Former NFL quarterback Steve Stenstrom is the CEO and President of Pro Athletes Outreach. Steve is a regular contributor to The Increase and will be providing monthly articles and opinions.
Nine years ago my wife, Lori, and I felt called to take our family on a trip that we knew might change our lives forever. In 2007, we took our four kids (ages 4, 6, 7, and 9) on a six-week trip to Africa where we experienced a life far different from the one we were living in Silicon Valley, California.
For those six weeks, Todd Peterson, board leader for Pro Athletes Outreach, and his family joined ours as we spent time in both Cape Town as well as in Tanzania, visiting and serving alongside a variety of ministry initiatives.
To catch the essence of how this trip impacted our family, my wife summed it up well when she said, “We all grew up on that trip.” We have quoted that phrase many times in the past nine years as we look back at what we experienced during our first trip to Africa and as we look forward to how we are called to live out the Gospel in our culture. There are many things about faith, people, life, God, meaning, and purpose that are very difficult to discover in this privileged culture that we live in as Americans. There are parts of the Gospel—parts of God’s heart—that we discover more of by going somewhere else. In our country you can settle for the easy answers. But by going to Africa I was forced to ask myself, “How often do I really have to depend on God in my culture?”
We are relatively safe, secure, and comfortable; there’s a part of going into a situation that is so radically different from your own—and that doesn’t have to be in Africa—that will change your perspective of life. You may have seen pictures of these places online before but it’s not the same. Literally being there to touch, feel, experience, and even smell the poverty that others live in—seeing the challenges of a life that is not safe, secure, and comfortable—forces you to wrestle with the questions: Who am I created to be? What am I created to do? How can I love my neighbor as myself? How can I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? How can I faithfully steward the life that I’ve been given?
God clearly appoints each one of us to live in a certain place at a certain time. I’ve been born into this place and into this century for a reason and I’m grateful for that. God’s very intentional about where He calls us to be and He doesn’t want us to feel guilty about that. But with the amount that He has entrusted to me and my family, and with the opportunities that He has given us, it was extremely eye-opening for us to go somewhere else where the norm is completely different from my own. Seeing this led us to ask ourselves, “Are we running the race well?”
This trip really helped Lori and I as parents to learn how to partner with God to raise our kids and shape their worldview. This was also a very formative experience for our kids; life in Africa was such a contrast to what they experienced at their home in California.
Going to a new country allowed us to know who our neighbors are, from a global standpoint, more than we ever did before. Now when I think about the global Gospel, I’m not thinking about the person that I see in pictures on the Internet who is living in poverty, I’m thinking of little Mary who was five years old and living in rags who I was able to meet, see, and love on.
“‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” —Matthew 22:36-39
After this experience, our family felt pretty strongly that God wasn’t calling us to be in Africa for the long term, but He was calling us to be different in our own culture; I wouldn’t want to go back to the life I lived before this trip. While it was hard to experience the poverty and heartache that we did in Africa, it reminded us of what we knew to be true of the Gospel. Information alone doesn’t change anybody; transformation only comes when information is applied. So the formula is information plus application equals transformation. I don’t want to limit the transformation in my own life by not applying what I know is true about the Gospel.
Information + Application = Transformation
Over the past nine years we have been open to if and when God would want to bring our family back to Africa. With our kids now at the ages of 13, 15, 16, and 18, we really felt strongly that we were supposed to go on a spring break missions trip as a family one more time before our oldest went off to college. As we began to pray about what that might look like, conversations with Compassion International began to take place.
PAO has hosted Compassion International at our Increase Conferences for a few years now, and my family has been sponsoring two children through this ministry over the past few years as well. Ken McKinney, from Compassion’s team, has become a good friend of mine and we have been brainstorming on how we can create synergy between the two ministries. As we continue to explore that partnership more, we decided that we wanted to experience the amazing work and ministry that they are doing around the world. One of those places is Africa. And while we have a long-term vision to take multiple families along with ours to experience these ministries in Africa, this time our family decided to, once again, embark on what would become a second life-changing trip to Africa.
We experienced poverty during our first trip to Africa in 2007, but there was no comparison to the depths of destitution that we saw in Kenya during our recent trip with Compassion in March of 2016. Being over there with Compassion, we were able to see the incredible work that they are doing over there in the midst of suffering. I love experiencing the body of Christ—the Church with a capital “C”—and seeing what the Kingdom of God is doing through men and women around the globe. Compassion has created a unique and powerful way to partner with local churches to clothe, feed, provide for, and share the Gospel with the community where they are.
The first day we entered one of the village communities, we met many children of all ages. As I sat down with a couple of 16-year-olds from the program, they opened up binders that they had kept since they first entered the program as young children. These binders were filled with letters and photos from their sponsors, medical reports, school projects, and many other important aspects of their life history that they were so excited to share with me. The rest of the kids in this country don’t have these things to treasure.
There are 104,000 kids in Kenya alone that are being sponsored by individuals through Compassion—that’s a generational change. Our family was sponsoring two kids before we went to Africa with Compassion; now we have two more. As we met the children and experienced the lives that they lead in these destitute areas, we couldn’t ignore the call that God had for us to be more involved.
Being able to take part in this experience with my kids, who are now older and able to process more of the work that God is doing around the globe, it was really amazing to see and hear how God taught and spoke to each one of us individually. It was very satisfying as a dad to watch God work in my kids’ lives during this trip. My kids are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which He prepared for them to do in advance (Ephesians 2:10). I know my kids are storing up treasure in Heaven as God continues to give them a vision for their lives.
The Bible talks about making friends on earth, storing up treasure in Heaven, and preparing for eternity, where we will share meals with the friends that we have made on earth. We would love to have many Kenyan friends to share meals with in Heaven. We have met many already and hope to make many, many more.
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