Reflections on Orphan Sunday

Yesterday was Orphan Sunday.  I am grateful that we set aside a day to reflect on our responsibility to care for the fatherless and the orphan.  Personally I am a big proponent of adoption.  Both of my brothers are adopted from foster care and I grew up with many foster children coming and going from my house.  I knew the joy of having new “brothers and sisters” and I knew the sadness of loss when they would leave, often without saying goodbye.  My wife and I have also worked in a group home setting, caring for at risk children and youth.  Adoption and foster care are beautiful things that the body of Christ should be involved in.

That being said, I also struggle with the way we perceive orphan care.  Maybe its just my little corner of the world, but it seems like our discussions of orphan care are too often exclusively framed from the perspective of western adoption.  We talk as if we can solve the global orphan problem by adopting all of them.  The reality is there are only 115,000 orphans in the USA and we cannot even eradicate this problem with adoption so how on earth will we ever care for the 153 million orphans globally?  Do we stop to realize that the number of orphans globally is almost 50% of the entire population of the United States?Adoption can and must be part of the solution, but lets not kid ourselves it will only be a very small part.

Another way we advocate caring for orphans is to build orphanages. While I am a big supporter of adoption I am not a huge proponent of orphanages.  Why not?  We stopped operating orphanages in the United States a long time ago.  We did so because we realized that children are much better off in a family environment not an institutional one. When we stopped putting kids in orphanages we switched to foster care.  Even with foster care we prioritize returning children to their biological families, if possible, because we believe that this is best.  If we believe this is what is best for North American children why do we not advocate for the same treatment of orphans globally?

Personally, I believe the best approach to orphan care begins with the manifest presence of Christ in a given community, the local church.  What if our approach centered around empowering local churches among the poor and disenfranchised to care for those around them?  (This is the approach we take at Living Bread Ministries.)  What if the first thing we did was to partner with local churches in helping poor families (mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles) care for their own children.  Rather than giving the poor incentives to abandon their children, what if we helped them care for their own?  When this is not possible what if we invested in equipping local believers to care for the orphans among them and even gave some resources to help make this possible?  It’s my experience that poor indigenous churches and individual believers are more than willing to care for the orphans in their midst, but they lack basic resources to do so.  Once these two avenues are exhausted or in cases where they are not an option then western adoption becomes the final piece to the puzzle.

I realize there are many hurdles to overcome with this approach.  However, its worth the hard work to make a real impact on the orphan crisis.  We cannot continue to function as if western adoption is the answer.  In 2012 US parents adopted 8,668 children through international adoption (8,668 of 153 million). These numbers have dropped consistently because of tightening regulations globally.  Clearly, we need a multifaceted approach and I believe the one I have shared is worthy of consideration.  What do you think?

My Concern with the Adoption Movement

Since the title of this post is sure to lead to assumptions and possible misunderstandings let me begin with my affirmation of adoption.  Adoption is central to understanding the gospel.  Christ died, not simply to secure my ticket to heaven, but to reconcile me to God; that is to restore my relationship to God through adoption.  In Christ I am a son and as a son a co-heir with Christ.  The adoption of orphans is a beautiful picture of this, much like marriage is a picture of our relationship with Christ.

Furthermore, though I did not grow up in a Christian home my parents were foster parents and provided a safe home for many children over the years.  They eventually adopted both of my brothers out of foster care and provided them the same upbringing and opportunities they provided their biological children.  For this reason I have financially contributed to friends who are seeking to adopt.  As you can see, I am a fan of adoption.

After reading the above you may be thinking, “What possibly could this guy be concerned about rescuing orphans he’s seen the need and fruit first hand?”  This is true, but I have seen something else firsthand.  You see, I lead a ministry that plants churches among the global poor.  I’ve seen poverty up close and personal; desperate poverty.  The type of poverty that leads, primarily women, to do the unthinkable; to abandon or even sell their children.  Our immediate response to this is shock and horror because we’ve never been that desperate.  Rest assured, if you spend enough nights listening to the children you love so dearly crying from hunger and seeing other children die of hunger, as a mother, you might gain a different perspective.  You might begin to see this as the height of sacrificial love.

This brings us to my concern.  Maybe I have just missed it but I don’t hear enough talk from adoption advocates (primarily international adoption) regarding the building up of poor families among the global poor so that we can reduce the need for adoption.  I hear much about the need to make great sacrifices to rescue children, including the great financial cost, but I don’t hear much about making the same sacrifices, including financial, to aid poverty stricken mothers and families so they can raise their children.  I won’t speculate as to why.

Please don’t misunderstand, there is and will continue to be great need for the Western church to adopt children.  The AIDS epidemic and other diseases as well as wars and natural disasters will always create orphans.  I praise the efforts of those championing the cause of orphans globally.  I’m just asking the leaders of the movement to consider two things.

  1. Take a balanced approach and advocate for poor mothers and families to care for their children.  Call on the Western church to take this aspect of the orphan problem seriously and to demonstrate their seriousness with financial investment.
  2. Consider the importance of indigenous Christians in confronting this humanitarian tragedy.  The church is growing by leaps and bounds in the global south and they too care about orphans.  We have realized the significance of working with indigenous pastors as we seek to expand the kingdom of God globally.  We need to consider the potential of unleashing the church in the global south to care for the orphans among them.  It has been my experience that the willingness is there but what is often lacking is the financial resources.  We can help with that.  What if we began to equip indigenous Christians with the necessary discipleship and financial resources to care for the orphans among them.

After we have done these two things the numbers of children needing to be adopted by Westerners might be drastically reduced and, long term, far more children could be helped.  Maybe I’m out of touch and we are already doing what I have described above.  Do you think my concern is valid or am I just worrying for no reason?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.