My mother died when I was two. For the next few years, until my father remarried, my brother and I were what child welfare advocates now call "single orphans." We had a father, but he worked as a pastor about 60 hours weekly and could be absent for days. I am glad there were orphanages in case we had needed them; fortunately, a succession of extended family and church members raised us.
That experience made me especially sensitive to orphans' needs. Evangelicals have a stellar track record of caring for vulnerable children at home and abroad. People of my generation grew up hearing stories of great evangelical founders of orphanages. Our heroes were George Müller in England and Amy Carmichael in India. During the last decade, numerous orphanages founded by evangelicals have sprung up, especially in AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa.
And the needs of at-risk children, including orphans, are immense. Children worldwide face severe threats due to HIV and AIDS, armed conflict and displacement, living and working on the streets, disability, abuse, and trafficking. The UNICEF report The State of the World's Children 2005 warns, "Over half a million women die from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, and 15 million women suffer injuries, infections, and disabilities in pregnancy or childbirth. … Without a concerted effort to save mothers' lives, millions of children will be denied maternal love and care during childhood." Other alarming statistics: "Over two million children under 15 are infected with HIV. Based on current trends, the number of children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa will exceed 18 million by 2010."
While orphanages will always be necessary for some, child-welfare advocates say that as many as 50 percent of children in sub-Saharan African orphanages have known relatives who are willing to raise them at home. But they cannot afford to step into the breach.
Not surprisingly, many churches in African communities want to support families so that related children (and others) can live with them. In addition, many other families would be willing to take in orphans if they could. They know what social science studies claim: Children raised in foster families and especially by relatives fare better developmentally than children raised in even the best orphanages.
Thank God for a growing movement of developing partnerships between churches in the United States and Africa to find these homes, support them financially, and place parentless children in them.
Three organizations are especially prominent. The Better Care Network (BCN) promotes efforts by secular and Christian child-welfare organizations to improve standards of care for orphans in developing countries. Viva: Together for Children is an evangelical group that supports family-based orphan care and has created innovative foster-care models in developing countries. Willow Creek Community Church of suburban Chicago, meanwhile, is leading the way among evangelical churches in establishing supportive relationships between American and African churches.
Extended Families, Extended Blessings
Orphanages can serve as valuable bridges between homelessness and family-based care. But they should not be the end of a child's journey, unless there are no other options. World Vision helps orphans live with their extended families. "In too many cases, the institutionalization of orphans is a short-term fix with long-term issues," vice president Steve Haas says, "while its counterpart of placing unaccompanied minors in families is deemed difficult on the front end but has been found to provide profound blessings as the child matures."
BCN's Amanda Cox says that homeless children, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, much prefer to live with loved ones—such as grandparents—who desperately want to care for them. But a widowed grandmother is not always financially able to care for all her grandchildren, and may need financial or material help from a local church. These churches need support from American churches to provide for the families caring for orphans in their communities. Christians in affluent countries such as the U.S. should give generously to organizations that help place orphans with families.
There is no substitute for the family. With our emphasis on family values, evangelicals know it. Now it's time to translate that knowledge into action in developing countries.
Roger Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University.
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Olson is author of The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform and 20th-Century Theology.
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