One moment, you’re in a Southwest Las Vegas parking lot surrounded by expensive SUVs with cheery bumper stickers. The next, you’re in a stenchy Nairobi mud hut, listening to a boy describe how his mother makes moonshine with toxic chemicals and dirty water—gallons of the latter at your feet—so her starving children don’t have to beg for or steal food, all actions that could put them in jail. And that’s exactly what happens to 9-year-old Jey when he’s eventually caught taking food, which you discover once you enter his fetid cell.
His story, miraculously, gets better, as Jey—now a DJ in Atlanta—is saved by Compassion International, a vetted and financially transparent Christian organization that assists impoverished children in poorer parts of the world. Its touring, 2,000-square-foot Compassion Experience trailer exhibit—which also shares the narrative and environs of Filipina girl Kiwi, for whom apples are extravagances—stopped for four days last weekend on the Crossing Church campus, drawing families even while Sunday services were happening next door. The primary goal is to sign donors up for $38 monthly sponsorships that will grant a child food, medical care and mentoring; more than 300 children were sponsored last weekend alone, according to Lee Coate, executive pastor of the Crossing, which has partnered with Compassion International both here and abroad for seven years.
However, the remarkably detailed exhibit—accompanied by audio and video via iPods—is also a visceral, impactive way to show middle-class Las Vegas families the shanties of the underdeveloped world, where food, basic health and safety are fleeting. Those locals might have never seen the local homeless corridor, let alone third-world slums. The Experience makes abject poverty—which affects nearly half of the world’s population—much less abstract and distant.
Compassion makes clear its aim to also teach Christian values to both the children it supports and those walking through the Experience. But even for those outside of the faith—to whom Crossing also marketed the Compassion Experience—it nonetheless offered local visitors a much-needed perspective on poverty, humanity and gratitude in a way that classroom lectures, sermons and the Internet cannot.
“People have different responses when you do something like this,” Coate says, adding that the Crossing also works with and volunteers for local nonprofits such as Project 150 and Veteran’s Village. “Some people are drawn to action; they’ll sponsor a kid or do something. Some people become advocates, which is a whole other level, where they’ll be like, ‘I’ll get involved’ or they’ll tell people about Compassion. And some people just have awareness, and that’s okay, too … I think awareness breeds action. For us, it's worth it.”