Last year I attended a conference of several thousand Christians who were engaged and wanting to learn more about the ministry of caring for orphans. Many of the attendees were adopted themselves or were adoptive parents. Most everyone in attendance had visited or prayed for an orphanage at some point in his or her journey.
You could easily leave such a conference floating on a cloud as if the ministry of caring for orphans (and widows) as directed by the book of James was the equivalent of laying in a bed of roses.
Not that there weren’t breakout sessions about the difficulties that older adoptive children face. I encountered adoptive parents walking the halls telling about their emotional battle scars of grueling attachment processes. But the general message of the event was “Love conquers all. As people of faith, we must learn to love orphans.”
It’s easy to believe this is all it takes: willingness to love. But during my visits with Feed the Children’s orphanages around the world, I’ve experienced a different story. Love, while essential, is not always enough.
In November, I spent time at the Dagoretti Children’s Center in Nairobi, one component of Feed the Children’s work in Kenya. On a sunny afternoon, I walked to the playground on the compound with about 12 children ranging in age from 3-12 years, both boys and girls. I was excited to jump rope and kick the soccer ball and hug these precious ones I’d previously only spent time with in more formalized programs.
And over the course of the afternoon, no matter what I did, there was not enough of me to go around. The children’s English language skills were still developing so instead of saying words I was used to hearing on a playground like, “Come push me” I got a lot of my name. “Elizabeth, Elizabeth!” they’d say.
I was constantly running between children. And for as much as I took individual time with one child to push her on the swing and be present in that moment of connection, there was another boy doing a flip on the monkey bars wanting the same attention. When I praised one girl for swinging really high, I could tell by the look on the others’ faces that my actions were making them sad. But this wasn’t a pouty, temper-tantrum manipulative reaction we’re used to seeing in the United States, but a soul-deep internal doubt that asked “Am I worthy?”
Sure, this playground scenario is similar to that faced by parents of multiple children on a daily basis. But these moments laid bare the danger of loving particular children in an orphanage. Even the mildest, most harmless display of favoritism (what any parent would naturally show his or her child) in an orphanage causes pain and suffering in all of the children there. It is not good to be known as “the favorite” in an orphanage – not if that child is to remain in the community of children.
Even as I hurt for these precious ones—what I experienced growing up in a two-parent home is something most of them will never have—I remembered that these kids are the lucky ones. In Kenya, many abandoned children live on the street. The children at the Dagoretti Center receive care, clothes, food and schooling. They live in cottages with housemothers and fathers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have drivers to take them to school. When you see their faces, you see a hopeful future full of possibility.
Yet even with all of this “privilege,” their hearts still hurt. Even with the support teams the Feed the Children family has formed, even though churches send food and missions teams deliver toys, even though the caregivers in our orphanages love and treat the children like their own (which ours do!), even though we rescue more kids off the street and place them in homes like Dagoretti, it doesn’t heal the wounds in their hearts.
Orphan care is complicated, non-linear, and begs many questions. How do we get through to their hearts? How do we help orphans know, really know, that they are beloved? How do we heal the wounds they carry without creating more? It’s a big conversation, and we need your voice in it.
But despite the unanswered questions, we don’t want to leave you with no way to respond.
At Feed the Children, we like to write and deliver cards to the children in our orphanages. If you visit our break room in any given month, you’ll usually see a box of cards, a pile of pens, and a list of names so that staff can take just a few seconds to write a personal note to one of the children in our care. We would like to include you, too.
Write a note to a child in the comments below telling them you care, and we will hand-write them into cards and deliver them for you. In a few months, we will post photos of them receiving the cards, so you can see how a kind note to say that someone cares brightened their day. And please, share this with your friends, family, and coworkers. Let’s shower these children with affirmation!