Christians worldwide reflect God's love for vulnerable children on Orphan Sunday

A woman walks with orphans at the AGOHELD orphanage, hospital, training center and school, founded by Abebech Gobena, on March 19, 2013, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A woman walks with orphans at the AGOHELD orphanage, hospital, training center and school, founded by Abebech Gobena, on March 19, 2013, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Christians worldwide are uniting today for Orphan Sunday, where congregations will not only learn about the plight of orphaned children, but also discover ways in which they can help in their own communities and globally.

The first Orphan Sunday was held at a church in Zambia 11 years ago and expanded to events in two countries in 2009. A documentary about the first event titled, "Zambia's Gift to the World," can be seen here.

“This year, churches in 92 countries will participate — celebrating God's special love for vulnerable children, and how ordinary people can reflect that love in action,” Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans, told The Christian Post on Friday. “It's beautiful to see how God has taken a simple idea born in a small church in Zambia and used it to grow, love and care for orphans and foster youth among Christians all over the world."

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The number of children orphaned worldwide is 140 million, according to estimates from Christian Alliance for Orphans. Those who are “double orphans,” meaning children who’ve lost both parents, is estimated to be 15.1 million. Children who are living either on the streets or in residential care is between 2 million and 8 million.  

“As we often express, not everyone is called to foster or adopt,” Medefind said, “but everyone can play a part in living the ‘pure religion’ that the book of James says includes caring for orphans and widows. That could range from serving as a court appointed special advocate or a mentor for a child in the foster system, to bringing meals or running errands for an adoptive or foster family, to supporting a struggling biological family in their efforts to reunify. 

"The need is indeed great, but there's one statistic that matters more than any other — it takes just one caring relationship to change a life forever.”   

The Orphan Sunday campaign, which is led by the Christian Alliance for Orphans, has more than 180 participating organizations, including: Family Life, Bethany Christian Services, Show Hope, Focus on the Family, Buckner International and Compassion International.

“All of this isn't just a cause, driven by duty or guilt or even idealism,” Medefind stressed. “It's a response to the love and care of the God who welcomed us into His family at immense cost to Himself. Simply put, we love because He first loved us.”

This year’s theme for Orphan Sunday is “God sets the lonely in families,” from Psalm 68:6.

Sebilu Bodja, the director of Africa Operations for Bethany Christian Services, noted that while churchgoers were aware that vulnerable children were living among them, many didn’t know how to allocate their resources and organize a response to support them. Now, they have plans in place to support orphans and struggling families.

“Orphan Sunday has become a platform to raise awareness about the need for children to be raised in families and not orphanages. The event is instrumental in recruiting foster and adoptive families. As a result, we have many Christians who have become foster and adoptive families. The church is now a key leader in advocating for children to belong in loving and caring families,” said Sebilu Bodja, who resides in Ethiopia.

“A local church in the city of Adama, Ethiopia, where we have an active foster care and local adoption program, did not know how to organize a meaningful response to support orphans in their community. After hosting an Orphan Sunday event and attending a two-day training on how to develop an orphan care ministry, they have created a program to support poor families and pay for their children’s education and basic food expenses,” he added in an emailed response to CP.

“The church is leading an emerging new culture of adoption in places where taking in a non-related child is a foreign concept,” he said.

While some might think that the needs of orphans and foster children is too great and their contribution wouldn’t help, Sebilu Bodja stressed that it means everything to a child whose life is transformed when they no longer have to live in an orphanage and can be placed with a loving family.

Bethany Christian Services works in over 30 states and more than 12 countries worldwide and has an active program that both keeps families together and brings families together, he added.

“It is important to prevent the unnecessary separation of children from their parents, especially when the only reason is poverty. Families can be supported to stay together and people can make a huge difference by sponsoring such families so that they can meet the needs of their children and become self-supportive, eventually,” Sebilu Bodja continued.

“Bethany has foster care and adoption programs to help children in orphanages find loving local families who would adopt them. People can be involved supporting such programs growth in many developing countries.”

Elli Oswald, executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative, which provides resources to Christians who are seeking to serve orphans, told CP that efforts to get children integrated back into families from orphanages ramped up in the early 1990s with the fall of communism, “when the western world witnessed the devastating impact of communist institutions on children on the evening news.” 

“It was at the turn of the century that the world began to recognize how the HIV and AIDS crisis in Africa had triggered a proliferation of orphanages being built in Sub-Saharan Africa," she said. "A study in Zimbabwe found a doubling in the number of children in residential care from 1994 to 2004, and faith-based organizations were responsible for initiating 80% of the new orphanages. 

“Out of a desire to respond to the crisis, Christians were building and funding orphanages, unknowing playing a role in the separation of children from families. In 2003 the Better Care Network was created and Faith to Action was formed in 2006, both to support efforts to limit the unnecessary separation of children from families and to encourage family-based care,” Oswald said. Dozens of Christian organizations working outside of the U.S. have made the shift away from orphanages and are reintegrating children back with their families or foster care, she added.

 For Orphan Sunday, Faith to Action has released an Advocates Kit that Christians can use to share the importance of family and the limitations of orphanages. “One of the best things we can all do to make a difference for children is spread the word that orphans don’t need orphanages, orphans need family!,” she exclaimed. 

Oswald told CP that while orphanages were phased out as a model of care in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s, Christian Alliance for Orphans and many other organizations are encouraging Christians in the U.S. to serve vulnerable families, thus preventing children from being separated in the foster care system, and to support children and families in foster care.

Over the last year, Focus on the Family has been raising awareness, and equipping and educating families about ways they can serve vulnerable children in the U.S. foster care system. “In 2019, Focus has hosted six Wait No More events in churches across the country which reached 480 churches,” said Dr. Sharen Ford, Focus on the Family’s director of foster care and adoption.

“Additionally, our daily broadcast, which has 6.5 million listeners per week, aired two programs specific to National Foster Month and National Adoption Month. We have also provided over 34,000 benevolent resources to families and organizations.”

Ford also hailed the achievements Christian organizations have seen thus far as congregations continue to show their willingness to collaborate and serve in a variety of ways to make a difference in the lives of orphaned children and youth. 

“The awesome thing about serving vulnerable children is service comes in all sizes and in many ways,” Ford added. “Everyone has the capacity to make a difference in the life of a child. You can decide how big of a difference you want make. Step One: Start today! Pray for a child to have positive relationships, success in school, opportunities for fun. Step Two: Do an act of kindness for a foster or adoptive family. It takes many small steps to walk a mile. Families caring for children from the foster care system need people who will take small steps with them so they know they aren’t alone.” 

The number of children in foster care in the U.S., according to Christian Alliance for Orphans, is around 400,000. In 2015, the number of U.S. children adopted “with public child welfare agency involvement” was 53,549. On average, a child waits seven years and seven month to be adopted by a family.

Oswald of Faith to Action stressed to CP that the global crisis of orphaned children is a solvable problem, and explained how care within an orphanage or children’s home is more expensive than supporting a family to care for a child, including foster care. 

“When you consider the costs of paid staff, facilities, all the direct needs of a child, as well as additional programming, it is easy to see how supporting children in families would be much less expensive,” she said. “In many parts of the world, impoverished families use orphanages as an economic coping mechanism — a way for families to secure access to services or better material conditions for their children. Consequently, residential facilities become an expensive and inefficient way to cope with poverty and other forms of household stress.”

Oswald also cited three studies that found residential care in South Africa and Central and Eastern Europe was four to 15 times more expensive than reintegration, or transitioning a child back into their family or foster care. Those studies can be read here, here, and here.   

“While reintegrating children back into families and care reform efforts need to be done with great consideration and planning to ensure children are kept safe, there are more resources, supporting agencies and networks to help than ever before. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the U.N. Rights of the Child and the 10th anniversary of the U.N. Guidelines on Alternative Care for Children, both of which recognized the priority of children to be cared for by their parents. So much progress has been made in the last 30 years and global reform is happening.

“My hope, and the work of Faith to Action, is to have Christians leading in the effort to see children cared for in safe, loving families,” she added. “Christians have always valued family and cared for the most vulnerable people in society. We will continue to do that by supporting efforts to reintegrate children into families and strengthening families so they can care well for their children.”

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