These are busy–and complicated–days for the evangelical Christian orphan care movement.
On Sunday, Nov. 3, more than 1,000 churches across the nation will commemorate the 5th annual Orphan Sunday.
Orphan Sunday has become a rallying point for the orphan care movement, a coalition of churches, nonprofits, activists and adoptive parents.
Over the past decade, the movement has been driven by a simple and compelling message, spread in sermons, books and bumper stickers: “There are 150 million orphans in the world, and God wants you to help them right now.”
This message has led thousands of Christian families to adopt children from overseas, not because of infertility but out of compassion. It’s also led to hundreds of projects and nonprofits, big and small, aimed at feeding and housing orphans around the world. Many of those best known orphan care ministries are members of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), which organizes Orphan Sunday.
Some of the agencies promote adoptions. But in recent years, they’ve moved toward programs to keep vulnerable children in their own countries. That’s in part because most of the world’s orphans aren’t “orphans” in the way most Americans understand that word.
According to a 2008 report from UNICEF that CAFO often cites, there are 153 million orphans in the world. About 52 million have lost their mothers, and 119 million have lost their fathers. About 18 million of those have lost both parents, though some of those children have extended family.
So CAFO members like Bethany Christian Services, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., have started programs overseas to help single parents and to provide extended care for children who might otherwise end up in orphanages.
Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, told the Tennessean newspaper earlier this year it wouldn’t take much to “make sure kids have a permanent home with their family.”
“That should be a very first place for a child to be—with their family or their extended family. Adoption is further down the line when there are no other options.”
CAFO and other Christian agencies also support the “Children in Families First” legislation (childreninfamiliesfirst.org) recently proposed with bi-partisan sponsors in the U.S. Senate. That bill would allow some U.S. foreign aid to be used to help children stay in their families overseas.
The orphan care movement has also started to focus on vulnerable children in the United States. Groups like Focus on the Family and Safe Families have recruited a growing number of church members to serve as foster parents.
On Nov. 8, Christian groups from around the United States will gather in Orlando at the “Families for Children Conference,” to discuss ways to grow faith-based involvement in foster care.
Orphan care has also come under fire recently, as the Associated Press reports.
“The adoption movement faces criticisms so forceful that some of its own leaders are paying heed,” writes the AP’s David Carey. “The gist: Some evangelicals are so enamored of international adoption as a mission of spiritual salvation—for the child and the adoptive parents—that they have closed their eyes to adoption-related fraud and trafficking, and have not fully embraced alternatives that would help orphans find loving families in their home countries.”
One of the movement’s loudest critics is David Smolin, director of the Center for Children, Law, and Ethics, at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Smolin and his wife are adoptive parents themselves. They adopted two daughters from India, who they thought were orphans, only to find out that the girls had been stolen from their parents.
He told the Tennessean newspaper earlier this year about his concerns about international adoption.
In some countries, he told the Tennessean, too much money and not enough regulation have led to corruption, including orphanages that either buy children or coerce their parents into giving them up for adoption.
“Christians did not create these flaws,” he said. “But they did not discern the flaws.”
Johnny Carr, author of Orphan Justice, from B&H Publishers, also warns that international adoption—which brings many blessings—also has pitfalls.
“An unregulated, ‘get-every-kid-adopted’ approach is likely to encourage child kidnapping and trafficking,” he writes.
Carr, the national director of Church Partnerships at Bethany Christian Services, and other leaders of the orphan care movement don’t want Christians to give up on adoption.
But they do want Christians to take the problems with international adoption more seriously. And they want to remind churches that adoption alone isn’t the answer to the global orphan crisis.
Instead, Carr says in Orphan Justice, churches have to confront social issues like poverty, HIV/AIDS and racism in order to fulfill the biblical command to assist widows and orphans.
“We can’t say that we love orphans while failing to address the social ills that directly affect their lives.”Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends
Belonging to Abba: Why every Christian is called to orphan care by Matt Capps
Is the orphan my neighbor? by Russell Moore