Dr. Wess Stafford Receives Alumnus of the Year Award
Profoundly impacted by Moody, Compassion International leader honored for lifelong service as child advocate
From a poor, abused child in West Africa to author, speaker and president emeritus of Compassion International, Dr. Wesley Stafford ’70 has devoted his career to one cause—helping children out of poverty through Christ-centered discipleship. The Christian child development organization he has served nonstop for 46 years has more than two million sponsored children being discipled in 8,600 churches across 29 countries. One million have completed the program.
Stafford has a master’s degree, PhD and six honorary doctorates, but on October 19, 2023 of Moody’s annual Founder’s Week, he received what he considers one of the greatest honors ever presented to him: The Alumnus of the Year Award.
“This is a moment I will savor and treasure the rest of my life because this place was really important to me,” said Stafford. “No school so profoundly impacted who I am and where I went with my life than Moody—just a very precious place in my heart.”
Jeff Bope ’11, executive director of Moody’s Alumni Association, presented the award at the Thursday evening session. “Our recipient this year has shown a life of standing in the gap between children and those who seek to harm them,” he said. “Though a victim himself he chose to see himself as an advocate for children on behalf of Christ. And I can testify that this recipient is the same on stage, in a book, and in person.”
From poverty to God’s calling
He grew up in a very poor African village on the Ivory Coast, the son of missionary Bible translators Kenneth ’50 and Marjorie (Mason ’46) Stafford. He loved to accompany his dad to open villages for the gospel, and at times help keep noisy birds away so his father’s voice could be heard proclaiming the Word of God.
Stafford’s fight against his two greatest enemies—poverty and abuse—began after experiencing both firsthand in childhood. With the nearest hospital 100 miles away, he grieved over the hundreds of children who died from malaria, snake bites, starvation and other problems. After the village would gather to tell stories about another departed child, Stafford would listen to the funeral drums and “cry and cry and cry,” he recalls. “I kept thinking, Lord, why do you keep taking the best? Why do you let me live?”
One reason Stafford survived was that he had been vaccinated in America against childhood diseases like measles. Later, as president of Compassion International, he would make sure the more than two million sponsored children had access to vaccines for childhood diseases.
The other enemy he experienced was abuse. From age 6 to 15 he lived in a boarding school for children of missionaries in West Africa. He and the other children were beaten for tiny infractions, even a wrinkle in a bedspread, then held to secrecy under threat of ruining their parents’ ministries.
At the age of 10, he also suffered abuse at the hands of a cruel houseparent. After one specific instance of cruelty, the man told the other children that Wess was Satan’s tool causing Africans to go to hell. Wess grew more and more angry at the lies and injustice. He considered himself a missionary, not a tool of the devil.
After enduring this particular act of cruelty, Stafford recalls that he received his calling to protect children from then on. “I would speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” he decided.
Falling in love with Moody and ministry
At age 15 he left for America to attend high school, then Moody, his parents’ alma mater. In between he attended a Bible camp where a Moody graduate, Glenn Ruby ’57, challenged the campers to forgive anyone who’d hurt them deeply. Sitting at the campfire, Wess chose to forgive his abusers, gave up the right to revenge, and promised to fight for vulnerable children.
He planned to attend Moody Bible Institute for just one year but soon fell in love with everything about it—the deep Bible teaching, the Communications courses, the Moody Chorale, and the soccer team he started with a few other students.
While at Moody he also got his start as a dynamic advocate for children in poverty. After recruiting students in chapel one day, he launched the first tutoring program to serve impoverished children in the nearby Cabrini Green housing development. “I had 50 Moody students that I trained with the juvenile court system to serve children,” he said.
After Moody, Stafford joined the US Army as a linguist in military intelligence, later completing his undergraduate, master’s degree, and a PhD from Biola University, Wheaton College, and Michigan State University, respectively. In between he applied to Compassion International in 1977, first serving in Haiti, where he also married the love of his life, Donna.
He became president of Compassion International in 1993, working both overseas and at the headquarters. During his first year, the Rwanda genocide took place. As government and non-governmental organizations left the country, Stafford wrestled with the decision to keep Compassion in Rwanda or withdraw. Considering Proverbs 3:5-6 (“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…”), he convinced Compassion’s board to remain, helping children be rescued and survive the massacre. “That was 25 years ago,” he recalls. “There are now college graduates who came through Compassion’s programs in Rwanda because I did not pull the plug that weekend.”
Married to Donna for 44 years with two grown daughters, he tells his life story and mission in two books: Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most and Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment Can Last Forever. Wess became president emeritus in 2013, still very active at age 74, speaking and fundraising for the organization.
Interrupted by Heaven
“I long for the day when the trumpet blast comes. And I hope that I’m right smack in the middle of my calling, doing something in my calling, because we’ll look up and the sky will roll back like a scroll, and we’ll go home,” he says.
“And in my case, we’re going home where there’s no hunger, there’s no snakes, there’s no sickness, there’s no death. In fact, there’s not even any tear. Because God says he will ‘wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
“My prayer is that while He wipes the tears from my eyes, He notices He also has to wipe the sweat from my brow.”
Stafford desires to be found working as a faithful servant when Jesus calls him home—“because I lived the life he called me to live, I fought for the poor and spoke up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, until I was interrupted by heaven. That’s the way I would like to go out, with sweat on my brow.”