See more of the story

The Rev. Tom Pfotenhauer landed in Bangladesh last month with a stack of about 400 photographs of his church members and friends in Minnesota.

Over the course of the next two days, an equal number of Bangladeshi children would select one of those photos as their "sponsor" to support them and their community in the years ahead.

It's a new twist on child sponsorship programs, which typically involve the sponsor choosing the child from an online list of available children. Pfotenhauer, pastor at Woodbury Lutheran Church, said letting the children pick the person was "empowering" for them.

"Why did it take so many years to figure this out?" said Pfotenhauer, referring to World Vision's new Chosen program. "It was incredible seeing the children's faces as they chose a photo."

Woodbury Lutheran was among six churches nationwide that participated in the Chosen program this fall, said Holly Frew, a public relations manager at World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid organization based in Washington state. The project is just getting off the ground, she said, and is slated to expand in the year ahead.

Pfotenhauer said his church was invited this summer to be a starter congregation because of its relationship with World Vision's running team. When World Vision told church leaders about the program, "it grabbed our hearts right away," he said. "We said, 'Let's go for it.' "

The arrangement calls for sponsors to send $39 a month for the child until the child is 18 years old, said Frew. The money will be used to support the entire community with food, housing and health care, she said, but sponsors will be able to write and receive updates from their children.

The pastors at the three Woodbury Lutheran campuses decided to keep the project quiet until Sept. 1. That's when they announced the plan. Staff set up photo booths next to signs saying, "Sign up to be Chosen."

Nearly 400 families and individuals, young and old, stood behind the cameras and smiled.

Later that Sunday, the three clergy — Pfotenhauer, the Rev. John Kuehne and the Rev. Dean Donavan — carried those photos as they boarded a plane to Bangladesh. A few days later, they found themselves in the crowded streets of Tongi, a town southwest of the capital city of Dhaka.

On one of the streets, World Vision had erected an enormous tent. It was strung with clothesline in the front and rows of folding chairs filled with children and parents in the back. The Woodbury photos were attached to the lines with clothes pins. The children — one by one — slowly approached the smiling faces.

"They'd kind of look back at their moms and make sure it was OK," recalled Pfotenhauer.

After choosing a sponsor, the children sat at a table with World Vision staff, who asked them why they chose the sponsor and took photos of them holding the sponsors' pictures. Both would be sent back to Minnesota with the pastors.

"It was really emotional," said Pfotenhauer, recalling the children's expressions. "They'd say things like, 'You remind me of my grandma,' or 'I like your hair.' "

The Woodbury pastors flew home after two days, exhausted but in time for their "big reveal" on the weekend of Sept. 28. That's when the sponsors learned who picked them.

Sarah Dibburn, a children's minister at the church, was among those opening an envelope with the photo of her child. Turns out Dibburn was the first person chosen and it was by a 6-year-old girl named Habiba.

"The letter said she chose me because she liked my smile and I was pretty," said Dibburn, touched by the words.

"A lot of time we go to these Third World countries and pick and choose who we want," she said. "This tells children that just because they have less, they aren't less."

Pfotenhauer said he and his church will continue to sponsor children in other countries, with other nonprofits. "But this was a wonderful opportunity right in front of us to fulfill the mission of the church," he said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511