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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."

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