Giving Birth to Orphans

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. James 1:27

There were five of them, orphaned siblings ages seven to thirteen, tangled in a social welfare system in Eastern Europe. Their boarding school served as more of a trap than a safety net, providing food and shelter but little else. Human beings have crucial needs beyond the physical. We can die from a lack of love and community. Many graduates of their school will end up in prison or on the streets. One-in-ten males who pass through the system will eventually commit suicide.

At each school year’s end, the kids shuffle off to a state institution even worse than the school. Unless someone intervenes, that’s where they’ll spend the summer.

To address this need, a Christian organization tries to sponsor as many of the orphans as possible to come to the USA for a few weeks. It’s challenging to find host families and raise the necessary funds, but people step up. The kids are usually housed with families who don’t even speak their language, but for ten weeks they have a safe environment and a break from institutional living. It’s a foster family—but it’s still a family.

We might easily romanticize that commendable summer program, and for some orphans it is indeed a dream world. But reality is seldom romantic. Sometimes, it borders on the nightmarish.

Five siblings are difficult to place in one foster family, but this time it was accomplished. Thanks to several churches that got behind the vision, the funds came through, and the kids boarded a plane with their sponsoring organization. More than a few of the things went wrong.

On the way from the airport to their foster home, one of the children opened the van door. On the expressway. At 70 miles per hour (113 kph).

Then he did it again.

The next day, the family took them all to an ice-cream social. The kids loved it so much they all shoved extra ice-cream bars into their pockets. Hey, you might want ice cream later, right? While at the social, one of the boys looked at the largest man present—a veritable human mountain who was, thankfully, also a gentle soul. The kid attempted to stare down the big guy, menacingly drawing his finger across his throat and pointing at him threateningly. The boy was deadly serious. It was surely a defense mechanism forged in boarding-school battles, but it’s one that might get him killed in a future encounter.

At the family’s house, every drawer and cupboard got ransacked more than once. Ordinary kitchen knives had to be locked away. The youngest child received constant beatings from his siblings. Trips to the store required relentless vigilance against shoplifting. One boy would often eat until he threw up. The family learned that if you experience near-starvation in the first three years of your life, you might not develop a normal sense of hunger. You never know when to stop eating because you literally never feel full.

But the very worst challenge was that the seven-year-old wasn’t toilet trained. Not even close. After washing twelve sets of clothing in the first two days (he had only three changes of clothes, so that meant washing each set multiple times), the family insisted on his wearing diapers. He was not happy about this. Despite round the clock attempts to monitor his non-existent bathroom habits, he never improved.

The family soon required him to use the toilet each hour, setting a timer to track it. But usually, he’d pretend to use the facilities, even flushing the toilet, then soil his diaper anyway. It didn’t take long for them to notice something else about his bathroom habits too. He wouldn’t go into a public restroom if anyone else was in it. What had happened in this poor kid’s life? Who had hurt him so badly?

The only sister, who was nine, kept wetting her bed. This too can be a sign of sexual abuse.

The kids were bright. Too bright. One of them managed to get ahold of a blowtorch in the garage while the dad was working on a car. (Dad was a mechanic.) The boy put some combustibles under the family van and started a fire. The blowtorch, which had been unlit, had three safety devices on it, and the kid had figured them all out. Dad put out the fire in time. Then he kept the torch with him.

The family soon got help from another family at church who had immigrated from the siblings’ country. Translation work quickly became a full-time labor of love for the additional set of helpers. Their mere presence could calm the obviously traumatized siblings. But never completely.

Then one day, the oldest child grew especially angry. Cursing repeatedly in his native language, he made menacing gestures toward his host parents. They soon learned he was threatening to burn down the family’s home. He bragged that he had burned many fields and houses in Europe, and he would do the same to them tonight. The couple that helped with interpreting were genuinely frightened he would actually do it.

Ten weeks later, when the long-suffering family took the five siblings back to the airport, the dad gave each of them a hug and told them, “You hug momma too.” His gestures helped with their comprehension, and they gladly hugged her. That was a win. But there were no farewell tears. From start to finish, the experience had been an ordeal.

As soon as the kids boarded the plane to return to Europe, a representative from the charitable organization asked the family if they’d like to take the siblings again next year. The mom immediately responded, “Never ask a mother who’s just delivered a baby if she wants to have another one.”

James defines true religion for us in practical terms: “Caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Occasionally that will be easy, but it usually won’t be. And sometimes, it will be incredibly hard. Sometimes God puts five traumatized siblings in our path.

It will, however, be worth it—like giving birth. That is what God’s people are called to do. We care for each other. And we care for the needs of those we see as they intersect our lives. Love is not something we outsource.

I wonder, though, why those five children have it so difficult. I wonder why some of my own siblings, who were never technically orphaned, had it much harder than I did, even though I was an orphan for a time. Why has God blessed me with a great family and cared for me in tangible ways that I don’t see for them? Sometimes, I pose that question to God.

“Love doesn’t ask why,” a wise friend gently told me. “Love simply receives. And then gives out again.”


What is the worst family situation you know of? How close is it to you? (Perhaps it is you.)

Where have you most felt a sense of family and community?

What has God given to you in terms of caring people?

How can you give care and compassion to others?