The faith community has long been the cornerstone of many good works and movements throughout U.S. history. From the abolitionist movement in the 1800s that sparked the Civil War to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the pro-life movement, people of faith have often been at the forefront to positive change in America. The orphan care movement is no different.
What is orphan care? It is a movement and network connected by people with a shared faith who are determined to care for children on two fronts. First, it is the realization that there are anywhere between 87 to 147 million orphans across the world that need to be cared for. This number is so unimaginable that it is hard to wrap our minds around! Secondly, it is also the realization that there are nearly a half-million children in foster care, here at home; and that 100,000 of those children are already free for adoption. While most of these children are not orphans, they do have parents whose rights have been legally terminated by the courts. It is the realization that the faith community ought to be ready, willing, and able to care for these kids and need to be at the forefront of this movement.
But orphan care is not merely fostering and adopting kids. It is a network of people who come together to help those who care for children, one at a time. It is the realization that whole families need to be supported in order for them to be successful; that many hands make light work; that tackling a problem as a team is better than doing it alone. Those in the faith community can make a great team.
Four reasons why the faith community is vital for orphans. Houses of faith already have the infrastructure to support foster and adoptive families. This includes building space, financial structure, and a network of committed people who meet at regular times who are willing to assist their fellow congregants for the sake of children. If families who care for orphans need community, then what a great community they can have in their houses of worship! Kids need families and families need community. It’s that simple. Here’s why it is vital.
1. Historical precedent. The faith community has always been at the forefront of caring for children. Examples of this include the 19th-century orphan trains started by Christian Minister Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society. Or take, for example, orphanages around the country both in the U.S. and in England to battle child poverty around the Great Depression. Or foster care agencies like Catholic Charities who work hand in hand with most states around the country trying to find homes for American children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Or take the countless child relief organizations that help children in refugee camps. Or the countless pregnancy resource centers that offer free services, not only for unborn babies, but also for scared and lonely young women who may be facing a crisis pregnancy. Orphan care falls into the same category of caring for children, regardless of their circumstances, regardless of the cost to us.
2. Longevity. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Christian Alliance For Orphans, a study conducted by Barna Research found that Christians are three times more likely to seriously consider fostering, two times more likely to adopt, and stayed in foster care 2.6 years longer when supported by a faith-based agency. This cannot be understated. Because churches and faith-based agencies have natural supports already built in, foster families feel more supported and therefore, last longer as foster parents. Why is this important? It is important because the average amount of time a foster family fosters a child is about one year. The average amount of time a foster child spends in foster care is 1 1/2 years. We not only need more foster homes; we need more homes that stay open for a longer amount of time. A church or a faith-based agency tends to support those of the same faith to accomplish a shared goal.
3. One Child for One Church. Consider this. There are roughly 400,000 churches in America from Baptist to Methodist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian to Catholic, etc. There are roughly 400,000 children in foster care in America, if every church made it their mission to take in one foster child per year, there would be no foster care crisis!
But even if you may say, “Yes, but my church is old, we have very few young people,” that is still not an excuse! Foster care is no longer a young man’s game! More and more grandparents are being called upon to care for their grandchildren. Due to drug and alcohol addiction, more and more young parents are losing custody of their children to their own parents, who may be elderly by now. Wouldn’t it be incumbent upon those parishioners to assist these grandparents, who may have been empty nesters for 10 to 20 years or more?
4. A mandate. For those who hold to Judeo-Christian values, caring for orphans is not an option—it is a mandate. Most religions are called to care for the weakest among us. This includes the poor, the alien, the oppressed, the prisoner, the widow, and the orphan.
In ancient times, there was no government welfare system to take care of the poor—no safety net. If a woman lost her husband, her outlook for the rest of her life was bleak. If a child became an orphan, she could be abused, enslaved, or even sold into prostitution. It was the responsibility of the people of faith to take care of one another, especially children who had no other means of support. The faith community was their safety net!
In the Old Testament, people of faith are called to care for orphans and widows as a command, not a suggestion. The greatest example in the Torah of an adoption was Moses, who, though a Hebrew, was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh. Another example in religious literature of adoption was Esther. Though not in the Torah, this book recounts how a Hebrew servant girl raised by her cousin, Mordecai, rose to become a great and influential woman in the King Xerxes’ household.
The Christian New Testament also implores Christians with an example from James 1:27, which says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Both Jews and Christians have a calling to care for children, whether in their family or not. It is a high calling. It is a mandate.
Eight things the church can do right now! There is a saying in the orphan care community, “Not everyone is called to foster or adopt, but everyone is called to do something.” Foster and adoptive families need a wrap-around system to come alongside them to help along their journey. You can help by doing the following.
1. Pray. Gather a group of people who are willing to pray, not only for the child but also for the foster family who is sacrificing to give that child a better life. Lastly, pray for the birth family, who may be struggling with addiction, homelessness, or mental illness.
2. Provide respite/babysitting. Foster and adopted families tend to be large! Foster/adopt moms tend to feel trapped in their own homes. Give them a break by babysitting and allowing them to just spend a few minutes alone at a coffee shop! Or give a couple a break on their anniversary by giving them a weekend off without the kids! We get vacation time from our jobs, why not foster care? Foster and adoptive parents who get regular breaks last longer as foster parents and disrupt (unplanned moves) children less.
3. Mentor/tutor. That foster child who is running amok in Sunday school may need a little one-on-one time with someone who is not their parent. They just need someone around them who thinks they are special. Can you commit to taking a foster kid out once per month for ice cream? Can you help tutor a child who is struggling in school? This would be a big help not only to the child but also to the mom or dad who has to attend the dreaded Parent-Teacher Conference.
4. Provide meals. The most chaotic time in a foster or adoptive family’s life is the very first week the child arrives. Between preparing sleeping arrangements, car seats, enrolling the child in school, making doctor appointments, and dental appointments, making dinner is sometimes the last thing on mom’s mind! If your church provided three hot meals to a family per week for the first month that family had a new placement, that mom would feel so relieved and would have such a burden lifted!
5. Provide Training. Foster and adopted children are often the most misunderstood children in the church. They often have many behaviors that cause folk to raise a judgmental eyebrow. When that child is having a meltdown, congregants often think, “Oh, it must be that adopted kid.” What that mom needs is a shoulder to cry on, someone who will just listen, and may also need training on trauma. If your house of worship can host a workshop or training on trauma and the effects of adverse childhood experiences, it would go a long way in helping that mom. If a few congregants attended that training, they would have a better understanding of what that mom is going through.
6. Support through gifts in kind. When a foster parent receives a foster child, the call often comes in the middle of the night with no notice whatsoever. That means a foster parent needs to be prepared upon a moment’s notice with car seats, cribs, beds, bedding, and toiletries. As prepared as a foster family may be, there are still those instances where they need items for their child. Wouldn’t it be nice if the church came around to provide these items within a few days from request? It would be one less thing they had to worry about.
7. Support emotionally. Sometimes all a parent needs is a listening, attentive ear. People in the community can be so judgmental, such as in the restaurant, at school, in the grocery store, and yes, even in church. Behaviors of foster and adopted children are so different and sometimes people don’t understand. Often, the foster mom blames herself and feels burdened down with guilt. Having one person at church that listens to you can make all the difference.
8. Start a support group. “Hi, I’m Derek, and I’m a foster parent.” No, a foster parent support group is not exactly like a 12-step program. But the good news is, in a support group you have an instant network! People who know what you are going through will help when times get rough. As a matter of fact, a support group can assist in any number of the ideas listed above. There is strength in numbers!
What happens if faith-based agencies stop doing orphan work? We could debate all night about “the separation of church and state.” That is not my purpose in this article. But imagine if every house of worship shut their doors to children, including adoption, foster care, and children’s relief agencies. What would happen to the kids? What would happen to the world’s orphans, foster children, refugees, children born out of crisis pregnancies, and unaccompanied minors who cross our borders every day? Who would be there to take up the slack? Yes, perhaps the government and other groups may come in to help. But the fact is: the state needs faith-based agencies.
Consider this: in 2011, Illinois passed a law ending its relationship with faith-based agencies. Between 2012 and 2017, Illinois lost 1,547 foster homes, the most significant decrease in any state that reported this data (Foster Care Housing Crisis, _e Chronicle of Social Change, Appendix A at 13-14)! That is what would happen if faith-based agencies closed their doors.
If your house of worship does not support orphans, consider starting an orphan ministry yourself. If your house of worship does support orphans, leave a comment in the comment section below and let me know what specific ministry you have. One way or another, you can make a difference!