The Epidemic of Fatherlessness

“The AIDS epidemic in Africa is huge, but it’s led to an even worse epidemic and that’s children growing up without fathers.”

The words left his mouth and immediately found their home in my heart. With that single sentence a purpose for my life was birthed and a series of profound events in my life were initiated.

Can you imagine a world without AIDS? Can you imagine all the families and communities that have been devastated by this terrible disease becoming fully restored? Can you imagine every person ever infected with HIV being completely healed? I have loved ones that are HIV+ and know people that have passed away from AIDS-related issues. I can tell you the world would be a far better place without HIV/AIDS, immeasurably so.

Yet, if that opening quote is true, there is actually something worse than even a ravaging disease like AIDS. There’s a devastation more horrendous. There’s something that doesn’t just kill the body, but something that kills the soul.

Fatherlessness.

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Perhaps it wouldn’t take much imagination, but consider a child that grows up fatherless. A father speaks identity over his children. A fatherless child grows up not knowing who he is or what purpose he is to serve on earth. A father protects his children. A fatherless child is susceptible to all types of danger and threats. She is insecure, because there is no father there to secure her. A father delights in and takes pride in his children. A fatherless child is pining for attention and to know their value and to know that they are desirable. A father guides, corrects and lays down his life for his children. Without a father, children are inherently meandering around lost; sheep without a shepherd.

Part of our human condition is to get so wrapped up in our own lives that we stop recognizing the needs of others around us. Days, weeks and years go by and we’re consumed with the everyday demands of life; paying the bills, getting the kids to school and having dinner on the table by 5:30. Any moment of pause gets focused on our own needs or those of our closest family. Stopping the grind and considering someone else’s needs or lending a hand is often out of sight, out of mind and hence left undone.

It’s no wonder that over and over in scripture God had to break through and tell his people directly that caring for the fatherless (and widows) was something that they are mandated to do.

“Take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Acceptable religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27 paraphrase)
“Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Exodus 22:22)
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” (Psalm 82:3)
“The aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:29)

What do these scriptures really mean to you though? If you ever have an “orphan care guy” roll through your church, they always make sure everyone knows the biblical basis for orphan care. My fear is that they just get glossed over though. We understand that the cause of the orphan is important to God, but typically have no tangible work among them. Nor do we desire to begin one, or adopt a child in need. But if we are merely hearers of the word and do nothing with it, what do we profit?

What if the orphan care guy instead walks in with an actual orphan? What if in a Sunday service, he’s able to show the child’s heart to the congregation? He shows the insecurity, the fear, the directionless. He shows that the child, just wants to be wanted. He shows that the child is needing a name, needing an identity. Would our hearts then be moved?

The thing about epidemics is that they spread organically. Someone coughs, spits or bleeds and those around them are now at risk. One person’s sickness leads to another person’s sickness. That’s how it works among the fatherless as well.

Fatherlessness begets fatherlessness. It spreads and can devastate entire populations. tweet this

That’s what’s happened in Africa and in complete honesty has happened through the entire world.

What is it that ends an epidemic? Intent. Caring people draw a line and say it ends here and from that point, they push back the tide. Such intent is indeed costly. It may cost you everything you have. You might have to throw out all the plans that you had for your life. You might have to empty your bank account. You might have to take that perfect little family picture that you had and go to great lengths just to wreck it.

But in so doing, we stamp out this devastating epidemic that has claimed far too many lives already.

Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness? Can you imagine every child in the world with a last name that means something to them? Can you imagine every boy and girl being secured within the love of a father that went to great lengths to claim them as his own? Can you imagine children off the streets, out of orphanages and into homes where the head of the family loves, guides, corrects and trains the children up in the way that they should go? Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness?

 

Keep building.

 

 

*The opening quote was from the preacher Mike Pilavachi in a sermon he gave at my church on Father’s Day 2007. This was the day that I first felt called to work among orphans in Africa.

Designs for Orphan Care (Part 2)

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If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, I recommend it before getting in to this post. Click.

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He was the kind of guy that asked pointed questions. He already ‘knew’ the answer before he asked you your opinion. We were having dinner with him and his wife a few years ago and knowing that we worked at an orphanage, I imagine he was thinking we were quite enamored with that form of orphan care. Global-Effect had just started a program called Kimbilio Families which was seeking to put orphaned kids into families and he pointedly asked me what I thought. I told him, “I think it’s great, I think if you get it to work, it’s the best situation.” He was taken aback and disarmed.

For me, this has been a process and I think that some of the people that know the downsides to the orphanages, are the ones that have worked at the orphanages. We had our former director over for coffee a few months ago and when we told her that we had taken over Kimbilio Families (and since renamed it Kingdom Families), she said “I’ll be praying for you, that’s the best situation if you can find good parents.” Another American friend that runs a local orphanage was talking to me about how one of their younger boys really would be better suited in a home with a Tanzanian couple that are mutual friends of ours. One of the pastors that we partner with currently was the assistant director at the orphanage with me, and he, as a Tanzanian, has come to believe in this model as well.

Though the families model isn’t really utilized on a large scale in Kilimanjaro, those that are involved in orphanages are the ones that know more than most that it is the best situation for an orphan.

The recurring question in all of this isn’t should Tanzanian orphans be raised in Tanzanian families. The question is, how do you implement it and find parents that will do it for love and not for the support money?

Admittedly implementing such a model comes with it’s own set of challenges. We, in fact, are currently working through many of those ourselves. While our program has been active for a few years, it’s still entirely in it’s infancy. Now that we’ve stepped into the director role, we’re starting to wrestle with things that have yet to be resolved. So as we go through these items and compare the families model to the orphanage system, I confess that I don’t have all the answers and am writing this as a way to add to the larger conversation within Christian orphan care.

One of the difficulties that Melissa and I are coming to grips with is the lessened amount of control that we have over our ministry. For an American missionary, an orphanage is the supreme amount of control. There are of course elements such as government regulations that are out of one’s control. But nonetheless, you have say over where money is spent, who is employed at the orphanage, how the kids eat, sleep, study and all those things. The American director gets the final say on everything. Whereas with our ministry, we only get final say on some large picture things and the normal day to day, week to week decisions fall to the Tanzanian parent that we’ve entrusted the kids to. This is a burden for us to bear, because we like having control. We love having control.

But this is a necessary part to the process. We do this by faith and trust. We believe that the outcome for the child is better. I am not adopting these children. They are born in Tanzania, they live their entire lives in Tanzania, they will die in Tanzania. They ought to learn life directly from a Tanzanian in a truly Tanzanian environment. It’s our responsibility to choose parents that have a heart for orphan care, a father’s heart, a mother’s heart and that they’ll do this for love and for the sake of the gospel. My title says director, but I’m more of a facilitator. My team and I facilitate these relationships so that the parents become the heroes to these children.

Because there is a lessened amount of control by facilitating these families, we really rely on our national partners to help with oversight. For Kingdom Families, all families come through churches/pastors that have chosen to partner with us. Therefore we have national leaders set up to help us with oversight. These men and their wives are in the lives of these families on a normal basis and can communicate with us how they’re doing and what they might be in need of. We of course have relationship with them ourselves and do visits to the homes and see how things are going. Even with that though we rely on our Tanzanian liaison and assistant, Meshak. These partnerships are key. Remember that we want these kids to have a quintessential Tanzanian upbringing. It’s normal for your pastor to visit or your “honorary uncle” Meshak, but it’s not typical to have a couple white people swing in all the time and take pictures of your kids (which we nonetheless have to do periodically).

This is all about empowerment. To the best of our ability, we want the nationals within our ministries to become empowered, not dependent. This is their calling, not their vocation. We do offer financial aid to our families. We will not do this with each and every family going forward but for those we have now, they receive it. It’s a road that we are walking and trying to find the balance. Our hope and plan is to increase the income of the families as much as possible and enter into agreements where they understand within 3-5 years, the support will either be gone as they’ve become entirely self-dependent, or be diminished as they’ve become more self-dependent. I say that because that’s our plan, not because we’ve yet to achieve this. We have to have a plan for making these families self-sustained because that will be the most secure thing for the children.

American support is important with starting out these families and it’s a role that our overseas partners can play. While our hope is to over time transition families out of support, even for the time that they do receive support, it’s a fraction of what it costs to run an orphanage. American run orphanages require a lot of money just for normal expenditures, several thousand a month for a medium sized orphanage. They need that money to run a good operation. If an orphanage doesn’t have that kind of money, then the children and the facility languish. By partnering with families, we have a set amount that is agreed upon (two sponsors of $50 per kid per month) which provides the family with money for food and normal day to day and we have the money to cover the school fees which can vary depending on what level and what school the child attends. Imagine 20 kids in such a program. $2,000 divided between 40 donors gets 20 kids all that they need and most importantly they’re in a loving Christian home. All parties would be happy as the family has the means to love and care for the orphans, the child knows what it means to be a son or daughter and the ministry is consistently in the black.

The thing in all of this is that we don’t want the kid to know that they’ve been orphaned. I’m not saying that the kids will forget their past, but rather when they play with the kids next door they aren’t going to feel, act or be seen any different at all. Most importantly, they’ll have parents that love them and teach them about God. As a Christian, this is very important to me.

Some of my non-Christian friends reading this will not agree and I totally understand your disagreement. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I want to be clear in communicating that I love Jesus and I want the children that we care for to know who He is, what He’s done for them and what His plans are for them. That’s why we partner specifically with churches.

Last week, I took a tour of a 75-kid orphanage here in Moshi. They strive for excellence in what they do and I appreciate the good they’re doing in the area. It was nice talking with their communications director as she showed us around. The property was astounding. Huge dormitories, mess hall, playground and field, classrooms and other facilities that showed they had all their bases covered. They have kids that hear about their orphanage and hitch rides clear across the country to come knock on their gates. Astounding. This is the orphanage of orphanages.

While I oohed and awed over their facility, I asked lots of questions, hopefully not the pointed questions of my friend, but I was certainly curious. Because I’d rather see kids in homes as opposed to an orphanage, there were several things that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with them on, but the thing that bummed me out most was the children’s spiritual lives. The original founder received support from her church and others so that they can start this orphanage, but now they don’t help the kids know Christ. If a kid wants to go to church, they can. If they want to go to Mosque or go nowhere at all, they can. It bummed me out as I would see that as an opportunity for gospel exposure. You can’t force the gospel, when you do , it doesn’t work. Every human being has the choice of what they believe, but as an evangelical Christian, which I am in the basic meaning of the term, my hope is that children would know the Lord and hence have to be told about Him. I wonder if this is what the original founder had in mind.

Discipleship makes the wheels go round in Christianity and orphan care is a critical form of discipleship. This is how my family makes disciples of the nations. With any form of discipleships and ministry, we have to have times where we take a good long look at what we’re doing. Is it effective? Is it God’s ideal? Is it biblical? I hope that this blog series has challenged some of your thoughts on orphan care and spurred you on to take a step forward as you strive to care for the least of these.

I have been blessed to serve orphans in Tanzania, both in the orphanage and now within Kingdom Families. My heart in all of this is that kids would know love. They’d know the love of a family and the love of God. Join what God’s doing in orphan care, wherever you are and in whatever ways the Lord calls you.

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If this conversation has intrigued you, I encourage you to keep learning and most importantly, start acting. If you live on the central coast, I highly recommend the Welcoming Children Home Conference on November 8. I’ll be teaching a workshop on this exact topic and the keynote speaker for the day is Johnny Carr who wrote Orphan Justice which I also highly recommend. Comments, shares, likes and emails are always welcome. Blessings.

Designs for Orphan Care (Part 1)

752038128_78eae2f64d_zI was reading in the book of Ezra the other day and though I’ve read the book several times, I came across a story in chapter 3 that really struck me like never before. The Persian king Cyrus had commissioned a large group of Israelites to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few generations prior. As the captives that returned to Israel established the foundation of the new temple, a time of worship broke out in the community.

“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout and the sound was heard afar off.”

I had to get out my commentary to confirm why I thought the old men were weeping over the foundation. Mr. Halley agreed, the old men in remembering God’s design for Solomon’s temple, wept that the temple they were now building would not match the grandeur of God’s design for the house of worship. Many people shouted for joy as formal worship of the LORD was being restored and there was all kinds of hoopla, yet still there were those that remembered the superiority of God’s design and in some ways were disappointed that the community was no longer at that level.

As I’ve journeyed with caring for orphans in Tanzania, I feel as though I’ve aged. It’s been five years now since I accepted the job at Treasures of Africa. When I first started I exuberantly told everyone, “this is my dream job.” I was one of those worshipers that when the foundation was laid, I rejoiced and shouted and worshiped. I was in love with working there and knew that it was where God had called me. It absolutely was where God had called me for the three years I was committed there. I grew in faith and I grew in love. I’m so grateful for the leaders that gave me such an opportunity. I was given an insightful look into these kids’ lives, their backgrounds and their specific needs as they came out of traumatic experiences. By welcoming them to the children’s home they were shown love, they were provided for and were able to rest and recover from the blows that orphan life had left them.

Beyond learning about the needs of the kids, I also had an insiders view of how the best orphanage in Moshi was run. I say it’s the best not only because the physical needs of the children are met and they have a clean, safe environment in which to grow up, but because the leaders of the orphanage were very godly people. The kids heard and received the gospel, which to me is most important.

From that insiders view, I have also learned the downsides to the orphanage system. It would be easy for me to look at government orphanages in Eastern Europe or the poorly funded, poorly supervised orphanages here in East Africa, but I’ve actually seen the downsides to the very best orphanages around. I’ve aged. I’ve become one of those old men that weeps as the foundation is laid and remember that God’s design was and is far superior.

As I’ve been working through all these things in my head over the last year since we’ve returned, I find myself needing to temper what I say. I personally invested so much in the orphanage system and even more so because I have close friends that are currently ministering in orphanages and most importantly I have a group of twenty-six kids that I love a whole lot that live at a children’s home. The difficulty in navigating what I write and hence other people read is that in critiquing the orphanage system of orphan care, I am critiquing the most common form of orphan care in the world. In many contexts, it’s the only form of care for these kids. Because of all this, it tends to be the type of ministry that you, me and everyone else has supported if you’ve been involved in the biblical mandate to care for orphaned children.

There are two designs here that I’m looking at and I in no way want to come across as heavy-handed, pugnacious or cold. I feel the exact opposite towards the orphanage system. I think that it can have it’s role in caring for orphans, but we often see it as the end all in millions of instances and I don’t think that’s good. So the two designs, I humbly submit, is God’s design (Solomon’s temple) and man’s design (the temple in Ezra 3).

So, in a nutshell, what are those two designs? As Johnny Carr says “man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” Now that is a pretty strong opinion, I confess. What I’d like to do today is just look at a few themes that we see in the Bible concerning this conversation.

The first thing that we must understand is the fact that the Bible, both testaments, speak a lot to caring for orphans. In the giving of the Law to God’s people in the Old Testament, caring for orphans was something that was expected of each and every individual. In Deuteronomy, God hammers a group of people into the minds of the Israelite community: the widow, the stranger and the fatherless. It was God’s chosen people that were expected to care for the needs of these people. If you read chapter 24 in particular, you’ll see God commanding Israel to preserve justice for the fatherless and also provide them with food from the people’s own crops. It was a commandment, not an option.

God demanded that of His people, because they are to be His reflection and hence maintain His own character. They were to administer justice for the fatherless, because He administers justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18). They were to help the orphan, because He is the helper of the orphan (Psalm 10:14). And in keeping in step with who He is, God’s people are to father the fatherless, because that’s who He is (Psalm 68:5).

In the New Testament, we see a core spiritual truth about who we are in Christ applied in these same terms. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father’ and in Romans 8, Paul teaches us that we have been adopted as children of God. If we were adopted by God, that means that there was a point when we ourselves were orphans too. God was gracious and brought us into His family.

In Christian practice, just as I spoke to a moment ago, what we see God do, we ought to do ourselves. We love because He first loved us. We are commanded to be holy just as the Lord is holy. We give, because He gave it all for us. So if God in his generosity, compassion and righteousness, adopted us orphans into His family, what does that mean for us when we consider these kids that also need a family?

In the beginning, God established the family. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply (read, have lots of kids). This was God’s first design, He had a family in mind as the ones that would take care of the earth and expand the garden.

This is just a really quick overview of what the Bible says in regards to orphan care and God’s design for adoption and family. Nonetheless, we can gather a few things from just understanding this text. If you were to read the Bible, then be presented with the plight of millions of orphaned children, would you gather that all you need to do is establish an orphanage? The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t do that and it wasn’t until the legalization of Christianity a few centuries after Christ, that Christians started to do it.

I propose that there is a better way. God’s original design was for children to be in families. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can get back to that design and see orphans receive what they need most of all, the love of a godly father and mother.

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Click here to read Part 2 where we’ll talk about some of the practicalities and difficulties that are presented through both the orphanage system and the families model. If you found this post interesting and something to be considered, then I’d appreciate you sharing it. These are conversations within the church that need to take place and every single one of us has a role to play. Not all are called to adopt, but all are called to do something.