From Benefactors to Bearers: The Church's Role in Orphan Care

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” James 1:27

In the last 20 years, millions of children have been involved in the foster care system, and nearly 250,000 have left care without obtaining a permanent family. For those youth, the outcomes are dire. More than one in five have become homeless after the age of 18; only 58 percent have graduated high school by age 19; 71 percent of young women are pregnant by 21; only 50 percent are employed by the age of 24; fewer than three percent have earned a college degree by age 25; and 25 percent have been involved with the justice system by age 20.

These statistics reveal that too often, our government, and as Christians, our churches, are failing the foster children in our nation. One side argues that if the Church would just do a better job at being the Church, there wouldn’t be a need for as much government involvement. On the other side is a belief that if the government could just improve its services and programs, foster youth would fare much better.

However, this dichotomy misrepresents a vision of public justice that seeks the flourishing of all foster kids. A both/and approach is needed. There is a vital role for both government and the Church, because they share the same goal of promoting justice for foster youth across the nation.

John Howard Yoder reminds us that “Church and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of pertinence of the same Lordship [of Christ].” The calling to promote justice and to promote the flourishing of orphans, belongs to both governments and churches, as well as a host of other institutions. But how can they work harmoniously to bring about restoration?  

Global Orphan’s CarePortal and the organization Safe Families offer a picture of such a partnership. Global Orphan is a global community committed to caring for children both domestically and abroad. Its CarePortal connects churches to the needs of foster children in their area. Child welfare employees acting in a government capacity share the needs of foster children and/or foster families on the portal so churches can see them and serve the need. 1,066 churches have already impacted 8,677 children in 11 different states. Safe Families focuses on orphan prevention by providing support for families in distress through hosting vulnerable children in efforts to keep them safe and out of foster care. Safe Families partners with child welfare agencies, both public and private, social service providers, churches, counselors, and shelters to protect at-risk children.

The challenge for God’s children is to move toward a position of bearing with the orphan.

These collaborations represent what Raymond Fung calls Isaiah Agenda partnerships. The Isaiah Agenda attempts to bring about God’s shalom as described in Isaiah 65, where God offers a glimpse of what restoration looks like through a vision. The vision “describes what God wants to see happen in human community. It is a community in which children do not die,” but they are given the opportunity to flourish. Fung argues that Christians play a role in bringing about this shalom, this Isaiah Vision, but that we are not the only ones. The schools, the city leaders, the neighborhood committees, and the government are our partners as God works in and through us to bring about renewal in the lives of orphans in our community.  

Government-Church partnerships have the capacity to not only improve the lives of foster children, but to shape the church’s serving posture. Kevin Schutte highlights this shift in his essay “Everything I Know about Foster Care I Learned from Our Dog.” He shares,

It is my contention that God, in his unfolding drama of redemption, has, is and will continue to call His children to bear with the orphan as a fundamental way he shapes His Bride, the Church, and works to restore human dignity. If we are honest, we are all for the caring of the orphan. The challenge for God’s children is to move toward a position of bearing with the orphan.

He recognizes bearing as an action of deep engagement and support. The posture of a bearer stands in contrast with that of a benefactor, he argues, with the latter maintaining power and control in the relationship. When the church engages with partners of any sort, however, it slowly shifts away from its benefactor posture. In engaging the orphan alongside the government, the Church cannot control all of the resources, maintain all the power, or take full credit for any successes. In these partnerships, space to be a bearer is created.

Orphan care is pleasing to the Lord. As we join with others to bring about the Isaiah vision, to bring about pieces of God’s perfect shalom, we are reshaping the way we live out our faith, recognizing God’s boundless sovereignty and celebrating His work in all spheres. The promotion of human flourishing is an agenda that belongs to all institutions and the call to care for the orphan becomes a call to lose ourselves for another, and give up time, resources, and pride, in an effort to restore what sin has tainted.

-Abbie Schutte is a senior at Calvin College majoring in Political Science with a concentration in Policy Studies and minoring in Sociology and Urban Studies. She will be heading to the University of Kansas in the fall to pursue her PhD in Political Science.