Though negative publicity has impacted orphanage ministries around the world, this paper straightens the picture a bit and looks at what can happen when Christians care for some of the least powerful in society—particularly orphans who are not “true orphans.”
AY is a medical doctor from Japan who has worked with needy young people in Southeast Asia for the past fourteen years. Her passion is to lead discovery Bible studies with young people so that their lives can be transformed as they encounter Jesus.
From Darkness into His Wonderful Light
Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 28-30
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
“Grace is holding teacher’s purse!” This was announced at lunchtime when we were preparing for a Christmas event at our sewing project shop. I checked my purse, and found that a significant amount of money was missing. And this was not the first time.
Grace had been placed in an orphanage when she was two. When first found by someone in her neighborhood, she was extremely skinny and clearly malnourished. The director of the orphanage that took her in gave her special attention and loved her like her own child. Even so, Grace has had a very difficult time feeling like she is loved unconditionally. This is not an uncommon situation for “orphans” in this country.
Historically, orphans and children from poor families were sent to Buddhist monasteries where they were given a place to live and a basic education. Many received the added dignity of becoming a monk—a position of high status in their society. Since the late 1990s, Christian churches have also responded to the needs of these vulnerable children by opening orphanages. At present, most orphanages in the country are run by either Buddhist monasteries or Christian churches and organizations.
While the term “orphanage” is usually understood to refer to a home for children without parents, it is often used here as a means of raising funds from foreign donors, even though the children who live in them are not necessarily “true orphans”. Indeed, only about one-third of the children living in Buddhist or Christian institutions are true orphans, while two-thirds have a parent or parents who have sent their children away for economic or other reasons. This reality has moved both the government and UNICEF to try to differentiate between orphanages and boarding schools, since true orphans and children with a parent or parents have different emotional and developmental needs.
Here, children can be sent to orphanages for a number of reasons. While some are sent after their parents have died, many more go after their parents divorce and neither is willing to care for them. This situation is a symptom that the bond between parents and children in this culture is very weak. Parents often perceive their children as having a distinct existence from their own. The standard Buddhist belief is that this misfortune happens to the child as a result of their karma. Sadly, this cultural trait is shared by many local Christians. For instance, when tribal Christians remarry, they often send their children to orphanages or care homes. In some cases, sending the child to live with extended family members can be far worse, as children in this situation are often treated as labourers and may not even be allowed to go to school.
Another reason for sending children to orphanages is the dislocation that takes place due to natural disasters, such as cyclones and earthquakes, or regional wars. Whether this is a temporary fix or continues for a long time, sending a child affected in this way to an orphanage may give them needed stability. Connected to this reason is the presence of grinding poverty. Many families—particularly in rural areas where the percentage living in poverty increases and fewer secondary schools are available—cannot afford to send their children to be educated beyond the primary level. Though schooling is meant to be free, many children from rural villages are unable to complete their primary education through fourth grade. And though the government has doubled the number of teachers in rural areas to level the playing field, some parents send their children to stay in hostels in cities so that they can continue secondary school.
This highlights a major reason why many children end up in orphanages—their parents want them to get a better education. The quality of schools and educational opportunities in villages and major cities differ greatly. Many parents thus seize any opportunity to send their children to the city so they can obtain a better education. For this reason, many children enter an orphanage when they reach the ninth grade. If they are to have any chance of passing the university matriculation exam, they need to get a place in one of the better secondary schools. Even so, only about one-third of all children pass the exam. And though being sent to an orphanage is seen as a route to a better education, few will rise to the top.
Grace was a true orphan who had left school at Grade 8. At that time, she joined the sewing club that we had started about ten years ago to teach teenage girls from orphanages how to use a sewing machine so that they could develop some necessary skills to support themselves, learn to work with others, have access to good medical treatment, and get an opportunity to read and study the Bible. While Grace was very moody when she first joined us, we gradually saw a change come over her as she built up confidence in herself and in her work. Eventually, she became a full-time staff member.
In many ways, she seemed to be an example of the double blessing we see when girls grow in their sewing skills and consider what Jesus would have them do as they reflect on their personal lives. Orphanages and children’s homes run by Christians usually have daily programs to teach the Bible. In this way, many children come to know of God’s love. But since the cultural understanding is that “the teacher teaches and the student listens,” personal interaction with Scripture is often weak. For this reason, we started a discovery Bible study for the girls to have a space to interact with Scripture in their daily lives. Grace seemed to enjoy studying the Bible to discover what God wants to tell us and share with others. She started to apply what she learned from her Bible study. During the health course, she came to ask me if she could serve coffee and snacks and she served our guests with joy. This is significant as those who grow up in children’s homes usually need to be told what to do rather than taking initiative.
Along with the others who joined the club, Grace received income for her work. Much of this is earned as we sell the things they make at three shops in the city. The business side of the club is sustainable without outside financial support. Through her income, Grace was able to buy a smart phone. Though it was a sign that she was making progress in life, it also proved to be an impediment. This started when she found a boyfriend online. She was so thirsty to be loved that her desire to please her boyfriend led her to start stealing money.
At first, we prayed and kept silent about her. When she said, with tears running down her face, that she was sorry for stealing, we prayed to God for forgiveness. But within a month, we found our office cash and another girl’s money had been stolen. Then, another girl saw her opening my purse again! This time, Grace denied it and blamed her friend instead.
As we pondered what to do, we wondered how many times we would need to forgive her? How many times should we give her another chance? She seems to know very well that what she is doing is wrong, and assumes we will forgive her again and again. I was about to say, “Enough is enough!” If she does not stop stealing now, she might end up going to jail. How can we get her to stop stealing from others?
As we considered what to do, we remembered Jesus’ command to forgive seven times seventy times. We recalled that he came to save the sick, not the healthy! During our weekly Bible studies on Luke, we often encountered Jesus’ unconditional forgiveness and grace for sinful people. If Jesus were here, what would he do with Grace? Forgiveness should be unconditional and not dependent upon whether she repents or not. We, however, prefer to forgive those who are likely to truly repent. We think forgiveness is something we give rather than an issue of our hearts. It is so easy for us to judge others. My heart is rigidly set to judge her because I feel she won’t change. And while I know that, as a Christian, I am forgiven by God’s grace, I feel that this is different. She must confess and show regret for what she has done.
Peter says, “but you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). Grace is a chosen person, a person who belongs to God. She is precious in his sight. He called her into his wonderful light. He loves her and called her. In the eyes of Jesus, she is already perfect without any black spots. As Jesus forgives her, he also forgives me. Jesus accepts me as a new creation. Although I am not worthy of him, he has given me his wonderful light.
I told her that what she had done was wrong and that though it hurt me and the other girls at the office, God loves her and forgives her. I gave her a week to stay at home to reflect on what she has done. I then told her to come back to work with us again when she was ready. Her “mother”, the orphanage director, sent her to a village far from the city to help her by giving her space to pray. Until today, Grace has remained in the village as her mother thinks it is better for her. Early this year, Grace sent me a message: “Thank you teacher, for accepting me as I am.” She is now working as a big sister to children at an orphanage in the village. Pray that she continues to know God’s unconditional love for her. Pray that since we are called into his wonderful light, his light will lead her to repent and come back to him. Pray for inner healing from her early childhood trauma and that she truly comes to know God’s love for her.
So many children grow up in children’s homes. Whether they have no parents or come from broken families, they grow up without knowing a parent’s love. Many people in the country and the international community criticize these institutions for being unsuitable places for children to grow up. In many ways, this is true. A 2011 UNICEF survey of a number of residential facilities in the country described inconsistency of care and a serious lack of record-keeping for each child throughout the system. It found that 90.5% of the facilities provided as many as two meals per day for the children. A mere 56% of the children were said to have enough clothing and only 68% had sufficient sleeping space. Of those who still had biological parents, relatives, or friends, only 20% percent of the children who know where their parents live can visit them, only 12% had been visited by a parent, and only 9.5% were given funds to maintain contact with their parents.
The problems with the system are demonstrably great. But where else could those children go? International adoption is not an option. Adoption locally is only possible when permission is given by the local authority and community. And though we know one pastor who arranges for Christian couples who don’t have children to adopt orphans and regularly follows them up to ensure things are going well, this is far from common and is not well regulated.
Some suggest that children should be reunited with their families, and at least one organization tries to do this. While this suggestion seems to offer many benefits and it may be possible in some cases, it will not be an option for children whose parents have died and may be impossible for those who have been abandoned or are treated like servants by their relatives. And though it isn’t the same as reuniting families, at least one orphanage director has tried to develop a type of care that unites a group of children into a family-styled unit where they can build up relationships and support one another.
Another government approach addresses the fact that the problem is made worse by the lack of rural schools—by building primary schools in villages where there are no schools so that children do not need to be sent away. This solution would give children an opportunity to stay with their families at least until the age of ten when they complete Grade 4. And while this is a great idea, the needs are so extensive that many such schools would need to be built throughout the country.
Clearly, there is no instant fix. And while we don’t think orphanages are the best places for children to grow up and we don’t encourage people to start orphanages, they at least provide opportunities for an education that could give the children a chance for the future. This is where our work fits in. When I visited the country in 2004, my encounter with a six-year-old orphan moved me to return to serve full time with an organization founded by an American surgeon and a local professor to support children’s homes, which had been increasing in numbers since the late 1990s. The motto of the organization comes from James 1:27, particularly its focus on orphans.
When the organization started, its main activity was to provide medical care for orphanages and children’s homes. To support this work, they received funds from overseas and mediated its transfer to the children’s homes. However, as the country has opened up in recent years, many homes are now able to receive foreign funds directly from donors. This has helped the organization to shift its role to providing more educational support, with a special focus on health care.
About 150 orphanages and children’s homes around the major city are registered. These homes house an average of fifteen to twenty children, serving a total of 4500 children. Every six months to a year, a mobile medical team visits each home in order to carry out health checkups on the children, observe their living conditions, and build relationships with directors and children. We measure weight and height, and provide both medical and dental checkups and treatment. We also teach children basic sanitary skills, such as brushing teeth, washing hands, etc.
In addition to caring for the children’s needs, we also provide a week-long health care course for teachers at orphanages. At the end of the course, they earn a certificate, are given a medicine box that contains first-aid supplies, and receive information on child psychology, nutrition, how to use medicine, how to treat children when they are sick, how to protect them from abuse, and much more. We also provide medical treatment and referral for children from orphanages and children’s homes through the clinic and pharmacy located at our main office.
The project serves some extremely vulnerable children and makes a positive contribution to their lives. Not only do we follow up on their social and medical needs, we also give them an opportunity to learn about the love of Jesus and come to faith in him. Children’s homes and orphanages have thus helped the Christian church in the country to grow. Children who come to faith in this environment can open doors to unreached people in the villages where they live or where they came from. Many of them attend church-run schools where they advance their education. Young people who lived in orphanages regularly bear testimony of their ability to serve the Lord in various capacities.
Even so, many children who grow up in orphanages and children’s homes bear deep wounds. Those who were abandoned by their parents or otherwise feel that they were not loved sometimes confess that because they did not receive love from their parents or other family members, they are unable love others as the Bible tells us to. This reminds us of our need to pray that these children will truly experience God’s love and learn their true identity in Christ as members of God’s global and eternal family.
The children’s backgrounds and daily lives also remind us of the sad fact that children are sometimes harmed in orphanages, including Christian ones. This is a major reason many international organizations have criticized orphanages. In many cases, the directors of Christian orphanages are pastors who are not trained to run such institutions and are so busy doing their other ministries and managing the homes that they have little time to care for the mental and spiritual needs of the children. We have also found that the children in some homes we regularly visited suffered from skin infections and malnutrition. When we asked the foreign sponsors if they would like us to monitor the situation, they failed to respond, despite the fact that they send money every month. Though perhaps made with the best of intentions, this kind of support can be very harmful to children and, given the lack of adequate oversight, should not be made.
Despite the difficulties and potential problems, there are still a great many children who need to be loved and cared for as they have no or only a little support from family, but remain precious to God. Due to the problems that they have faced throughout their lives, it takes a long time and much energy to build relationships with them and help them grow. These realities keep me going in my long-term ministry to support and love girls, like Grace, from this background. Their needs move me to train them to work at the clinic and sewing shop, to share with them the love of Jesus through Bible study and prayer, and to model Christian service. Pray with us that they might come to know the Father who loves and cares for them in a way their earthly fathers were unwilling or unable to do. Pray also that God will show you how you could demonstrate a pure and undefiled religion by visiting and caring for orphans and widows and whoever else might have physical and/or spiritual needs, whether they live near you or on the other side of the world.
 There was a time when churches were not allowed to register with the government, but Christians could register orphanages. This caused many churches to first start an orphanage and then add a church and a Christian school.