“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, English Standard Version).
By Chris Barras
I’ve read James 1:27 many times, and I’ve taught it on it a few occasions. I’ve always found it a difficult text to apply. James says we should care for widows and orphans, but in a young church like the one I serve, I just don’t know any widows. I’m not sure I know any orphans, either. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Clearly, the church is supposed to be about this kind of work, but 2,000 years later, many of us are struggling to figure out how.
I have some good friends, though, who provide a good example for me. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of watching Ken, Ellen, Brian, and Julie live out this passage, and by their example, they planted the seeds for what has become a passionate calling in my life.
Over the past couple of years, the Lord has orchestrated a series of events that have led my wife and me down the road of ministry to widows and orphans in a way we couldn’t have imagined.
We started our church in Richmond, Virginia, in fall 2008 with the vision to love our God, city, and world with a love beyond reason. For us, that means having faith in the midst of doubt and turmoil, having hope in the face of fear, and loving even when it seems unreasonable to do so. Love. Beyond reason.
A big part of this vision is our commitment to being outwardly focused. This idea isn’t unique to us, but we are passionately committed to it. One way we work to stay focused outside of our four walls is by engaging community organizations and asking how we can help them accomplish their goals. One of our community partners is United Methodist Family Services (www.umfs.org), a multifaceted service provider to foster children and orphans. We’ve served with UMFS in a number of ways over the years, and its leaders kept asking us to do more, to get really involved, to leverage our church’s influence for the sake of their kids.
So we did what we could do. I called my friend Janet, who works in our state government, and asked how we could raise awareness of this issue. I contacted friends who had seen incredible things happen on this issue in their own state, and asked for their advice. With every conversation, another brick was laid in the foundation of a movement. And as my wife and I learned more, and were challenged by what we heard, we decided it wasn’t enough to just champion a cause for others to partake in. We knew we needed to start following our friends’ examples and start caring for orphans ourselves.
We signed up for training sessions at a local foster care agency—just to check it out. We weren’t ready to make a commitment, but we figured it couldn’t hurt to become informed. So, we sat through 24 hours of training over six weeks, and were challenged and moved by what we learned.
Some nights we left our training sessions inspired and ready to take on the world. Other nights we left saddened and fearful, wondering if we could ever do this. But we kept coming back, week after week, committed to the journey we believed God had laid out for us.
Through this process, we’ve learned some pretty powerful statistics. We learned in our home state of Virginia there are about 5,800 kids in the foster care system. Of those, about 1,300 are never going home again. That means 1,300 children, through no fault of their own, have been physically and legally separated from their families, and their only chance of having a family of their own (as children) is through adoption.
We also learned there are more than 4,000 churches in Virginia. That means for each child who is waiting, there are nearly four churches. Surely the churches of the state could do something. To really live out James 1:27, it seemed as if churches really needed to get serious about helping these kids. In fact, to fail at this would indicate something was seriously wrong.
As a Christian and a dad, I was convinced I could help these kids through my own family; but as a pastor and a leader, I knew I was called to do more. And with the connections God had laid in my lap, I knew I could do more. I wanted to mobilize our local church and other churches in our state to get involved. I wanted to get so many parents involved that we would have more parents wanting to adopt than kids waiting to be adopted. This seemed like a goal the churches could actually accomplish. So with the help and support of our friends and church family, we launched an initiative called Change Who Waits (www.changewhowaits.org).
In the spring of 2012, Change Who Waits hosted rallies at two local churches to inform people how they could step up for these kids. State and local agencies spoke about the needs in our area, and we talked with foster parents who were already on board and making a difference.
These rallies reached more than 400 people from about 30 different churches. Many of those people made connections with local foster care agencies and signed up for training to become foster or adoptive parents, while others were encouraged and empowered to look for ways to support others along the journey. It was a good start, but we are far from finished. This spring we hosted more rallies in Northern Virginia to challenge more people to step up.
Following the Path
Our friends Gabriel and Amber are doing just that. They began this journey last year, and have been following the path the Lord has for them. They have been praying, “God, you have called us to be parents, so however you want that to happen, just let us know.” While they wait for the Lord to answer that prayer, either with a permanent placement or pregnancy, they are opening their home to short-term care for foster children to provide respite care for other foster parents.
Respite care is a commitment usually of a week or weekend at a time; it is an option that many people don’t even know is possible, but it’s an incredible way for those who want to be involved to love and support other foster families.
So while Gabriel and Amber open their hearts and their home, they wait.
The waiting part is hard. Parenting children who are not your own is hard. (Although, truth be told, parenting your own kids is pretty hard, too.) Dealing with “the system” and its never-ending stream of paperwork is hard. (I tell potential foster parents it’s sort of like filling out the paperwork to buy a house every week!)
Being a child without a family is hard, too. We’re advocating for kids who need loving families, yet these children legally are “wards” of the state. And the state is not a family. It is a government entity. The state does not parent. The state passes and enforces laws. The state does not love. That’s what you and I are called to do.
Answering the Call
So far, a few people in our church have answered the call to foster or adopt. Of course, we hope many more will do so. But not everyone will bring a child into their home. And that’s OK. Not everyone is called to do that. But everyone is called to respond to James’s instruction in some way.
There are many forms that can take. Some people will adopt. Some people will care for a foster child for a period of weeks or months. Other people will provide respite care. Still others will support foster or adoptive families by cooking meals, running errands, or providing child care for an evening. And everyone can pray.
The church can and should rally around its foster/adoptive families, just as we would for any other family in transition. James instructs us to “visit” widows and orphans in their distress, and this can mean many different things. But it cannot mean ignoring the widows and orphans among us.
I believe the church of Jesus Christ is the only institution in our culture with a strong enough calling and a wide enough reach to provide loving homes for all of the kids who are waiting. We can do this. God has called us to care for these kids, a support network is in place, and many of us have the financial resources to make it happen.
The only thing we lack is the will to make it happen. But even that is changing. In Colorado, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, and several other places, the church is waking up to the need and rising up to meet it. We are saying, together, that WE will embrace these kids with a love beyond reason. One church, one family, one child at a time, we are beginning to Change Who Waits. Won’t you join us?