I found myself sitting six inches above rancid water in a canoe filled with 12 people. Human feces and garbage floated past us as we traversed the hundred yards or so that would land us on the Island of Condemned People.

Ecuador is a beautiful country with vast resources. Unfortunately, most of the resources are hoarded by the rich politicians and the landscape of the poor is desolate. It was to the home of one of the poor that I was traveling.

Juan Stephen has grown up in Quayaquil, Ecuador. Most sociologists would give him absolutely zero hope of ever building a better life for himself. To be born in the midst of horrible poverty, particularly on the Island of Condemned People, is a sentence to failure. Unless God enters the picture. And that is exactly what happened.

Thirty years ago a Pastor had a dream. He began to work amidst the poorest of the poor. He began to partner with an organization known as Compassion International. A project was begun to care for, teach and bring hope to hundreds of children on the Island of Condemned People. Juan Stephen was one of those children.

Today Juan is a 26 year old Jesus follower. As a result of Compassion International’s Leadership Development Program he will graduate next year from the University of Ecuador. His dream? To be the Minister of Communications for the entire country.

The first time I met Juan Stephen was at a dinner where, dressed in suit and tie, he articulately told his story. With humor, he explained how the other students in the University would not believe where he told them that he lived. I believe him . . . because I have been there.

The canoe took us to the shore and then we traveled dusty streets to finally arrive at the home of Juan and his family. A simple cinder block building that Juan’s mother obviously worked diligently to keep clean and make into a home. We were invited in. Three small rooms. All smaller than walk-in closets in the U.S. One light bulb in each room. A hammock in the back room where Juan’s 86 year old grandmother lay whimpering, soon to pass from this life.

Juan took us into his bedroom. He explained that the roof leaked profusely when it rained. He showed us the radio he had built from scratch when he was just a child. He pointed out that there are no computers in their house. No cable television. No telephones. By most standards . . . hopeless.

Juan asked that I bring back a message for the young people of America. With great humility he said, “Please tell the young people that if God can do this in my life, in these conditions, then imagine what he can do through your life.”

Juan’s island is no longer known as the Island of Condemned People. God assures us that “He did not send His Son, Jesus, into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved.” (John 3:17) Because of God working through Compassion International, the local church and young people like Juan Stephen, hope has entered a hopeless world.