Good Deeds: Orphans

It’s getting harder and harder to do a good deed anymore. This month and over the next two months, we’ll look at some case studies of good deeds gone wrong, and what we should do differently next time.

Africa is home to 15 million orphans and “children at risk.” Most Americans are very aware of this crisis, largely caused by the spread of AIDS. We also are familiar with James 1:27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….”

Clearly, the church needs to step up and come alongside these children, but how? The traditional answer has been to build thousands of orphanages. But is that the right answer?

Take the case of an American organization that built several orphanages in one large town. Several years later, the older children started aging out of the system. They had received an education and job training, but they found themselves floundering. Isolated in their own town, they were ostracized, had no social standing, and were unable to function as members of their community. What happened?

Additionally, I was surprised to learn that in many African orphanages, the majority of the children are not orphans! They have parents. So why are they living in an orphanage?

Orphanages are a “Western” invention, imposed upon African traditions. The African way of caring for orphans is by placing them with their extended family. There, they grow up as part of a community. They know who to go to when they need something done, who controls the job market, who has authority. They belong.

Additionally, the quality of life in a sponsored orphanage is far more comfortable than life in the city or village. Regular meals, fancy toys, clean housing, an education —what parent wouldn’t want that for their children? So poor parents are tempted to abandon their offspring in hopes of giving them a better chance at success in life.

The Christians who built and supported these orphanages thought they were doing “good deeds.” Their motives were pure. They gave sacrificially. They truly wanted to serve God and serve others. The problem is that they lacked cultural understanding.

Instead of building homes for orphans to live in, perhaps we would do better to invest in programs that provide support for aunts and uncles, grandparents, and other family caretakers. Think—there is no need to purchase land, build buildings or hire staff. Plus, the children keep their identity as members of a family.

Another viable approach is to come alongside of “child heads of household.” If one child is old enough, with some adult support they are able to keep the family together. Think of the difference it makes to be able to live with your siblings, as opposed to being separated and placed in different institutions! Plus, any property owned by the family is retained and passed down to the new generation.

Whether financial assistance comes as a handout (good for the short-term, but destructive in the long run), or job training or microfinance loans, helping the community helps the orphans as well.

Next time you’re approached by an organization that wants to help orphans in Africa, consider their approach. Are their ministry goals culturally appropriate? Give, but give wisely.

The story here was taken from “Community-Based Orphan Care,” Mission Frontiers Nov./Dec., 2011

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