It was one of those "I-love-it-but-I-hate-it" moments. "This is brilliant," I thought as I processed what the speaker had just said. "But I devoutly wish he had never said it."
The speaker was Stu Epperson. He is co-founder and chairman of the board of Salem Communications Corporation. With 83 stations, Salem operates the largest network of Christian radio stations in the world. He is 65 and, with his wife Nancy, ready to slow down a bit after a fast-paced career that among other things in the mid-80s included a couple of unsuccessful runs for Congress.
Indeed, Stu Epperson is something of a consummate multi-tasker. He's not the easiest fellow in the world to converse with for the simple reason that there are typically six things going on in his mind, all at the same time. I've been at his home, where multiple phone lines run busily across the patio and both family members and assistants keep appearing and disappearing with a variety of assignments. All this, of course, is why Stu Epperson has gotten so many good things done during his life-but it also makes it just that much more amazing that he's now taking on a new assignment: to spend regular time with a fatherless boy.
And he is trying to persuade thousands of other men to do the same thing. It was in that role that I heard him last week. In literally less than two minutes, he cornered me with the urgency, the reasonableness, and the simplicity of his argument. Here's what I heard him say:
The urgency. Across the United States, as many as 40 percent of all boys live their lives without a father in their homes. That translates to something like 20-25 million boys. While the situation may be most severe in urban and minority situations, even typical white and suburban evangelical churches include significant numbers of boys who for a variety of reasons do not live with their fathers.
Mr. Epperson stresses that the divorce rate has doubled since 1970. The out-of-wedlock birth rate has tripled. One-third of all births now, and 44 percent of first births, are to unmarried mothers.
The reasonableness. "Look around you," says Stu Epperson. "Your church. Your neighborhood. Kids that need you are everywhere-and right next to you. Prayerfully consider mentoring a precious young person." He quotes James 1:27: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless."
The simplicity. Here's where Stu Epperson gets so convincing. No new program. No big organization, and no little organization either. No meetings to go to. No officers to elect. No budget. Just spend some time every week with a boy who needs a father figure.
If that's not simple enough, Mr. Epperson makes it even simpler. You don't even have to think up something imaginative to do with this boy. Just do what you were going to do anyway-but have him do it with you. So Stu Epperson told us how he has a standing appointment with a young boy in his city. He picks him up on Sunday morning, and together they do the Krispy Kreme donut run for Stu's Sunday school class. The boy helps him with that routine chore, and takes delight in helping dole out the donuts to the folks in Stu's class.
"Take him to a ball game, eat out, or still better hire him to help you with chores such as yard work. That's the very best way to get acquainted."
Here was "compassionate conservatism" in its simplest, most elemental form. No congressman to call, no church and state issues to worry about, no fancy vocabulary or technical terms to learn. And while the Epperson focus has been primarily on young boys, the idea is just as workable for women wanting to help younger girls.
Mr. Epperson has, of course, developed some thoughtful advice along the way. He suggests great care with money-either lending it to a child or spending it on him. He suggests sticking to just one child at a time; although Stu and his wife are right now working with five boys, it's always still with just one at a time. Details like these are available at a website called www.onekidatatime.org.
But even to suggest a website or a mailing address (3780 Will Scarlet Rd., Winston-Salem NC 27104) runs the risk of losing focus on Stu Epperson's main point: You don't need a single shred of additional information, data, or help to get going. There simply are no excuses.
That's why I was so frustrated last week when I heard Stu Epperson. I wanted an excuse. I wanted off the hook. I wanted the ability to explain why this was good for other busy folks, but not for me.
But I'm afraid Stu Epperson is winning this argument.