do orphans need “saving”?

There were a couple comments on a post I did about the Together for Adoption conference that I have been wanting to address.  Several people asked me to share ideas for ways to help orphans outside of adoption.  The conference had so much information on this, and right now I have a stack of fliers from organizations who are offering support to orphans in a variety of ways.  I’m hoping to consolidate all that information into a post soon.

Here is the other comment I wanted to respond to:

“One of the reasons I like your blog is because you challenge the predominate narrative of adoptive parent as savior of adoptive child. I have to tell you that when I saw the way this conference was marketed (with the poster of wide eyed children clothed in tatters) it left me feeling uneasy because it *appeared* to reinforce that narrative. Can you talk about what your experiences were with this at the conference?  Was the adoptee voice represented at all?”

I have to admit, this comment wrankled me a little bit.  Probably because my first instinct is to say that the picture is a pretty accurate representation of the way many orphans live.  To be honest, it’s a rather benign photo.  It’s the reality for many kids.

I don’t like the savior narratives applied to adoptive parents.  I don’t like people telling me I’m amazing just because I’ve adopted.  Because I’m not.  I am a very human mom who is sometimes shrill and selfish and impatient and just plain mean.  I did not “save” my adopted kids. 

I am very careful to never give my adopted children the feeling that there is some extra gratitude required from them.  They are a part of my family just like my daughters.  They have every right to be ungrateful, or resent me, or wish that they had never been adopted.  I don’t talk to them about where they came from as if they needed to be saved.  So on the one hand, I do take care to avoid the savior meme.

This comment asks about the adult adoptee perspective.  I get that there are some people who resent that the suggestion that they are “lucky” to have been adopted.  I get that some adult adoptees resent being told that their adoption saved their life.  I also know that there are some adult adoptees who would like to see the whole practice of adoption shut down, who use the word “orphans” in quotes, like it is some made-up reality, who refuse to talk about orphanages because they see it as a derail in the conversation about adoption reform.   Or who take offense to people who talk about orphanages because it deepens their feelings of forced gratitude.  I’m assuming this is the adoptee voice the commenter is referencing.  And while there were adoptees present (and some leading workshops) at this conference, they were all there because they specifically wanted to talk openly about advocating for adoption.

I do read differing opinions quite frequently.   I understand the difficult implications of talking about orphans as if they need saving.

However.

There is still the matter, the very real matter, of children who have been orphaned all over the world.  17 million of them, orphaned by BOTH PARENTS.  55 million who have lost their mother.  Even more who have been abandoned by living parents.  Most of them in countries where there is not a social welfare system that can care for them.  Many of them living in countries where there is no adoption program.  Many of them living in horrible conditions, with terrible adult-to-child ratios.

So, as an adoptive parent, I walk a line here.  On the one hand, not wanting to make my children feel like charity cases.  On the other hand, having my eyes wide open to the realities of institutionalization, and feeling like I cannot stay silent because it might make some adult adoptees cringe.

Because it’s real.

I’ve seen 30 children sleeping head-to-toe in a hot room in India.  I’ve seen orphaned kids in Zimbabwe go from home to home hoping that someone would have some extra food.  I’ve seen kids rocking themselves to sleep with a distant stare because there is not enough staff to hold and comfort them.

So I feel compelled to talk about it. 

The conference I went to was full of people dedicated to ending our corporate preference to brush the world’s orphan crisis under the rug.   I’m not going to stop talking about it because it makes people uncomfortable.  I’m going to take the risk that people might unsubscribe from my blog because they’re just here for the funny stories.  I’m going to take the risk that in some corners of the internet, adult adoptees may get bent out of shape by this.  Because I think that advocating for children without a home is more important than tiptoeing around the complex feelings of grown-ups.  And with as much sensitivity as I can, I’m going to risk my kids resenting me for talking about it, too.  

(Though I hope that all four of them are raised with the compassion to see that this advocacy is not able ingratiating them, but about advocating for others).

Earlier this week I read a blog post by a missionary in Haiti.  The author was kind enough to let me share it here.  THIS is why I’m comfortable endorsing a conference that suggests that orphans need help. 

Because they do.

This is a long post.  I hope you will read the whole thing, and I hope you will read it without judgment of the people involved.  People who serve in Haiti face the awful task, every day, of how many people they can help.  Orphanages are overcrowded simply because some very good people have a hard time turning away one more helpless child.  If this outrages you, then think about what part YOU can play.  There can be no outrage at people who serve in Haiti, as we sit at our computer screens in our comfortable homes in America.  But you need to know that this is real.

 

Reality is a Weighty Thing

Heather Hendricks

A friend recently said to me, "When your blog gets quiet, I start to worry."

It's true.

When nothing gets posted it always means things are such a mess that there's no way to capture all the words and emotions to make sense of them.

At this point I'm still not sure I'm able to sort through what I've seen and put it into words that mean something.

Remember the four week old baby whose mother died?
Remember how she was offered to us?  We were asked if we wanted her?
Remember how I said we cried over her and then sent her back to the orphanage?

An orphanage we had never seen.

Part of coming to Haiti for us is facing the orphan crisis in this country and hopefully in this world.  We'll also admit that we're big wienies who don't like to face this stuff alone, so we are making you face it with us.

The moment a woman at your gate hands you her baby and begs you to take her is the moment when there's no more pretending.  We had spent most of our life trying to insulate ourselves from pain, honesty and suffering while living in the US.  When someone hands you a four week old baby and says, "Do you want her?" all that padding and insulation suddenly falls apart.  The surround sound airbags explode, and the substance you're left with is cold, hard, and uncomfortable.

There is nowhere to hide.  There is no buffering this much tragedy.
Reality sits in your lap and it's heavy.
As painful as reality is, we are tired of lying to ourselves.
One reason we came to Haiti was to face the truth.  See it with our eyes.  Hold it in our hands.  Quit denying sadness on this scale is real.

When you look at the amount of suffering in our world, count up the number of orphans rotting away in crummy orphanages, and consider how poor the majority of people are on this earth, as a whole, I think we can all admit...the response from American Christians and the American church is ridiculous and embarrassing.

We live in Haiti right now, trying to learn how to fight these things, but let's never ever forget that just one year ago we were living in the US in a fancy house in a fancy neighborhood living the American dream ignoring the poor, the oppressed, and the orphan.


I don't think any of us want to be heartless jerks.  I think we love this world and our stuff too much, but I think many believers long to be free from such bondage.  I think it's easy to ignore the orphan and the poor because we don't have to face it.  Maybe we don't want to face it.  It's ironic how global our world has become, and yet it's still incredibly easy to shield ourselves from what is going on around the world when it comes to orphans, the poor, and the oppressed.


If each of us had to hold that four week old baby in our arms...a true orphan...truly in distress...if we had to look her in the eyes and then reject her, I don't think many Christians would do that.  I think all the excuses we have for not adopting, or not giving would suddenly seem insane.


Yes, God needs to soften our hearts toward the poor and the orphan.  He needs to do a lot of work in our souls, teaching us what it looks like to live for the Kingdom of God.  I think we can all agree on this.


But I believe we also must do whatever it takes to come face to face with truth...with reality and what that looks like for millions of people living in devastating poverty and the vast number of fatherless children who are living in terrible conditions.


Truth seekers.  Are we seeking the truth?  Yes, the truth can be found in thick, old, theology books.  It can be found in the Bible.  But truth is also found in a smelly, dirt-floor orphanage in a third world country.  Finding truth in the Bible and in world-famous theology books is a lot easier to find, I think.  I've been guilty of only seeking after the truth that is convenient to find.  Truth that is fun to argue with all my smart friends over coffee.

The kind of truth I found this week is so troubling, I hardly want to talk about it.  And yet, I believe we are to be people who rejoice in the truth...who look for it and deal with it, who expect goodness and grace to radiate and Jesus to be found and glorified even in the darkest of situations.

We sent that baby back to the orphanage a few weeks ago.

Honestly, it took me a couple weeks to recover from such a rough weekend.  Two babies were offered to us within three days.  It was tragic.  Did anyone prepare us for this before coming to Haiti?  No.  Could anyone prepare us for something like this?  No.
Did we feel ready to take these kids in and raise them as our own?  No. For lots of reasons, no.  Some good, right reasons.  Some selfish and faithless reasons.

So we cried a lot and sent both babies away.

For the four week old baby whose mother died that we sent back to the orphanage...well, the only way I coped was to imagine her in a nice place.  We were not ready to take in a baby here, but when I thought of her, I'd think of her in a cute little orphanage with loving nannies.  Her needs were met in my imagination.  She was loved.  She was being well cared for in the imaginary world I had prepared for her.
I knew I wasn't going to be able to do this for long...lie to myself.  We came to Haiti to stop lying to ourselves.

We knew we were going to have to face this...all the way face it.

We had to go out to the orphanage and see where she is living with our own eyes.  We had to know what saying "No, we can't take you" meant to this child.

Saying "No" in Haiti is never neutral.  In the States, saying "No" can be neutral at times.  In the States if I said, "No" to a four week old baby whose mother died at birth, someone else would snatch that baby up and raise her.  The chances of her being adopted by a loving, excited couple would be pretty high.

Saying "No" to a baby in Haiti means there is a huge possibility that you are dooming her to a life filled with sickness, attachment disorders, abuse, neglect and inescapable poverty.

I did not want to go to the orphanage where this baby is living.  I did not want to see the truth.  You can judge me if you want to and wonder why on earth we didn't say yes to this kid if we love adoption as much as we say we do.  You could judge me, or you could admit that you don't live in Haiti.  You have no idea how hard this is or how complex adoption is in this country.  You could judge me, or you could be honest...unless you're holding a baby from a place like Haiti or Uganda or Ethiopia or Russia in your arms right now, you too are saying no.  If you're pretending that kids aren't suffering every single day in orphanages, then we're in the same boat.  My boat is just a little further from the US at the moment.

Somehow God gave us the strength to get in the car and drive towards the truth...to find this baby and see for ourselves where she was.

I needed to face it...all of it...every ounce of it.  I held this baby in my own home and said, "I don't know how to do this right now."  I also needed to go see where saying those things to that child landed her.  Until I had faced every speck of this situation, I felt like I was still hiding.  I was still in denial.

So we went.

I was nervous all the way out to the orphanage.

It was very far away in the middle of nowhere.  A typical Haitian orphanage.  This one is run by a Haitian couple who thankfully love the Lord and genuinely love the kids in their care.  They are trying their very best.  Sadly their best is still not enough.  That's the story of Haiti.  No matter how much this couples tries, with the limited resources they have, it will never be enough to adequately provide even the basics for these kids.
No running water.  Very few toys.  No swing set or slide.  Nothing but dirt and kids.

We found the baby girl on the floor in a room by herself.  She was covered in spit up.  Her diaper weighed about as much as she did.  She had her fingers in her mouth, trying to soothe herself as tears ran from her little eyes down her cheeks.
I'm going to tell you more of her story and what we've been up to this week to try and help her. 

Thankfully an American couple here in Haiti is working hard to come alongside this Haitian couple, offering relief and support.  We want to be clear that a lot of good things are starting to happen at this particular orphanage, but we want to be just as clear that there is a lot left to do.

But for now this story must pause.  It must.

I believe we all need to sit with these images for awhile.

We found 43 kids in this rundown orphanage.  43 breathing statistics.


 

A couple of them may be adopted soon.

The vast majority of these kids have no one coming for them.  No one writing a blog post about them.  No one sending emotional, "I'm a wreck, pray for me" emails about them to their friends and family.

The truth is, there are many, many more orphanages in Haiti with countless kids sitting in them who are unloved and unwanted.  The streets are filled with kids just like these with no one to care for them.  They are Vulnerable.  Hurting.  Alone.

While many American churches are worrying about the lighting on their stage, or fussing over the displays in their foyer, children are suffering in orphanages, groaning...aching...for someone to come redeem their lives.

This is the truth.
These are the pictures of truth.
I pray seeing the truth will set us free.
Free from excuses.

When you look into a child's dirty face, hold them in your arms and realize "If I leave this kid here like this, no one else is coming.  There is no plan B.  If I punt this one, no one is gonna pick up the ball and run with it" everything changes.  "I'm not called to adopt" or "I have every right to spend most of my money on myself" seems beyond stupid.

I pray that seeing the truth changes us.  I pray it causes our excuses to look silly and lame.

The reality is there are kids just like this baby girl all over Haiti who either need to be adopted, or need to be cared for in Haiti better.  This will either take opening up our homes, moving to Haiti, or rearranging our lives in order to fund better care for these kids.

I want us to hurt over the truth today, but I also hope we can get excited.
Ministry to the least of these...to orphans in distress...that's pure religion.  There's never any fault in it.  You never have to worry if asking God how you should help the orphan is the right thing.  God says it's always right.  It's without fault.  Tricky?  Yes.  Hard?  Absolutely.  Should we face it, be honest, and let faces like this keep us awake at night asking God what He wants us to do to live out the gospel towards these kids?  Without a doubt.

Once our eyes are opened, we can't pretend we don't know what to do. God who weighs our hearts and keeps our souls, knows that we know and holds us responsible to act... Proverbs 24:12

Can I just suggest that maybe God wants to use your life to write a bigger, more beautiful story than the one you're living right now?  It might be a story filled with drastic life change, or suffering, or sacrifice, but it will be a lovely story of rescue, love, sanctification, redemption, and ultimately God's glory.

We all know those are the best stories, don't we?  Those are the stories that will be told over and over and over in heaven.


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