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Reflections on illness, poverty, Jesus and hope:
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By Haydn Jensen

A conversation with Barry Slauenwhite, President and CEO of Compassion Canada

Christian Life: You have been fairly open about your recent battle with cancer, so the obvious place to start is—how are you feeling?

Barry: I'm feeling great. 100%. I finished radiation a year ago (April, 2013), and my checkups with my oncologist have all been very positive. I feel as good or better now as I did before I was diagnosed.

Christian Life: You write about your journey with cancer in your blog and twitter and so on. It seems that cancer is a very public illness that people want to ask about or that you feel perhaps obligated to share openly—even when you might feel like withdrawing. What do you think about that?

Barry: So many people know somebody that has cancer. When I was first diagnosed, my wife Sharon and I talked about it. By nature I'm kind of a private person, but in my position I live a public life. When deciding how open we would be about my illness, we really saw this as more of a journey with God and not so much a journey with cancer. The decision to speak openly about it has held us accountable to the public. Whenever I share about something we intend to do, we have that support of knowing people out there are aware of it.

Christian Life: You wrote in your blog last November, “It has been a year best described by visualizing a tight rope walker traversing Niagara Falls.” Does it still feel that way?

Barry: Not any more. Now I'd say I am standing on the platform on the other end of that tightrope and looking back. I remember there were times when it was scary. For example, around Christmas and New Years' (December 2012), I was very sick. Looking back now, it almost seems like those times were not really so bad.

Christian Life: Imagine you're talking with one of our readers who is also in the midst of illness—cancer, or something else. It's completely understandable for a person to be overwhelmed by pain and suffering—even self-pity. What would you like to say to them?

Barry: When you haven't gone through suffering, you have a different perspective. For people who haven't gone through those valleys it's impossible to have a full appreciation of what it's like. Dealing with cancer was not my first life-threatening experience. I was in Haiti when the earthquake it in 2010. I also had a serious hand accident in 2008 when my left hand was cut off by a mitre saw. [note: thanks to skillful medical response, it was reattached and Barry now has almost full use of his left hand]. That hand accident was pivotal for me in my relationship with God in that I had a deep sense of the active presence of God through that experience. It became part of a deeper journey and I learned that suffering was a tool to bring a person closer to God. Yes, it can also be a tool to drive us away from God where we blame Him for our circumstances. But, my prayer has been to say, “God, you don't waste any opportunity—for whatever reason this difficult thing has happened to me, please don't let me waste this opportunity for me to grow closer to You.” To a person who is dealing with illness, I would say, “Don't put your focus on healing—although I do believe that God heals—the minute you focus on healing, your attention is taken away from God.” I would encourage people as much as they can to keep their focus on God. I would also like to say that many times since that hand accident I have chosen to go back to that time in my mind, to relive that sense of God's presence. I have found that to be incredibly helpful.

Christian Life: I think you've likely seen more of the world than any of our readers ever will. So, what's the world like from your perspective?

Barry: Compassion's work is focussed on helping children and families in 26 developing countries, and I have travelled to over 50 of the poorest nations of the world. Wherever I go, one thing I have found is that people are basically the same everywhere, although circumstances can be very different. We are in countries where there is tremendous poverty that you just don't find here. There is one thing that amazes me, though. My travels are primarily in Christian circles in all the places I visit. No matter where I go I feel at home—even when we are communicating through a translator. It's an incredible sensation. Even in the most dangerous and poor countries where we are travelling in harm's way—places like Guatemala City, which is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and we had armed guards wherever we went. We were visiting a church there and had to park the bus as close as possible to the front door of the church to minimize our exposure. It was freaky! But, once we got inside that church door we forgot all about the dangers outside and it felt just like we were in a church anywhere. I would also like to say that as I have travelled around the world I have found that people are, by and large, good. Total strangers have helped me so many times.

Christian Life: You have been described as “a spokesperson for the poor”. I'm sure you count that as a great privilege. You must also feel like that role is a tremendous challenge and not without its frustrations. Any comments on that?

Barry: Yes, I suppose I am a spokesperson for the poor. For me, I live in two worlds. In one world, I am overseas trying to comfort the afflicted. I'm trying to help them cope, to love them, and help them know that we care about them. In Canada, I am trying to afflict the comforted. Here, I'm saying that what we have isn't the real world. Our world in Canada is a bubble. I don't want to go around and make people feel guilty for all the comforts we enjoy here—just also take responsibility to do something for others in need. So, drink your coffee, but, also make sure you're helping the poor.

Christian Life: You have written elsewhere that “Poverty is one of the least understood strategies of hell.” Could you say a little more about that?

Barry: Christians largely do not realize how much poverty is a strategy of Satan to destroy lives, to destroy their futures and keep them from coming to God. It's that message, “God has abandoned you.” In our work with Compassion, we don't force people to become Christians, but we are all about encouraging families in that direction. Once a family becomes Christian we see that their whole demeanor change. Once when I was in India I met a young kid who was working smashing bricks. I asked him one of my favourite questions to ask kids, “What do you dream of being?” He just glanced around where he was working and said with an attitude of hopelessness, “I don't dream.” Hope is one of the greatest tools of Christianity. Later, that boy and his family became Christians. When I saw him again, his face glowed with hope.

Christian Life: I heard someone say that selfishness is perhaps that greatest sin in the world today. Would you agree with that?

Barry: I would say it is among the greatest sins. Selfishness is manifest in so many diabolical ways. One of the most beautiful things I have found with Compassion is that our sponsors are often not in that middle to upper income bracket you might expect. A lot of them are barely making ends meet themselves. We learned of one family that goes out to collect bottles each month for money to sponsor a Compassion child. Another mother sold her car in order to sponsor more kids. When we look for child sponsors, we are not asking for people to give up anything. We just want to help people realize that we each have a responsibility to help others. In general, people in our society tend to look at doing good as an investment—one that will pay off later. When people invest in someone that has no possible way of to give back, then that's genuine selfless giving.

Christian Life: We often hear the mantra, think globally, act locally—do you agree with that idea?

Barry: No. I would say act globally and act locally. There are plenty of good things we can do to help the poor in Canada and many organizations are doing excellent work. But it's important to keep in perspective that the poor in Canada have tremendous welfare programs compared to a lot places elsewhere in the world. The families Compassion works with are mostly living on less than $1.25 a day. In Canada we have an old age pension program. This simply does not exist in the countries where we are working. Many times we hear people ask why families in these very poor countries have so many children when they can't afford to feed them. Well, for parents in those places, those children are their old age pension. Not all those children may survive, but parents hope they will have some children around to take care of them when they are older. Compassion Canada is not trying to make people well off. Really, we just want to help families survive. Locally here in Canada, our government is doing at least ten times more than we can ever do elsewhere with Compassion. Compassion did look at doing work here in Canada, specifically with the northern native communities and in inner city Vancouver and Toronto. But, when we are working with people elsewhere making $1.25/day and eating just a bowl of rice once a day, that's hard to compare to the situation here in Canada where a person can go to a local food bank, pick up a box of groceries and get a welfare check each month. Please understand that I am not knocking the various help programs and ministries actively helping the poor here in Canada. Poverty is relative and we should keep that in perspective.

Christian Life: You have served with Compassion since 1983, and CEO/President since 1993. There has been a lot of growth and change in Compassion over the years. What stands out as most significant to you?

Barry: Over the years, Compassion has made a conscious effort to stay true to our brand or message. We have had marketing consultants urge us to drop the “Jesus component” in our message and not be so blatant. But, we felt that we should stay true to our identity as a Christian organization. We decided we were not going to accept any government funding because that could prohibit or hinder our openness as Christians. For the same reason, I have turned down millions of dollars in foundation money each year. Despite that, Compassion is the fastest growing child development agency in the world and has been for years. In Canada, studies have shown that Canadians have been giving less to charities recently. But, our revenue growth has grown 73% in just the last 5 years...that's unheard of! Most organizations have considered themselves fortunate if they just maintain revenue levels and not shrink. I am often asked, “What's your secret?” I don't really have a secret, rather than to simply say stay true to your calling. Our calling is to bring Christ to children. Many times we are labelled as an aid agency, an NGO, or child welfare program. Yes, we do go into places of deep poverty and try to alleviate the physical circumstances as much as we can. But really though, our work is to bring Christ to children and their families. We put Christ at the centre of our work, and when you do that, He will take care of you. We could have gotten into some questionable marketing and started adjusting our message. But in the end, we still have to be able to come to God and ask for His blessing.

Christian Life: Now, I haven't asked you anything about your family. What would you like to share with us about your them?

Barry: My wife, Sharon, is amazing. We have been married for over 41 years and during that time I have been away from home for over 6,000 nights. She has not complained once. We have two daughters and they have never resented their dad being away so much. As a family, they have looked at Compassion as our family ministry, not the place where dad works. I have brought the family with me to the field as often as I could. Now that our children are grown, they go out to the field on their own. I have been so blessed to have never done anything with Compassion without the support of my wife and family.

Christian Life: Thank you so much Barry.

You can learn more about...
Compassion Canada and child sponsorship opportunities:
Website: www.compassion.ca
Telephone: 519.668.0224
Toll Free: 1.800.563.5437
Email: info@compassion.ca
Barry's Blog:
bslauenwhite.wordpress.com
Barry's Twitter feed:
twitter.com/bslauen






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