As Christian concern for the orphan and the importance of family for all children has gained momentum, criticism of Christian practices and, more recently, their motives in serving orphans has increased. Some of these criticisms are fair, and certainly any malpractice must be rooted out and condemned by Christians as a violation of human rights and of our responsibility as stewards of the gospel. But during my time working for President Obama-where I helped to lead The White House's engagement of adoption issues during President Obama's first term-I learned even more deeply that the real story of the Christian adoption movement is a cause for optimism and perseverance.
During my time in government, the adoption community was a source of inspiration. I was able to work with faith-based adoption service providers like Bethany Christian Services and Catholic Charities that work tirelessly to find kids a home. We partnered with non-profit organizations like the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the National Council for Adoption and the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, that bring together the most rigorous research on how to support children and push policymakers to do their job. The federal government's initiative, AdoptUSKids, along with organizations like Focus on the Family and Adoption Journey help those who may just be thinking about adoption walk through what can be a complicated process, and provide a community of care around adoptive families. Organizations like Bishop Charles Blake's Save Africa's Children, and World Vision perform valiantly to serve orphans internationally. Finally--and most importantly--I had the opportunity to meet thousands of foster kids and adoptive families. Their love, perseverance and dedication should be a source of pride and inspiration, not ideological battles.
The Christian motivation to care for orphans and support adoption is not nefarious, it is plain: adoption offers a picture of our Heavenly Father's love for us ("the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father." Romans 8:15b), and our caring for the orphan is an outflow of the love we have been given what one of Jesus' original disciples called "true religion" (James 1:27).
One leader and organization I have come across recently exemplifies this spirit of sacrificial service and love that is at the heart of the Christian adoption movement.
I met Ryan Keith through the Praxis program-an incredible year-long business acceleration and discipleship program for Christian social entrepreneurs. In 2004, Ryan was on his way to Harvard University, but reluctantly agreed to join his pastor on a trip to Zimbabwe to visit the local church and orphaned children in the region. That trip changed Ryan. As with most privileged Americans who travel to other continents, Ryan was shocked by the suffering he saw. But, more profoundly, he was also changed by the heroism of the local church. As Ryan told me in an interview, "the honest truth is that I did not know what to do for these orphaned children, but the pastors I was meeting did know. " Soon after the trip, Ryan created Forgotten Voices International to support and strengthen the work the local church in Africa was already doing to care for orphans.
Forgotten Voices is a crystal clear counterpoint to those who suggest Christians' involvement in adoption and orphan ministries is self-serving. It is also a model that capitalizes on the potential of the African church. Ryan pointed out that while the American church has supported the growth of the African church, it has been slow to realize the full potential of the transformation in the region. In 1900, Ryan expounds, there were 9 million Christians in Africa. Today, there are 540 million. When seventy-five percent of Zambian families care for at least one orphaned child, the upside of focusing an effort on supporting the local church rather than establishing some new infrastructure is clear.
Forgotten Voices partners with local, African seminaries that train trusted leaders who in turn determine their local needs, develop a plan to meet those needs in partnership with Forgotten Voices, and receive support-financial and otherwise-to execute the plan. My favorite aspect of Forgotten Voices model is this: it is not about Forgotten Voices. Whenever possible, the children Forgotten Voices serve will never hear of Ryan Keith or of Forgotten Voices as an organization. It is the local church that provides the services, and the local pastor who is empowered. The church is built up as a central institution in the community.
In America, Christians are coming to understand that the orphan crisis, in their country or abroad, is not about us. It never has been. It is an opportunity, as Ryan told me, to "dare to believe God was serious when He promised that the orphan will not be forsaken." Forgotten Voices provides a shining example of this mentality, but it is by no means a rarity. Across the United States, people are opening up their homes, and giving of their time and resources to help kids without a home or family.
I am grateful for the organizations and individuals who are living out their faithfulness in love and service for children who need families and support. Our government, culture and all Americans should be grateful as well.
Recently, some have strained to turn instances of malpractice into excuses to hamper the entire Christian orphan movement, but children should never have to pay for the ideological debates of adults. Adoption needs to be lifted up more in this country, and those who do so deserve our support, not our cynicism. Americans should be able to benefit from a world that has fewer orphans, and more thriving children who grow to be contributing adults. Human flourishing anywhere is a blessing everywhere. Let us find ways to improve how we go about orphan care ministry, and let us welcome constructive criticism from all who give it (even those outside of the Church). But let us also not find ourselves among the cynics and procrastinators, and instead seek to support and join with those serving children in our own countries and around the world.
You can follow Michael on twitter at @MichaelRWear.