An early lesson John Sowers learned from his father was how a man smells: "like an odd mixture of Old Spice and musky sweat." But since his dad moved out when John was 2, the more enduring lesson was that fathers are mostly absent, leaving a sense of abandonment and shame. That sense, believes Sowers, president of the Portland-based Mentoring Project (TMP), is the theme of today's youth as well as the root of many social ills of that generation. "The story of fatherlessness is powerful, destructive, and really close to God's heart," says the 36-year-old Little Rock native.

After discovering God's father-heart at a Billy Graham crusade and through several male mentors, Sowers wrote his thesis at Gordon-Conwell Seminary on reaching the fatherless. He focused on mentoring, seeing it has spiritual resonance that government programs and men's ministries don't: "Mentoring mirrors God's heart … God is taking the initiative and choosing to invest our time and energy into the life of a child." Then, at the invitation of TMP founder Donald Miller in 2009, Sowers created research toolkits for churches to develop mentors and reach youth (mostly boys) awaiting mentors in every major city. TMP focuses on faith-based equipping, delegating the matching work to cooperative nonprofits like Big Brother, Big Sister. With just three staff, TMP has hundreds of churches waiting for training, as well as the attention of the White House, which had Sowers speak at its 2009 Fathers Day event. "Whenever I go to D.C., it's to advocate for this message only," says Sowers. "God has burdened me with this message. I can't shut up about it."

Question & Answer

Along with eliminating the mentor waiting lists in many cities, what else does TMP want to do?

The big goal [is] having a mentor for every child that needs one. The other goals are found inside that: to awaken the church to the fatherless need; to provide mentoring training for churches; and to build long-term mentoring efforts through sustainable mentoring communities where each church looks after its own tribe of mentors.

I'd like to see mentoring become a part of the DNA of every evangelical church. Fatherlessness is not another cause in the "science fair" of causes, but something that demands our attention, for both social and theological reasons.

How did the White House take notice?

When Don [Miller] was asked to pray at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and was asked to be on the Taskforce on Fatherhood and Healthy Families. When I came to TMP in 2009, I got looped into the conversation.

This past year, the White House set aside money for a mentoring fund. When I was at the White House in June, they announced a fund of $500 million. [TMP is considering applying for federal funds.] Honestly, whether someone voted for President Obama or not, mentoring is an issue we should all be able to get behind. Obama talks about the importance of dads. Joshua DuBois, his right-hand man on this issue, is a Big Brother, and so are many other White House staff.

Why is fatherlessness a Christian issue?

In the last verses of the Old Testament, Malachi says God will turn the hearts of the children to their fathers and the hearts of the fathers to their children. Those words rang through the prophetic void for 400 years [before Christ]. Whatever Malachi intended, we know this issue is close to God's heart.


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Previous "Who's Next" sections featured Alissa Wilkinson, Jamie Tworkowski, Bryan Jennings, L. L. Barkat, Robert Gelinas, Nicole Baker Fulgham, Gideon Strauss, W. David O. Taylor, Crystal Renaud, Eve Nunez, Adam Taylor, Matthew Lee Anderson, Margaret Feinberg, and Jonathan Merritt.

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