I tell my kids that the blessings of God are like hot potatoes — as quick as you get them, you've got to give them away. They love that little illustration. So when a blessing comes their way, they look for a way to share it with others.
My daughter, Mia, recently showed this "hot potato" attitude while we were at the fair. Mia began begging me to win lots of stuffed animals. Surprised by her plea, I asked, "Why do you need more than one?" Her response surprised me even more than her request. She explained, "Because I need to give them away on the food truck tomorrow!"
The food truck is actually an old ice-cream truck we use to deliver food to needy families in the inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Every Saturday our family works together to do this. That's why my daughter's words really hit home.
My son, Caden, who is also involved in our family's outreach, expressed his own compassion for others when we enrolled him in Little League last year. As the baseball season approached, Caden seemed sad. So I asked him if something was wrong. He answered, "Well, Dad, baseball's good and everything, but I'm going to miss serving on the food truck for 10 whole weeks!"
Our children are building a perspective of the world as they grow up. If we teach them compassion, they can learn to see the problems of the world as opportunities to help rather than burdens that hinder. These tough economic times present a great opportunity for our families to be a part of a compassionate generation of Christians. In fact, our children may know kids who have lost their homes or whose parents have been laid off. Those kids need encouragement. Our children can be that encouragement right now.
As parents, we must model compassion and generosity not as a one-time act, but as a way of life. My wife, Caroline, and I are convinced that the kindness we show others in our everyday interactions will be directly reflected in the way our children treat people. When our kids see us serving the needy, they understand more clearly that all people have value — and are worthy of our time and concern.
Living the dream
In my own childhood, I remember going to the projects with my father, knocking on doors and inviting people to church. It was inspiring to see my dad — the pastor — bringing people to church in his own car. Today, I believe there is a direct connection between the values my father modeled for me and the path my own life has taken.
At age 20, I moved from Phoenix to start a ministry in downtown Los Angeles. I had a dream of starting a church that would be a constant refuge to those in need. One evening while on a walk, I saw drug abuse, prostitution and homelessness. It was then that I realized God was calling me to serve this community with a ministry that would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
From those small beginnings, God ultimately provided the Dream Center, a spiritual hospital that is developing new ways to serve Los Angeles. Although it would be easy for me to settle into overseeing the management of this growing ministry, I'm committed to staying engaged with the people. This commitment keeps my heart tender because of all the needs I see on a daily basis.
And I am not alone. My wife also understands the importance of maintaining a tender heart as we serve the overlooked. Caroline came to Los Angeles as a teen just out of high school. She was heartbroken to see a starving family that had no car to pick up food from the Dream Center. In response to the need, Caroline acquired one truck to deliver food, and then another, and now we have an army of trucks going out every day to deliver food to people in impoverished neighborhoods.
Throughout the years, Caroline has worked in just about every ministry at the Dream Center. Serving together has proven to be the foundation of our home. From this foundation, the best way we've found to instill a sense of compassion in our children is to lead by example.
With open eyes
I remember eating together in downtown Los Angeles when my children were still young. Skid row was just three blocks away from the restaurant, so on the way home that night, I drove through the district with my family. We saw people huddled around bonfires and addicts leaning against walls. My daughter stared intently out the car window, and my son was obviously trying to process all that he was seeing. That experience opened their eyes to the needy people around them.
I understand the importance of being cautious as we train our children to have a heart for the poor, so of course we use wisdom in protecting our kids. We also teach our kids that "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18) — what we choose to love, we cannot fear. We've learned to love the people we were initially afraid of.
Our children, now 7 and 5, already see themselves as ministry volunteers in the inner city. They volunteer in the Dream Center cafeteria, serve families from the food trucks and show love to homeless children living on the center's residential family floor. We believe it's important to schedule time to serve. If we never schedule that time, it just never gets done.
Serving together has proven to be the greatest bonding for our family. We have lots to talk about, and we share lots of experiences together. It's not just the actual serving time that creates the bonding experience, but it's also the conversation that our service stimulates afterward. Exposure to the world and to the needs of people around us serves as a platform for us to teach our kids to love.
We're finding that in serving the Lord together, the joy and blessing we hope to be to others ultimately comes back to us as we grow in our love for one another.
Matthew Barnett, author of The Cause Within You
, is co-founder of the Dream Center in Los Angeles and the senior pastor at Angelus Temple
by Pam Woody
To foster compassion in your kids, look for opportunities to help people whose
needs are often overlooked by society. When you serve with an open heart, God
can use your family's talents and resources in ways that go beyond what you can
imagine. Consider the following service
- Start an outreach with the food in your pantry, donating to community food banks and seasonal collection bins. Giving out of your abundance is always a good place to start.
- Volunteer your time at a local homeless shelter, preparing or distributing meals, organizing food drives or sorting donated clothing and blankets.
- Help your neighbors by mowing their grass or shoveling their driveway. Neighbors with unkept lawns or unplowed driveways may have challenging life circumstances that prevent them from doing these tasks. You may discover other needs you can help with, too.
- Serve at a soup kitchen. You can find volunteer opportunities by researching local emergency food services.
- Find a nonprofit that aligns with your family's passions and ask how you can help. Volunteer opportunities may be as simple as delivering flyers or as big as joining relief efforts overseas.
- Visit the elderly or homebound. Nursing homes, hospitals and church offices often have a list of people in need of visitors.
One overlooked segment of the population is the preborn. For more on how you can get involved, go to heartlink.org/beavoice.
This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Cultivate Compassion." Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Barnett. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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