Dr. John Sowers is the president of The Mentoring Project which was founded by New York Times bestselling author Donald Miller. Sowers mission at The Mentoring Project is to rewrite the stories of fatherless young men. The Mentoring Project received the faith-based Partner of the Year Award in 2010 from Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the oldest and most established mentoring organization in America.
Dr. Sowers released a book in September 2010 called Fatherless Generation. I caught up with Dr. Sowers to discuss his book and the issue of fatherlessness. As both the product of a broken home and former youth pastor, I’m personally invested in this issue and was privileged to have a conversation with Dr. Sowers about his work and his book.
Good News: I really enjoyed your book. I read it and felt like I had to do something. I imagine that was your intention when you sat down to write your book.
John: You hope that someone will see the real picture of what I call the fatherless generation and the devastation that’s actually happening. Its manifestations in America are gangs, teen pregnancies, drug abuse and suicide. You hope that if you show a picture of that, as dark and bleak as that may be, that people would be stirred to say, “I want to do something about that.” That’s the best thing. I really wanted to paint a picture of what’s happening. It’s one of the issues that are driving social disasters in our country. Instead of telling someone that they should mentor or adopt or foster, I hope they hear what God may be calling them what to do.
Good News: The way you divided the book into two parts was smart. I read the whole book on a plane, and I’ll tell you, I was sitting there bawling. My dad left when I was eight. Were you trying to evoke that kind of emotion or is it just my own emotional baggage I’m dealing with?
John: I was asked by an audience when talking about changing our story and they kept asking how should we respond. The first thing I said is that we have to listen to the fatherless story. The second thing we have to do is leap. If we’re going to call ourselves Christ-followers and “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” we need to come alongside in a very compassionate way. It’s kind of the same reason why athletes wear a black stripe on their jersey or on their helmets. You have to take pause and mourn. Mourning is an appropriate response.
It’s important to share our own stories because story begets story. What that means is that people get permission to tell their story when they hear yours. We live among a generation of people whose story is right below the surface ready to come out. As soon as they get permission to share it, there’s a mourning. And, hopefully, questions asked like, “What do I do now?” or “How do I give back?” or “How does God fit into all of this?”
We want to show honesty in our stories and hope that people react in a way that moves them to action.
Good News: You gave me the image of football players wearing a black stripe remembering an injured or fallen colleague. Are you saying that we’re duty bound to mourn and to act?
John: We study and preach about the names of God. One of the names of God is found in Psalms 68 – A Father to the fatherless. The Bible says that we have to be imitators of this God. So if we are called to be imitators of God who is a Father to the fatherless, then we can’t be any less.
Duty sounds suspiciously pharisaical. It needs to be more of a fidelity to our relationship with Christ. We have to open our eyes and regard this group of people the Bible in Matthew 25 calls “the least of these”. The Bible is riddled with “least of these” theologies and Christ comes and embodies this in his mission to bind up the broken hearted and to proclaim good News to the poor. Declaring the Gospel is definitely part of his mission, but only part of it. A big part of the Gospel is binding up the broken hearted; walking with people. He’s doing things for the society that gets Him labeled a friend of sinners. He makes people uncomfortable.
Fatherlessness causes us to reconcile this issue with our faith. It’s what James called “true religion.” It should cause a reaction. We should ask, “How am I going to respond to this?” or “How are we as a church going to respond to this?” We don’t always know what that’s going to look like. For us, it’s mentoring because it’s a great, incarnational way to show people that God cares for them. Some people are doing great stuff through adoption. Helping people build stronger marriages is another way. All of us as believers in Christ need to pray and choose how to individually be involved in this issue.
Good News: One of the things Donald Miller wrote about in his most recent book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, was the story of his reunion with his father. Miller had actually written in a previous book that he thought his father was dead. What role does unconditional forgiveness toward your absentee father have to play in all this?
John: I’m really glad you asked that. That’s a question where people really have to be lead. Christ calls all of us to forgive as He’s forgiven us. The other idea about reconciliation is found in Malachi where the prophet says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
In terms of unconditional forgiveness, a lot of people tell me their stories and mourning is there and grief is there, but there hasn’t been the next step- forgiveness.
I hear a lot of these horrific stories and I’ll press and ask, “What’s next? Have you written him a letter? Have you told him you forgive him?” Many people aren’t to that point yet. It’s more like the grief is still there, but they don’t know what to do with it.
Unconditional forgiveness is huge because he who curses his own father curses himself. You’re walking in disobedience. You’re cursing your path. There is reconciliation we need to go through while we’re being reconciled to God at the same time. It’s a challenge. For some people, maybe their dads have passed away. Or maybe their dads don’t want to have anything to do with them. The choice gets harder but it’s of utmost importance.
Good News: I felt like if I didn’t forgive, then I wouldn’t break a curse that’s been handed down from generation to generation. I’ve always had this sense that my dad was broken and if I didn’t do this, then I wasn’t reflecting Christ to him and he’d never be repaired.
Do you have any last thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers?
John: If anyone is interested in the Mentoring Project, they can connect with us a www.thementoringproject.org. My blog can be found at www.fatherlessgeneration.com/blog.
Good News: If anyone wanted to start a chapter of the Mentoring Project, how would that happen? Is that a difficult process to get into?
John: People can reach out to us on our website, www.thementoringproject.org. We’re going to have a lot of resources next year. These resources will be the foundation for starting a local chapter. We can help -we can consult over the phone or come into your town for training.
“It’s important to share our own stories because story begets story. “