“If you build it, they will come.”

My director Ryan and I were meeting at a local restaurant recently just talking and catching up on life. As we sat there, a guy that Ryan knows approached us. He asked if we would be there for a little while as he wanted to go get his boss to come speak with Ryan. The boss was visiting Moshi and was staying in one of the rooms in the adjoining hotel. We weren’t going anywhere just yet, so ten minutes later the man came up with his American boss. He was eager to speak with Ryan about a plot of land Global-Effect owns in a village about a hour away. He asked Ryan about title deeds, working with government offices and the like. He asked what Global-Effect is going to use the land for and so on. He’s interested because he has also bought land in the same village. Ryan, in turn, asked them what they plan to do with their land.

“We’re going to build an orphanage.”

My heart sank. Ryan swallowed deep and smiled at him then gave me a concerning look. In an area where Global-Effect has begun empowering the community and an orphanage-less village can quickly capture a biblical model for orphan care, another American wants to establish another orphanage in another African village.

You want to hear something offensive? Kids shouldn’t grow up in orphanages. >>tweet this<<

Does that offend you? One of the hardest things for me to bear in my ministry is living out that statement alongside SO MANY people, friends of mine, that have started or run orphanages in Kilimanjaro. It can be very uncomfortable at times. I am not writing this to put anyone on blast, because these are great people, people that I look up to. As I followed up and emailed that American gentleman, I made sure he knew that I appreciate his heart in wanting to help. I really do.

The difficult thing is that we’ve run out of imagination. We’ve been establishing orphanages for so long, we don’t know what else to do. I’ve spoken with government officials in Tanzania that have told me placing children in families instead of orphanages is a new approach. Granted, it’s not actually new, kids have been raised in families since the dawn of time. But as a response to the modern poverty and AIDS-induced orphan crisis, this is a new approach.

I’d be lying if I said that paternalism doesn’t plays a role in all of this. Tanzania was previously a German, then a British colony. Over the last 55 years since independence, Tanzanians have been sovereign, but many of the perspectives between Tanzanians and westerners have changed very little. We have westerners that say, “oh, I should take care of that child” and Tanzanians that say “oh, they should take care of my child.” That happens. That happens often.

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Remember that movie, Field of Dreams? It has that classic line “If you build it, he will come.”Kevin Costner gets this divine calling and knows that he must begin the irrational task of building a baseball field in a cornfield. In so doing, ‘he’ will come. Thereafter Shoeless Joe Jackson, a bunch of Hall of Famers and ultimately his dad show up as ghosts and play on the field. I think of that line, when it comes to orphanages.

If you build an orphanage, you will be able to fill it up with children. You can get that institution up to capacity in no time. I’m not saying the kids should be there, I’m just saying they would come. The welfare office might send some, the community will send some, relatives of a child will send some. You’ll fill it up in no time.

Let me share a story that’s close to home for me. It’s about Moses.

My son was fatherless at birth. Whoever his biological father was, he never stood up. Tragically, Moses’ biological mother passed away from meningitis when he was only a month old. His family of origin, three days after his mother’s passing, brought Moses to the social welfare department. The social welfare department signed off and boom, he was in an orphanage. The relatives signed that they would come and take Moses on his third birthday to return to his family. But eight years after he was dropped off, Moses remained at the orphanage and experienced all the heartbreak of being an orphan left in an institution.

All of a sudden, God puts it on Melissa’s heart and subsequently mine that Moses is to be our son. He should no longer be an orphan. We got the process started with the orphanage directors who had faithfully prayed that Moses would get into a family. We’re so thankful for them. After that, we contacted a lawyer and we were on our way. One of the important pieces we needed was the consent of the family of origin. I thank God that we have a good relationship with the majority of Moses’ biological family, but that part of the process was the most maddening.

In the process of adopting Moses, we visited with various family members in four different homes in the area. Of those homes and the people that resided in each, I would say that three of those homes would have been more than suitable for an elementary boy to be raised. In fact, there were already kids there, relatives of Moses.

It was Moses’ destiny to be a part of our family and I would never have it any other way. But on a systemic level, this is very upsetting. Moses is not the only one either. I know other children that live in orphanages that have biological family that are able to care for them. And yet it doesn’t happen. That sin, unless confessed and repented of, is on those families. But it comes back to us as well, if we are feeding into a system that exacerbates fatherlessness.

From an American standpoint, this orphanage building is rather mind-blowing. Don’t you find it ironic that we go overseas and build and run orphanages, when in our own country we don’t allow them anymore? There was a time in our country’s history when there were American orphanages, but people realized it wasn’t a good system and did away with it. Wouldn’t it, then, make more sense to promote fostering and adoption in the majority world?

In wrapping up a blog like this, I feel as though I’m obligated to give some sort of disclaimer or caveat about all this, but it’s my unapologetic view that no child should grow up in an orphanage. There is foster care, adoption, kinship care and other alternatives that are not only more natural, but they are better in every way. Instead, of celebrating every time an orphanage is built, we should celebrate when an orphanage is shut down because all the kids got into families.*

Keep building.

———–

*Further reading: I highly, highly recommend Orphan Justice by Johnny Carr, specifically his chapter on orphanages. I definitely pulled from his work in this post, specifically the last line and the final two paragraphs. It is my favorite book on orphan care and will alter unbiblical and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors we have concerning orphans.

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Author: Brandon Stiver

I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, living and working in Moshi, Tanzania. My wife is named Melissa and we have three children: Moses, Promise and Shepherd. We are directors over an orphan care ministry called Kingdom Families; advocating for the needs of orphans and vulnerable children and assisting families to welcome them into their homes as sons and daughters.

6 thoughts on ““If you build it, they will come.””

  1. I do missionary work in Haiti and have experienced similar frustrations. I am not involved in or with orphanages to the same degree as you are though. In Haiti, the parents love their children, but due to extreme poverty, they give up their children to orphanages to give them a better chance at life. Hoping that someday, they’ll be able to get them back.The parents hearts are broken when they have to give them up as a last resort. It’s very sad to see. I know there are cases where the parents have died or have given them up for other sinful reasons, but this is not the norm. Where you are, what is the number 1 reason the kids are in an orphanage. Are they mostly true orphans? Have they been abandoned? Is it due to extreme poverty? Lack of education? Sinful ways? If someone worked with the parents to be able to take better care (be it financially or through education) of their children, do you think they would keep them? Would it make a difference?

    1. Thanks so much writing and engaging Isabelle. And thank you for the work that you’re doing in Haiti. In Tanzania, there are certainly social orphans as well like you described, kids given up by parents due to poverty. In such cases, intervention before the family gets to that point would certainly be necessary. There are programs that I know of that focus on that. I know Bring Love In in Ethiopia has a program called Keep One Home and it’s specifically addressing prevention of social orphans. Through some combination of financial support, sponsorship and vocational training we can help parents not get to that point. We can help them right the ship.

      In Tanzania, it’s all of those you mentioned. The kids that I know are mixture of all those things, abandonment, families that give them up for whatever reason. There are double orphans, single orphans, the whole gamut. I would say the number one reason they are brought to the orphanage is because someone that brought them (typically a family member) has convinced the social welfare department that there are no other options. The social welfare considers orphanages a last resort, but they default to that last resort very quickly. Prevention programs would make a difference and it’s something I’d like to get into as Kingdom Families progresses. Thanks for writing and continuing the conversation.

      1. In Haiti, there’s an organization named the ApParent Project (http://www.apparentproject.org/) where the goal is to keep the children with the parents. They offer vocational training with employment. They have an onsite daycare centre so parents can rest knowing their children are safe while at work. These parents are very proud of the work they are doing and are now able to care for themselves as well as their family. Most of them have been able purchase their own home and become self-sufficient. It’s a beautiful place full of happy people full of hope. I encourage you to visit the website. You might find inspiration there. Maybe something you see or read will give you some ideas that would work in Tanzania.
        I find it encouraging to read your opinion on orphanages. It’s with this perspective that number of orphans will decrease. It’s with this perspective that a solution will be found. It’s a difficult situation that requires a difficult solution. It will take a long time to solve it. But it’s with people like you that it will be solved. One child and one family at a time. If God is on your side, who will stand against you?

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