By Brian Mavis
In 2004, 39 people gathered in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the first Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit. This year more than 2,500 people drove and flew from 49 states (what’s up, Vermont?) and more than 20 countries to Brentwood, Tennessee, to attend the annual summit. In just nine years, the orphan care ministry has widened, deepened, and become a legitimate movement.
The foster/adoption/orphan problem is huge and complex; there are more than 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. Of those, adoption is an available option for 120,000. Every year about 40,000 foster children become too old to be in the foster care system (age 18), having never lived in a stable family. Of that group, more than 80 percent will struggle with addiction, unemployment, homelessness, jail, or teen pregnancy.
Christians are moving upstream, downstream, and joining hands to respond to this crisis. The Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) unites nearly 150 organizations and a national network of churches to escalate the engagement and effectiveness of the church to “take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). These ministries are assisting with efforts to adopt and to provide foster care and global orphan care.
Adoption assistance, for example, is provided by financial ministries like the MICAH Fund (Minority Infant and Children Adoption Help), which provides financial assistance for adoptive parents in Minnesota, and the ABBA Fund, which provides interest-free loans to Christian couples who are adopting. Some organizations support birth moms, like Birthmother Ministries Inc., and there are international ministries like Lifesong for Orphans, which creates in-country orphan care solutions for more than 2,500 orphans in Zambia, India, Ukraine, Liberia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Ministries like Safe Families have gone upstream to intervene before a child enters the foster care system. The success of Safe Families in Cook County, Illinois, is notable; there are 1,100 kids in foster care, but 900 more kids in Safe Families. Safe Families works with at-risk families to help keep children out of foster care. (Every child who does not go into foster care, or who is routed out of foster care, saves the county $30,000 annually.) And organizations like FaithBridge Foster Care equip churches to provide effective solutions for children who are in foster care. A ministry called Royal Family Kids provides foster children (ages 6-12) with a life-changing camp experience, and the Teen Leadership Foundation offers support and guidance for teens prior to their being “aged out” of the foster care system.
The ministries mentioned above are just a small sampling of how orphan care is growing wider in order to meet the great and complicated needs of orphans.
The foster/adoption/orphan care ministry has not just gotten wider; it has gotten deeper. It is interested in bearing good fruit by taking seriously Paul’s plea and prayer, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:9, 10). Good intentions are not good enough. We must love wisely and to good effect.
The heart of the foster/adoption/orphan care ministry has been clarified and deepened by people like Jedd Medefind (president of CAFO), who says the Christian’s motivation is neither the world’s needs nor a good cause, but because we have been loved by God. Children are not a project or cause. They are a life made in the image of God, created to love and be loved. The fruit that comes from the root of love is far greater than anything you get from the root of a cause, or guilt, or duty.
This ministry has also deepened theologically. As Russell Moore (president-elect of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention) has taught, the call to care for orphans is a call to risk, a call to cross-bearing. If we aren’t grounded in theology, we run the risk of just being sentimental about the plight of the orphan. We must crucify our fear of risk.
One of the results of loving wisely and to good effect is that Christians are switching from building orphanages to emptying orphanages. Orphanages are institutions. Institutions create dependent, institutionalized people.
Stephen Ucembe grew up in an orphanage after he witnessed the beheading of his mom when he was 10 years old. He was never hugged or told he was loved. He told his audience at this year’s CAFO Summit that the pain of losing a loving parent isn’t as painful as living without one. “What is best for orphans?” he asked. “What would be best for your kids? Would you like your kids to be raised in an institution?”
Robert Glover, founder of Care for Children, said a young girl drove it home for him when she told him, “When I was in the orphanage, I was a caterpillar. Now that I’m in a family, I am a butterfly.”
Well-intentioned Christians in America have supported orphanages, and in emergency and temporary situations, orphanages are necessary. But shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to empty orphanages, not build, fill, and sustain them? In countries like Uganda, the church is the main producer of orphanages, but more countries, like Rwanda, are being led by churches to move all its orphans out of orphanages and into family based care.
Becoming a Movement
Just over 10 years ago, Gary Schneider was attending a church in Kalingalinga, Zambia. He was moved by the pastor’s plea to care for orphans in the community. Even though church members were deeply impoverished, they gave what they had—food, money, and their own shoes—as an offering to help orphans.
Schneider was so stirred that he began to help pastors coordinate “Orphan Sunday” efforts across Zambia. In 2003, Orphan Sunday crossed the Atlantic and spread to the U.S. And as of last year, this gift from Africa swelled to 39 countries. There’s no telling how many places it will go this year.
The church—individual Christians—can be a part of the solution. Be a part of the movement. Movements work, but they need workers to succeed. Movements don’t just magically appear, they need vision, leadership, money, sustainability, and endurance. Join what God is already doing and help create and grow this movement.
You can begin this journey by participating in this year’s Orphan Sunday, November 3, and see where God moves you from there.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.