chose you." The stories are really interesting, even in these early days. The next Sunday there’s an unveiling at the church, and everyone receives their Chosen envelope and they get to see the child who sponsored them.
So that’s an amazing model. And that’s where it started. We want to take that and not just constrain it to a church setting. So we’re working with some of our artists, like Big Daddy Weave and Tim Neufeld. The final thing is, if you’re interested in doing this, you can go to WorldVision.ca/Chosen right now, and you can upload your photo, and it goes in and tells you when the next Chosen party is happening.
FT: Could you speak to us about the role of the Church, both here in Canada but also overseas in development work?
MM: Absolutely. You know in our pretty secular society here in Canada, even where we have freedom of religion, where we can worship, the Church still feels a little marginalized on the sides, and sometimes we want to keep our faith private. In a lot of the parts of the world where we work, faith communities Christian or otherwise, are part of community life.
You can’t go, for example, to a community in Zambia and not be greeted when you’re coming in by hymns, singing, prayers and the pastor speaking. Even in other parts of the world where it’s a much more multicultural or multireligious environment, we see the local church being agents of change, agents for their own development. World Vision has a model that we call Channels of Hope. We sit down with church leaders, recognizing that World Vision is not the Church, we are an expression of the Church. We want to come alongside the local church, that we really believe is the hope for transformation, and we sit down and say, "Can we offer our insights into who are the marginalized people in your communities?" What does it mean to follow Jesus, to serve the least of these, like we hear Jesus talk about in Matthew 25, and equip the local church to be the ones that reach out to their communities?
I was in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago and went to a small Brethren in Christ church. They had gone through Channels of Hope training, and were dealing with some of the challenges and stigma associated with HIV and AIDS in their community. As a result of the process where we were able to come and support this church, this church took it upon itself to reach out to widows and orphans in their own community. This was not World Vision doing anything except suggesting that this might be a good way to follow Jesus. People were not only being helped physically, but they were actually coming to faith because they saw Christians express Jesus’ love in such a tangible way. We know that when God gets a hold of a community and inspires people to really follow His message, amazing, miraculous things can happen.
FT: You visit places where there’s great hope and great change happening, but also see some really difficult things in hard places. What is that like?
MM: I was at a panel not long ago and somebody said, "Tell me what’s the best part of your job and the worst part of your job?" It didn’t take me long to realize that it was the same thing. The worst part of my job is going to witness some unbelievable suffering. But there is something unbelievably fulfilling and engaging when people invite you into their stories of pain and brokenness. What an amazing privilege to go and represent Canada, come back, and tell and amplify their stories to others. That’s the way I think about this.
Even in the midst of the worst situation I think, "What story can I tell that shows and shares the pain and dignity, that inspires Canadians to take action, to stand up and say, ‘The world, however dark and bleak, does not have to be this way’?"
FT: What galvanizes Canadians? What message resonates enough that people move to action and generosity?
MM: Canadians are incredibly generous people. We have a global mindset – younger Canadians even more than older Canadians my age. They’re more attuned to what’s going on in the world. I like to find those things that make a connection, that reduce the proximity gap between what happens over there and what happens here. "I’m a father, you’re a parent, we have children, what does that mean for us to be a father or a mother here in Canada? What decisions do we make for our kids? What are the same or different ones, if you could imagine you were in a refugee family in South Sudan, and you had to decide at a moment’s notice to flee with your children for northern Uganda?" People respond to those.
People also don’t want stories of just desperate need. Canadians want to respond to things where they can make it better. They don’t want some happy story that says, "If you give me this many dollars a month, you’re going to guarantee me this wonderful outcome." They want the challenges as well as the successes. Canadians are showing us that they’re faithful and that they want to walk with us, not just when things are going fantastically, but also when they recognize that there’s challenge.
FT: We know that generosity grows our hearts. How have you seen the impact of generosity on the giver?
MM: You know there’s a tagline that we used to use at World Vision – "Change a life, change your own." I think we’ve seen that a little bit reignited through the Chosen model of child sponsorship. People are recognizing there’s a transformation that has to happen inside us too through the act of giving.
As Christians for sure it’s hard to ignore God’s call, whether in the Old Testament or through Jesus’ words or life, that being generous to those in need is actually part and parcel of what it means to follow Him. To be Christians we have to live out our faith. This is not just trying to figure out how we’re going to get to heaven, it’s about actually making a difference in the needs and lives of people here. We know that.
When we recognize we can actually make connections with people, develop relationships, where there’s a chance to break through the "us and them" or the "there and here," something profound happens internally. It gives us a new, broader view. It softens us. It makes us better people. I love to find the things that break through and connect in our hearts, our spirits and our minds to help us realize that there is something bigger than ourselves. As Christians we believe this is God’s plan for the world. Isaiah 65 talks about what life is going to be like. We want to live according to those Kingdom values today, even in a world that feels very different.
FT: Will we see a day where we can say, "That’s done. That’s in the past"?
MM: Sometimes it feels like it’s two steps forward, one step back. As we look at the big picture, the studies are showing that on many measures – number of kids in school, number of people with clean drinking water, number of people with food security, the opportunity to have good things to eat – things are getting better. We want to keep going on that track.
But it’s going to be really hard for us to reach out to those last places and figure out new ways of working, places where humanitarian emergency responses are not always there, normal development approaches like child sponsorship can’t work. We’re going to have to really figure out what that looks like.
I am confident, and it’s not a false optimism either. If we can engage Canadians, Canadian Christians can engage their churches, and connect with local churches here and internationally, we can continue to make a difference and im-prove the lives of children even in these most vulnerable communities.
It’s something we have to aspire to. We have to live out those values of that future Kingdom where nobody is suffering and someday that’s going to happen. I want to do my part here in the meantime, here at World Vision, our staff around the world, in engaging Canadians to come with us. Am I an optimist? Absolutely. But I believe there’s a basis for that.
FT: Thank you, Michael.
Listen to our full interview with Michael Messenger at www.TheEFC.ca/Podcasts.