Orphan care is far bigger than adoption. If the church is going to care for the fatherless, we eventually will find our way upstream into broken families to fight sin at the headwaters.
Orphan care has been the topic of many conversations within the local church over the last decade. By God’s grace, many families and churches have stepped into ministries of foster care and adoption. Foster care and adoption captured our own hearts as we prayed about how we might grow our family.
Of course, like many Christians, when we thought about orphan care, we immediately thought of James 1:27, the command for Christians “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Often when the topic of orphan care comes up in Christian circles, it’s not too long before this verse is on the table. Praise God that many people today are aware of, and passionate about, orphan care. But in recent years, we began to learn of situations that challenged how we had grown to apply James’s familiar command.
Bigger Than Adopting
We were foster parents to a three-month-old baby girl, excited to welcome this little one into our home and shower her with love. We changed diapers, did middle-of-the-night feedings, and adjusted our other three children around the schedule of this new addition.
“Christian orphan care is more than middle-class families welcoming children into their own homes.”
When we began to consider adopting this baby girl, however, we discovered that she had a biological grandmother living a few states away who was interested in adopting her, despite some significant financial and bureaucratic hurdles. As we began what became a yearlong process of trying to support our foster daughter moving to her grandmother’s house, we started to realize that foster care and adoption were not the only needed ministries for orphan care.
For many, the practical application of James 1:27 is to call individual couples and families to foster and adopt individual children. This is good, but it doesn’t meet every need. If James 1:27 is calling us to look after the vulnerable children suffering in our midst, it requires thinking not only about the children, but also the families and communities these children come from. It challenges us to consider not just the adopting of children, but also the reconciling of children to their original biological families when possible.
For this to happen, orphan care needs to grow in a theology that encompasses the entire gospel story. Christian orphan care reflects the major beats of this gospel — creation, sin, redemption, restoration — and the major themes of the gospel story: themes like grace, justice, reconciliation, and adoption. These major beats and themes then influence our priorities as we consider how best to care for the vulnerable children in our communities.
A theology that includes the full biblical story will recognize that sin — and the brokenness that results from sin — operates not only at the individual level, but also at family, social, institutional, and cultural levels. If we are to be faithful in the battle against sin, it will mean making it more than just a personal fight. It will also mean marshaling our resources to confront sin at every level.
In the case of orphan care, this will mean looking upstream to the sources of sin and brokenness that lead to a child needing to be fostered or adopted. In our own situation, we found systemic challenges to getting our little girl to her grandma within a reasonable time frame.
“As much as we need to foster and adopt, we can do even more to promote biological families staying together.”
Since then we have worked with other mothers who have fulfilled all the steps necessary to have their children returned to them, only to see the courts cancel appointments due to backlogged cases. Their children languish in the system months (even years) longer than necessary. We have seen mothers handcuffed by immigration status, at risk of losing their children permanently due to the extra challenges of finding work.
Orphan care requires more than middle-class families welcoming children into our own homes. Foster care and adoption are relief work — good and beautiful relief for a child from the brokenness of this world. But orphan care will involve more than just relief. It also includes seeking restoration and equity. It involves engaging in broken child-welfare systems and looking to prevent child abuse by walking with those who are isolated and battling poverty and addictions.
Reconciliation is at the heart of the good news of the gospel — in particular reconciliation between God and the people he created. In Christ, God moves toward us in grace so that ultimately he might bring us into fellowship with him.
The fact that reconciliation is a major theme of the gospel storyline will soon make us realize that as much as we still need to foster and adopt, we can do even more to promote biological families staying together. Families reconciling and reuniting is one of the ways we “echo” the gospel and thus bear witness to the God who is reconciling an entire people to himself.
The Savior We Really Need
This side of heaven, we will always have need to foster and adopt children. But the message of the gospel also motivates the wider community of believers to go to the most broken and isolated family units and share the good news that, in Jesus, all things can be made new. It also inspires members to leverage their vocations, legal skills, and political advocacy to shed light on systems and structures within the child-welfare system that are suffering from the decay of sin, and in ways that perpetuate injustice and harm biological families.
As we built a relationship with the grandmother of our foster girl, we began to see and grieve the brokenness that came from generations of both systemic and individual sin: brokenness that led to the mess that this girl and her grandmother found themselves in, and brokenness within the government system that added unnecessary burdens to an already painful situation.
“This side of heaven, we will always have need to foster and adopt children.”
But we were also able to step into their mess and be present with them in their suffering. By God’s grace, we were able to walk with them over the course of a year, to the point where this grandmother, at long last, was able to adopt her granddaughter. One less orphan.
It can be easy to welcome foster children into our homes as though we are their saviors. But that’s not what God calls us to when he tells us to care for orphans. Instead, God calls us to point the vulnerable, the suffering, and the broken to the only Lord and Savior everyone in our world needs.