Jim and Jennifer Cowart invited their 20-year-old-daughter on a trip with them to Uganda in July to see first-hand the work of Compassion International, the Christian child advocacy and sponsorship ministry.
Their daughter Alyssa was moved by the children she met and heartbroken at the dire circumstances many face.
She was particularly moved by one 6-year-old: Gladys.
As result, Alyssa Cowart decided to forego $38 of her monthly part-time income and use it to become Gladys’ sponsor.
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The Cowarts -- and their congregation at Harvest Church in Warner Robins -- hope something similar happens in the hearts of Middle Georgians as they accept an invitation to virtually visit the world of impoverished children of Uganda and Bolivia on Oct. 16-19.
They’re asking Middle Georgians to come to the Compassion Experience at the church’s campus.
“Visiting Africa was an amazing and overwhelming experience,” Alyssa Cowart said. “I’ve never seen that kind of poverty close up. When I saw an opportunity to help by sponsoring little Gladys, I took it. I thought, ‘This is something I can do that will actually change this little girl’s life forever.’ ”
The Cowarts acknowledge the Compassion Experience isn’t the same as a trip to a foreign land, but they said it does provide insight into other cultures, others’ lives and the work of Compassion International.
“We’ve wanted to get involved with an organization like this for a while,” said Jim Cowart, Harvest’s lead pastor. “Our going to Uganda was partially just to see behind the scenes and check out Compassion, make sure they’re the real deal.”
Did Compassion pass the test?
“We were impressed in every way,” Jim Cowart said. “We were impressed by how far they make the money stretch, with what they provide the children, with the loving way they do it and with how they make no compromise sharing Christ along the way. They work to help every aspect of children’s lives. We heard of more than one time that the first time a child ever heard, ‘I love you’ or, ‘you’re special’ was in a letter from their sponsor.”
Cowart said he also was impressed that Compassion doesn’t promote itself throughout the world, but instead partners with 6,500 local churches in 26 nations to bring help and aid to 1.5 million children.
“They make the local worker the hero -- the local pastors -- and they stress the work of the local church over their own behind-the-scenes provision,” he said. “I liked that.”
According to Compassion International materials, sponsorships provide children the opportunity to get an education; the opportunity to be healthy through needed health care, instruction in hygiene and supplementary food; the opportunity to develop self-confidence and social skills through church-based programs where Christian adults offer love, guidance, personal attention and recreation programs; and the opportunity to hear the gospel and learn about Jesus Christ.
“There were just so many heart-touching moments on our trip,” said Jennifer Cowart, who serves as executive pastor at the church. “We were in a lot of places and saw the poverty, but we experienced the sense of danger and violence so many people live under all the time. We visited one home and asked what we could pray for them about and they said please pray no one breaks in and kidnaps our daughter. Can you imagine? It’s common for daughters to be kidnapped as young brides or sold into slavery and for boys to be taken as soldiers. It’s common and it’s terrible.”
Jennifer Cowart said seeing her daughter respond to children in Uganda and act in a sacrificial way was a highlight of the trip, but so was buying a bunch of bananas.
“We were told not to give cash to people as we traveled around, but your heart is just so torn and you want to help in so many sad, sad situations. We learned one mother’s only income came from trying to sell bananas. Well, we bought a lot of bananas that day -- and we were able to give a lot of bananas away, too.”
The Cowarts hope visiting the Compassion Experience will help people understand such things, even without making such a long trip.
The Compassion Experience is free and suitable for all ages. It’s an interactive exhibit covering 2,000 square feet where visitors are taken into children’s daily lives, homes, markets and schools. It’s self-guided via recordings by children native to the setting.
Compassion recommends making reservations for the tour by visiting www.harvestchurch4u.org and following the link at the bottom of the page. They say visitors without reservations are welcome, but a longer wait may be required.
Jennifer Cowart said 2,550 such reservations already have been made over the four-day period by individuals, families, Christian school groups and other organizations, but that plenty of slots remain.
She said 1,000 sponsorship packets from around the world will be on hand with 600 of them from within an eight-hour drive of one another in Uganda.
Jim Cowart said he hopes a bridge will be created between here and there.
“I hope in years to come we can take a group from here to Uganda to meet our sponsored children,” he said. “But you know, I know not everyone that comes to the Compassion Experience has the finances to sponsor a child, and we don’t expect them to. But I do hope they come and become more aware of what others are going through in the world and that these are real children God loves and wants to love through us. Maybe people will be inspired to pray for them in a whole new way.”
The Cowarts said the Compassion Experience weekend also will feature a speaker from Uganda at the church’s services.
The Compassion Experience Change Tour
When: 11 a.m.-6:40 p.m. Oct. 16-17 and 19; 1-6:40 p.m. Oct. 18
Where: Harvest Church, 3322 U.S. 41 North (between Watson Boulevard and Russell Parkway), Warner Robins
Information and reservations: www.harvestchurch4u.org