A Candle in the Darkness
The president of Compassion International tells his story of childhood abuse and deliverance in a West Africa boarding school.

At a turning point in my life in 2007, I realized that I needed to allow God to redeem the story of my childhood. That story was so painfully confusing that I did not speak of it for 35 years. 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?

I received my calling, my purpose, and my life's mission in my darkest and most painful moment, in about 90 seconds at age 10. The moment involved a pink birthday candle, one that had been trimmed with a pocketknife at the blunt end so that it could burn from both directions. The wicks were lit by the man who had authority over me, the houseparent of a boarding school for the children of missionaries in West Africa. The school had been my home for nine months of each year since I was 6 years old. My whole life can be divided into two parts: B.C. (before the candle) and A.D. (after the damage).

'Africans in Hell Because of Wesley'

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 my schoolmates. 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 children stared in silence. Nobody dared even breathe.

Striking a match, the man lit both wicks. "Watch!" Standing on that chair, my knees knocking, I stared incredulously at the candle in my shaking fingers as I contemplated what this would mean. Beyond the two flames, I could see the faces of my friends—children who, like me, had been gathered up from villages and mission stations throughout West Africa.

Mission policy dictated that all MKS leave their parents at age 6 and travel 700 miles (a week by truck) to this isolated jungle school. They, like me, had experienced unspeakable cruelty in this place. The people in charge were missionaries who had gone to Africa to save souls but, I don't know, perhaps did not measure up linguistically or cross-culturally, so instead had been assigned to the least desirable task on the field: taking care of other missionaries' children. Unsupervised, they took out their frustration and rage on their most convenient targets: the 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 years of abuse. For all my young life at the school, I had endured beatings daily. Belt buckles and tire-tread sandals had bruised and torn my flesh since age 6. There were a million ways to earn a beating here—infractions like a wrinkle in a bedspread or an open eye during naptime. At age 9 we learned in math class how to average. The most recurring event in my life I could think of was how many times I had been beaten. For a span of weeks, I kept track of my beatings, hiding the tally under my pillow. When I did the math, I discovered that I was being beaten an average of 17 times per week.

The boarding school staff abused us in every way a child can be abused—not only physically and emotionally but spiritually as well. We were terrified of their powerful and vengeful God, 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 wherever evil reigns unchecked, this favorite weapon of Satan's always lurks. The people who read us Bible stories and beat us during the day prowled the dorm halls at night, preying on the defenseless. Older boys, victims themselves, learned to mimic their elders in that depraved environment to serve their own lustful desires, and they used blackmail and physical pain to silence us.

There was no one to protect us. We had no advocates, no arms to run to. The very people who should have been our defenders were in fact our attackers.

Our houseparent spoke angrily to the children. 'This boy here is Satan's tool. He told, and the Devil used him to destroy his parents' ministry. There will be Africans in hell because of Wesley.'

And now, standing on that chair with the candle gripped between my fingers, I was at my lowest, darkest moment. I cannot describe the cumulative hurt, rage, and hopelessness that welled up and wracked my 10-year-old soul. At this man's hand, I had always lost. Plain and simple, he was bigger and stronger. He was a man; I was a boy.

He spoke angrily to the assembled children. "This boy here is Satan's tool. He told, and the Devil used him to destroy his parents' ministry. There will be Africans in hell because of Wesley."

Hearing those words, there arose in me a rage, a passion as 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 the candle incident was different. Never had words cut so deeply.

Yes, I had told. As a desperate boy, I had cried out to my mother for help. For years, 50 of us children had courageously maintained our silence. We were repeatedly told, "If you tell what happens here, you will destroy your parents' ministry." Our abusers used our love for God, for our parents, and 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 loneliness or the abuse. Our letters were censored, and the slightest attempt to cry out resulted in a beating, then a forced rewriting of the letter. We learned to be as silent as lambs. We had no idea that our silence perpetuated the evil against us. Even during the three months home with our parents every year, we all kept silent. We loved them so much. We knew how passionately they spread the gospel, and I loved my African village friends. If my silence 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 a final image of my parents saying goodbye. For the first month, I could see them every time I closed my eyes, and at the tender ages of 6, 7, and 8, I couldn't help crying 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 home.

The Code of Silence Broken

The crime that led to the burning candle happened at age 10, after a year on furlough in the United States. 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?"

"Mommy, I just don't want to forget what you look like."

She dissolved into tears, and so did I. I saw a moment of opportunity, a glimmer of hope for rescue. In 30 seconds, I blurted out my 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, "Please, please!"

I will never forget the look of horror in my mother's eyes.

"What?" she gasped. She held me tightly. "What … what can I do?" I could feel her sobbing in my embrace.

Not a minute later, my sister and I were whisked away with the other children. My friends, who had overheard, looked at me with dead man walking in their eyes. They didn't want to even be near me for fear of sharing in my imminent punishment. I had done the unthinkable—I had broken the code of silence.

During my parents' month-long voyage at sea, my mother, brokenhearted and confused, had an emotional and psychological breakdown. Upon arriving in Africa, she was soon sent back to the U.S. 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 resigned myself to the coming humiliation. In minutes I would scream and throw down the candle—until I heard his last phrase: "… parents' ministry ruined … Africans in hell because of Wesley." That broke my heart more than the humiliation, more than any pain that may come my way ever could.

I loved Africans. In my heart I was African. Every summer my spirit was restored by the loving-kindness of the poverty-stricken Africans in my village. I never fell down during those three months without an African woman swooping in to pick me up and wipe tears from my eyes. I used to pray every night in that village, "Lord, if you love me, let me wake up black tomorrow, like all my friends. I know you can do this!" I would check every morning to see if I had been turned black, only to be disappointed. But maybe tomorrow.

I was my dad's right-hand man. Together we opened villages to the gospel where no white person had been since the slave trade. I lobbed stones with 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 watched Africans' faces when they first heard the word Jesu. And I saw the hope that was built in them. I was a missionary as far as I was concerned. So, Africans in hell because of me?

As the flames licked closer to my skin, from deep within me arose a gust of strength I cannot fully explain to this day. I had a desperate thought: I could win this time. This time, the houseparent had unwittingly put himself in a place where I could actually win, if I could 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 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 was going to make me cry out or drop that candle. This is where I would take my stand—this was my little Masada.

I shook violently, tears brimming in anticipation of 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. 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. I was transported out of my body. I floated above this terrified 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 would not let go.

Just then, a child in the front row couldn't stand it any longer, and he jumped up and slapped the candle out of my hand. The 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. From that day forward, I would protect children. I would forever speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

For 32 years, I have fought for little ones who have no voice and no choice. The passion that gripped me at age 10 still rages within me today.

The school was eventually shuttered, and many years later, the abusers were held accountable—not jailed like they would be today due to the statute of limitations, but after an official inquiry, when they were "censored" by the mission and no longer allowed to work with children. The school's MKS limped away from their childhoods, many with lifelong scars. Thankfully, for me, my story—a story that Satan intended for evil but that God redeemed for good—has a different ending.

The Ongoing End

My story finally emerged when I wrote a book, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most, in 2007. My idea was to present a manifesto—strategically, statistically, and scripturally sound—about the importance of championing children, one 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 write a book, or are you willing to really fight a battle for children?" At that crossroads, I realized that I must allow God to redeem even the painful parts of my story.

My story is what has fueled my passion against injustice, my crusade against abuse, my fight against poverty. It is what drove me to Compassion International. For 32 years, I have fought for little ones who have no voice and no choice. The passion that gripped me at age 10 still rages within me today.

Poverty and abuse speak the same message into the heart of a child: "Give up. Nobody cares about you. There's nothing special about you. Nothing will ever change. You always lose, so give up!" As I travel across the world, I see the fingerprints of Satan; he is 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.

My job now is to champion the cause of these children, to help them understand the love Jesus Christ has for them. Imagine my joy when every day 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 daily vaccinate thousands of children. Imagine my joy that I get to challenge the church about the importance of children—to explain, for example, that budgets that devote 10 percent to children's ministry make little strategic sense considering that 85 percent of people who come to Christ do so before the age of 14.

All these years later, I am still never more than 10 seconds away from tears. But not all my tears are from sorrow. Just as easily, I can be moved to tears of great joy at what I get to do. I see victories in children's lives as evil is defeated, just as it was defeated in my own life.

In finally telling my whole story, I have discovered the other side of my life's tapestry. Where I once saw only knots and tangles, I now see a beautiful picture of God's grace—his deliberate orchestration in a life lovingly entrusted to me. Sure enough, he had heard every scream, felt every blow, and wiped every tear as, through the pain, he crafted me into a tool he could use, redeemed for his glory.

Wess Stafford is president and CEO of Compassion International, a Colorado Springs–based child development organization that sponsors children. This article was adapted from a talk Stafford gave at Woodmen Valley Chapel in July 2009.

   November 2018   
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