Early Sunday afternoon, a crowd of churchgoing families filed out of a service at Southern High School in Durham and into a tent set up in the school’s parking lot.
Twenty minutes later, some of those families would emerge larger than when they’d entered.
The Compassion Experience, a roving interactive exhibit of childhood poverty, arrived in Durham Friday at two locations – one at Southern High School sponsored by Durham’s City Ministries, the other at New Hope Church on Fayetteville Road.
The experience is an interactive marketing tool for Compassion International, a Christian nonprofit that pairs families in sponsorship relationships with 1.8 million children in poverty around the world.
“One of the children I have now, she’s in South America, and I’m able to see her grow up,” said City Ministries Pastor Tiff McCarter, who recruited the Compassion Experience to Durham. “I’ve been able to make her a part of our family.”
Both exhibits are free to the public and will be in town through Monday evening.
Curious community members waited in line Sunday to receive a pair of headphones and an iPhone loaded with narration about the rooms they were about to enter. The rooms had been recreated based on interviews with children the nonprofit serves.
At the end of each tour, families emerged into a room lined with shelves of placards, each with a needy child’s name, age and photograph.
“Sponsorship is always our primary goal,” exhibit manager Nora Beswick said. “But we also want people to have the experience of seeing a country different from their own and maybe see some similarities between those countries and where they’re from. I think the experience can be a learning opportunity for folks who can’t buy a thousand-dollar plane ticket.”
Theresa Cooper, a member of City Ministries who volunteered as support staff for the Compassion Experience, had spent part of her morning preparing paperwork for the families who ended up deciding to sponsor a child. She waited in line after the service to learn about Ruben, a Bolivian boy who, through a Compassion sponsorship, had been able to receive a high school diploma and leave the slum where he’d been raised.
“I’m probably going to sponsor a child,” Cooper said. “But I’m going to talk to my family, because I have a lot of young people in my family, and I think it’d be a good idea to get them involved.”
Sponsorship is no small commitment, Beswick said. Families commit to monthly payments of at least $38 until the child becomes an adult – sometime between age 17 and 21, depending on their situation. Sponsor families are strongly encouraged to keep up with their children by mail, Beswick said.
Some parents making their way through Sunday’s exhibit used the experience as a lesson in gratitude for their children.
“Just imagine having to live like this,” a mother told her two daughters as they entered the “bedroom” of a Ugandan girl. She picked up a tattered dress from the floor. “This is what they have to wear.”
Poverty itself, though, isn’t necessarily a foreign concept to some Triangle residents, especially in East Durham, where the Compassion Experience set up this weekend.
“In my experience, some of the lower-income communities that we go to, they’re some of the most giving people,” Beswick said. “They find ways to scrape together and sponsor a kid even though they’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
McCarter said he asked the Compassion Experience to come to City Ministries after he joined the nonprofit on a mission trip to Colombia this past December. He said he saw the exhibit as one way to illustrate the scope of poverty abroad to church members who might not be able to afford to travel for mission trips.
“We also do missions here in Durham, at Oakwood Park and downtown,” McCarter said. “But I wanted our people to understand that it’s not just about our local community – it’s about being able to go across the water and embrace people who are experiencing the same challenge in their lives.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan