[Excerpted from Chapter 1]
By Johnny Carr
Motionless bodies met my gaze as I stepped into the courtyard. James tensed up in my arms and clung desperately to my neck as I stood there in shock, trying to grasp the inescapable reality of this place he called home. The nearly two-dozen orphans with special needs in front of me were confined to crude high chairs. Flies were buzzing around pans positioned underneath each chair. A closer examination revealed why. The pans were full of excrement. James’s eyes, full of fear, stared into mine and pleaded silently, “Please don’t leave me here!”
Though the physical conditions were horrifying, that is not what haunts me the most about that day. It was the children’s blank gazes. We were the first non-Asian people the children in this Chinese orphanage had ever seen, yet they didn’t point, laugh, or even stare at us. They just sat there, some with their heads down on the trays and others simply staring aimlessly into space.
My wife, Beth, and I had traveled to Zhenshi,1 China, to adopt our son from this orphanage. Guo Ya Zhou was brought to our hotel room the day before. I had quickly scooped up the precious four-year-old deaf orphan, and he had barely let go of me since.
The entire event was scary for all of us, but I was filled with love for our new son, who we renamed James Ze Carr. We had been told that Ze is the Chinese word for “chosen.” He had been chosen by his heavenly Father and given to us as a gift. I can’t fully express in words how it felt to play a part in his redemption.
The next day we were standing in the horrifying conditions of James’s orphanage in one of the poorest cities in Asia, as already described. Malnutrition and disease ravaged the small bodies of the children in the courtyard. Since James is deaf, I couldn’t comfort him with my voice or tell him we wouldn’t leave him there. I simply held him securely against my chest so that he would feel safe, yet James began to scream and cry uncontrollably.
Once inside the compound, Beth and I witnessed things that shocked us. I tensed up, much like James had done in the courtyard. Infants were starving. Children were dying from both major and minor medical issues. It was evident that the workers truly loved the children, but they were barely surviving themselves, and didn’t have the necessary resources to properly care for the children.
Standing in that orphanage, little did I know the radical changes that would take place in my life. Humbled and broken, I walked away a different man.
… In the process of James’s adoption, Beth came across an adorable picture online of a little Chinese girl sitting on a footstool, sticking her tongue out. A family who had adopted a child from an orphanage two hours from James’s city had snapped the photo. The caption read, “I tried to whisper ‘Jesu aye ni’ to her, which is ‘Jesus loves you’ in Chinese, but the orphanage worker told me that she was deaf and couldn’t hear anything.”
My wife immediately called Heather into the computer room. A few seconds later I heard, “Johnny?!” It was that all-too-familiar tone that communicates, “Honey, I really want something and you are going to think that I am crazy for asking but I am going to sound so sweet that you will not be able to resist it.”
Beth was beaming as she spoke, “Look at this little girl. She is four years old, in the same province where James is from, and she’s deaf! She really needs a family!” I would love to say that I responded with a very spiritual answer, but I didn’t. I balked. The amazing thing is that even in my doubt, God worked. In May of 2007, we found ourselves back in China adopting Xiaoli (Shao-lee).
During the twenty-six-hour flight home from China after adopting Xiaoli, all I could think about were the starving, desperate, and forgotten children in the deplorable orphanages James and Xiaoli had been rescued from. A question kept running through my head: If what I’ve seen in these orphanages is real, do I care enough to do more than adopt two kids?
It continued to plague me as I returned to my American dream life. I suddenly realized I didn’t need the white picket fence or the sleek Honda. As I stood in line at Starbucks for a five-dollar latte or ordered a twenty-dollar steak at a restaurant, I was struck by the difference between my life and that of the orphans back in China and around the world. Sitting behind my big desk as Pastor of Ministry and Leadership Development, I wondered what that title really meant. Did I have a responsibility toward the orphans of the world, beyond James and Xiaoli?
I began to study Scripture like never before, discovering God’s great love and concern for the fatherless. Verses about orphans that I had never noticed jumped off the page, and the one that stuck out the most was James 1:27, which I’ve already mentioned: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (nlt).
In our Western church culture, we tend to view religion as a negative thing. It is no surprise that the YouTube video titled “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” went viral. However, James offers us the meaning of true religion—caring for orphans and widows in their time of need and keeping ourselves unstained from the world. We frequently focus on keeping ourselves unstained, but we often fail in the area of taking care of orphans and widows.
The grim reality
We live in a fallen world. War, famine, and disease ensure that there will always be orphans among us. Every day, children are orphaned or abandoned due to economic need or disabilities. Understanding the plight of orphans and their families is critical.
In many cultures, mystic beliefs lead people to assume that a child born with a disability is possessed by an evil spirit or is the direct result of a curse. Families believe they must dispose of the child to free themselves from the curse. In other cases, families know that they will not have the resources to take care of the child, especially in the case of a disability. The sad reality is that many parents believe that their child will have a better life in an orphanage.
… Parents who abandon their children are often unable to provide for basic physical needs and hope that an orphanage will be able to help. But more than just food and shelter, these children need a family. As Christ followers, we have a responsibility to do something . . . and most of us need to consider doing something more than just writing a check. We must humble ourselves to consider where we have been wrong—where we have disobeyed God’s Word and neglected to care for orphaned and vulnerable children.
… Lest we think that orphans only exist in other countries, we must also look at our own problems. Here in the United States, there are nearly 400,000 children in the foster care system at any given time, and some of those foster homes are not exactly ideal. In addition, more than 100,000 of those children are waiting to be adopted.4
The numbers can be confusing, and knowing how to minister to these children’s needs can be difficult. Some need family reunification, sponsorship, education, or medical assistance. Others need a temporary family to live with or permanency through adoption. All of the 153 million children worldwide do not need to be adopted. … Some of these children need adoptive families. Others need support so their families can keep them out of an orphanage. All of these children have physical, emotional, and/or spiritual needs. They face a host of challenges. In the midst of their desperation, they cry out for hope. And our redeemer God longs for His people to be on the front lines of providing compassion, support, and gospel-centered care.
God’s heart for orphans
I see time and again that caring for orphaned and vulnerable children is not often on the radar screen for many Christians. Somehow, in our concern for living a “good Christian life,” many of us are missing God’s passion for the fatherless.
Yet, caring for the needy is one of the main purposes of the church. Throughout Scripture, it is easy to see that God has a special place in His heart for the fatherless, the widow, and the alien. This is a rebuke and a wake-up call to us. Scripture is not silent on the issue of orphan care. Throughout the Old Testament, “orphans” and “the fatherless” are mentioned forty-one times. In Old Testament law, many specific guidelines are given for interacting with orphans. As you read the following verses, look for God’s heart.
• “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
• “Do not deny justice to a foreigner or fatherless child” (Deut. 24:17).
• “When you reap the harvest in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field, do not go back to get it. It is to be left for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut. 24:19).
Caring for the marginalized of society—widows, orphans, and foreigners—lies at the heart of Yahweh’s covenant with His people. These verses speak blatantly about the role of God’s people in caring for the fatherless and inviting them into community. It seems apparent that in Old Testament culture, orphans lived as part of the community and were cared for by God’s people.
Scripture doesn’t spell out a detailed strategy for orphan care, but God does speak directly to the role of His people. In fact, God promises judgment on those who do not take care of the weak and needy: “Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows” (Deut. 27:19 nlt).
To our God, taking care of orphans isn’t just a “great idea.” It’s critical. Why? Because every man, woman, boy, and girl—including orphaned and vulnerable children—has been created in God’s image and is precious to Him. In Scripture, God describes Himself time and again as the helper of orphans.
Psalm 10:16 praises Yahweh as “King forever and ever.” Interestingly, in describing the kingly duties of Yahweh, the psalmist places primary importance on God’s care for the weak: “Lord, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them. You will bring justice to the orphans and the oppressed” (Ps. 10:17–18 nlt).
Other psalms strike a similar tone, extolling Yahweh as “father to the fatherless, defender of widows” (Ps. 68:5 nlt). Jewish scholars point out that God’s care for orphans flows directly from His position as king over all the earth.6 God’s people, then, are commanded to care for orphans as a direct result of who God is.
As God’s messengers, the Old Testament prophets rebuke Israel for ignoring the needs of widows and orphans. God tells His people to stop bringing Him meaningless sacrifices: “When you lift up your hands in prayer I will not look . . . I will not listen” (Isa. 1:15 nlt). Why? Because of the people’s failure to care for orphans. “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans” (v. 17).
Malachi 3 echoes this same judgment on Israel as Yahweh confronts His people:
“At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. (Mal. 3:5 nlt)
In our tendency to place ourselves above Israel, we dare not overlook one of the root causes of God’s judgment—failing to care for orphans. When I understood this for the first time, it shocked me. We’re not just reading history here. It hits close to home for those of us who haven’t considered before that God is commanding us to care for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Stop and consider this: Just like the children of Israel, we, as God’s people, will be judged for withholding justice from the oppressed and the orphan. If we have the means and the capability to care for orphaned and vulnerable children, yet fail to do so, we are in direct disobedience to God.
… Developing a holistic model for orphan care forces us to dive into every aspect of an orphan’s struggle, even when it’s uncomfortable. The fact is that very few orphans around the world have only to deal with the emotional consequences of losing one or both parents. In addition, nearly all of these children are faced with the nightmare of poverty, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, deplorable orphanages, abusive foster care situations, racism, and a host of other social evils. In the twenty-first-century American church, we have wrongly dismissed many of these issues, and for that we need to repent. On other fronts we have been silent, and we must now become a voice.
… Formulating a practical, biblical strategy for global orphan care forces us to confront and wrestle with these challenges that we have not taken as seriously as we should have. If we were honest, many of us would have to admit that we have no clue how to respond, beyond well-meaning prayer or writing a check. We have relegated these social justice issues to the secular world, but if we truly desire to care for orphans, we must be willing to address and respond to their deepest needs.
We can’t care about orphans without caring about their daily reality of poverty, HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and other horrors. We can’t honestly be satisfied with children living out their entire childhoods in orphanages that our churches have built and then being cast into what is often an even more terrifying reality on the streets when they turn eighteen. As we grapple with the complex situations of orphaned and vulnerable children, we will see that if we reduce the number of orphans in the world by placing them in families, it could dramatically affect the number of HIV/AIDS cases, the number of children trafficked, and the number of children living in poverty.
As an interest in orphan care and adoption ministry begins to sweep through the American church culture, we can’t just treat it like a one-week summer VBS. We need “Orphan-focused Sundays,” but we also need far more—we need orphan-focused churches. Choosing to stand by and do nothing where we see injustice, suffering, and evil is wrong. It is sin. We must take active steps to care for orphans. To do anything less is blatant disobedience.
Johnny Carr is National Director of Church Partnerships for Bethany Christian Services, America’s largest adoption agency.
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You can make a difference for orphans through Bethany Christian Services and Baptist Global Response.