It’s a Person, Not a Problem

childHow many people label the recipient of their help, and then the label is all they see: homeless person, orphan, addict, etc. It’s so important in orphan care, and in ministry in general, to see the person and not the problem. We need to move beyond seeing the circumstances and see them as individual people with their own hopes, fears, and histories. God only sees the person; it’s a good model.

One of the best ways to understand someone is to put yourself in their place mentally. To “walk a mile in their shoes.” Most of us (hopefully) have no idea what an orphaned or abandoned child is going through, but it’s so important to try and understand. Before we can reach anyone, they need to know we know them, understand them and have their best interest at heart. In our experience, the most effective staff in our orphanage are the ones with the worst backgrounds. They understand our children. They’ve been there, they know the fear.

If a child is coming into an orphanage or foster care situation, it’s not like anything most people have ever experienced. Think about the times you’ve seen people interviewed after a major fire or tornado. “I’ve lost everything.” is a common response. But have they lost everything? They might have lost their home and belongings but they still have a church, a job, friends, their family is probably still around. And yet, at that moment, “everything is gone.” That is a lot to deal with.

Now, imagine what a child is going through. They actually have lost everything. Their home is gone, it’s likely they won’t see friends or family ever again, they will never go back to their school, odds are all they have in the world is the clothes on their backs. On top of the obvious loss in their lives, they are still very young, so everything is magnified in their minds. When you’re six a week might as well be a year. Any event, good or bad, is seen as huge through a child’s eyes. A child’s reactions haven’t aged to understand that life changes, that peaks and valleys will happen. To a child, something we might brush off becomes the end of the world. Layer that with the fact that children winding up in the system probably never had good role models in their lives to learn how to deal with trials, hardships, and loss in a healthy way. Most of us kind of freak out if we lose our keys or cell phone, imagine what a child is going through who has lost everything.

Recently we took in a group of three siblings. It’s not uncommon for the oldest in a group to be the “parent” if the real parents were either physically or emotionally absent. The ten-year-old was REALLY in charge of his siblings emotionally, and he was in a panic and on the edge of tears. “What if my mom is looking for us?” (We calmly explained that the social worker knows where they are.) “This is an orphanage, what if we get adopted, and our mom wants us back?” (We don’t do that, adoptions are pretty rare with older kids, and sibling groups are almost NEVER adopted.) He didn’t have the name of his community but tried to describe it to us so we could take him home. (His descriptions could have been any one of hundreds of communities around Tijuana.) We slowly and calmly did everything we could to assure him that he and his sibling would be OK.

I’m sharing this to help you put yourself into the mind of a child in the system. Some people respond to the worries and fears of a child by minimizing it. “You’ll be fine.” “Others have gone through this.” “Don’t worry about it.” This type of response does not help. We need to speak to them at their level and give their worries the attention they deserve in their mind.

The problems in our lives are frequently huge in our eyes and seem insurmountable. To God, our problems are tiny. He sees the big picture. He’s seen all this before. But He still hurts for us, listens to us, is there for us. Jesus came to die on the cross but to also walk as man, putting Himself in our place. He knows our trials, our fears, our questions that, in His mind, are simple worries. In His eyes, our problems are passing trivia, but to the children we are, they are crushing stresses in our lives. He hurts for us. He wants to be that loving, encouraging voice telling us we’re going to be OK.

If you work in childcare or any ministry, you need to be that calming voice, that attentive ear to the pains and fears people are going through. In a very real way, we are representing God. We need to be that anchor, that safe place, that understanding ear for the people we are ministering to. See the person, not the problem; walk in Christ’s example.

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Nobody Cares

childrenOne of the things we all need to learn in ministry is that just because we’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean everyone else has the same passion. We are all seeing the world through a different prism of our own experiences and callings, and everyone reacts to the needs of the world differently. We’re also all at varying levels of generosity and maturity in our faith.

Several years ago when my wife and I first moved to Mexico, we were just starting out in orphan care. We moved to Mexico because we felt a calling and a passion for helping with the tremendous needs of the children we had met. Several people in our circles were also passionate about orphan care, but at different levels, some people just didn’t care. Everyone is coming from a different place in their lives, and they have different passions. That’s normal. However, one experience early in our ministry still sticks out as a point of frustration, and a lesson that I needed.

When you run an orphanage, you tend to have quite a few people who drop by to see what you’re doing. People frequently drop off donations and want to find out how they can help. We depend on our regular supporters and the many drop-by contributions that we receive to care for our huge family. One day, two people came by and dropped off a small bag of used clothing, nothing unusual about this and we appreciate everything that comes in. After we showed them our facility, and we let them meet the kids, we walked back to their car. They then made a comment that I still remember, “You guys are doing some great work, but from here we’re going to go volunteer for the next two days at the animal shelter in Rosarito.” They went on, “If you, or anyone you know, want to help, please let us know.”

As soon as I heard they were going to an animal rescue center from our orphanage, I mentally rolled my eyes; I might have literally rolled my eyes a little also. I thought to myself, “So, dogs and cats are more important than orphaned and abandoned children. Got it.” I held my tongue with what I wanted to say and told them to have a great time.

It took me a few days of mashing that around to come to terms with someone choosing animals over children, but it was a revelation. Just because you or I am passionate about something doesn’t mean everyone else shares our passion. This sounds obvious but pick any topic, need, or pastime and someone is going to feel it’s important, and that everyone else should feel the same way. Orphan care, homeless people, surfing, or Ohio State football, everyone is passionate about different issues or causes. It’s important to remember that it’s OK, even good, to have different passions. Just because you see a need, doesn’t mean everyone else has to, or can, see the same need. It’s about finding YOUR calling and moving forward with it.

If you’re in missions or run any ministry, the title of this article can really strike home when you’re fundraising: nobody cares. It’s so important to remember that everyone is different, everyone has a different opinion on giving, and everyone is living in their own experience. Not everyone you encounter will give to your mission or cause the way you feel they should. We all need to find those few people who get what we’re working on, and who want to partner with us. Let everyone else find their passion and causes that have nothing to do with us.

Someone asked me recently if it was hard to see someone drive up in an $80,000 car and drop off a few used toys as their only donation. It’s taken me a while to realize that if that’s all they’re doing, it’s still more than most people. The more significant issue is, I can not judge them, I don’t know them, I don’t know their story. I don’t know their passions. They might be giving and sacrificing tremendously in other areas. Most of the time, we just don’t know. That one bag of worn-out clothing or old toys might be the first thing they’ve ever given away in their lives; we need to treat it like gold and thank them for their efforts. If a young child brings you a horrible drawing, you still praise it and appreciate it for what it is, their first effort. We need to encourage people to support and share whenever we see people trying to step out and give or serve. Even if they are giving to, or supporting organizations that we don’t understand or “get.”

It’s not that nobody cares, it’s just that they might care in a way or area that’s different than we do.

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Fear the Goat Guy

goat-animal-horns-black-and-white-86594A famous pastor once said there are exactly three ways to crash in ministry: pride, lust, or greed. The way he put it was: “Avoid the glory, the girls, and the gold.” It’s a great lesson. If you’re in ministry and doing it right, it’s so easy to fall into traps that will slowly damage you, and the ministry, beyond repair. The enemy knows us well and knows how to draw us into areas that will destroy us. Men and women of God better than you and I fall every day. We need to be alert at all times and remember we are broken, messed up people.

It’s impossible to cover the countless ways people in ministry, or people in general, fall into sin. I do want to share one story where God reminded me about the need to stay humble, to avoid the glory. As I am constantly reminded, I have much to be humble about.

A few years after my wife and I moved to Mexico to take over management of a struggling orphanage, things seemed to be coming together. The children in our care were doing well, the staff was learning the ropes, things were flowing along nicely. One day, I had several local leaders and officials scheduled to come in for a string of meetings. My usual “uniform” was flip-flops, shorts, and a t-shirt. Not exactly business attire. With the officials coming in I went all out: dockers and real dress shoes. (there is a point to this clothing detail.)

After a day full of meetings, I felt pretty good about myself. “Look how professional I am”, I thought as the day moved along. About 4 pm, after the meetings had wound down, an older, scruffy looking gentleman came to my door and informed me he was here to kill a goat. We had a few goats on site, and I knew we were planning on butchering one, so this wasn’t a big surprise. Usually, our maintenance guy would take the local goat butcher back to the pens, and point out which unlucky goat was on the menu the next day. For some reason, our guy wasn’t around so I told the “goat guy” that I would show him. Now, being raised in Southern California, the idea of raising and butchering your own meat was still new to me. But I thought “Sure; I can handle this, how hard could it be.”

After walking the goat guy back to the pens, and pointing out the future taco meat, he asked me to hold the goat for a minute. “Ummm, OK.” He had to show me what to do. I entered the pen and straddled the goat between my knees like I was going to try to ride it. I then held on to the two horns to keep it still. I assumed as I held the goat he was going to get a rope, or needed to prepare something else so that I could get back to my “important day.” While I waited, I was talking softly to the goat to try to calm it down. (I’m an idiot.) Just then the goat guy walked over and, without warning, slit the goat’s throat causing it to thrash around while it bled out. I was kind of freaking out at this point; the goat guy, on the other hand, was enjoying this little display immensely. I honestly think to watch this “soft American” hold the goat while it went to the great goat beyond was the high point of the goat guy’s week.

After I got out of the pen and my adrenaline dropped a little, I walked back to our house. I had blood splatters on my shirt, my dress pants below the knees and my dress shoes covered in goat blood, and I had bits of straw sticking to me. As I staggered into the house, my wife asked with wide-eyed panic, “what happened to you?” I looked like I had been part of a murder scene. I told her, “I think I’m fine, but I am now marked for Passover.”

The point of this little story is to show how God will give us what we need. I had embraced pride. The ministry was growing, and in my mind, I had more to do with it than I did. In spite of all my “important meetings,” the local goat guy showed me that I was not that important. I needed some humbling, I needed to look foolish, I needed the goat guy in my life at that moment.

The battles we fight in ministry, and in life, don’t stop. We need to be aware of these battles, or we’ve already lost. Even the greatest men and women of God stumble and fall, we all need to seek God’s help and guidance to avoid the subtle snares the enemy has laid out for us. We all need a goat moment now and then.

(For anyone offended by the demise of this poor goat, please know, people eat goat meat in most of the world. I can also personally vouch that this particular goat was delicious.)

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“I’m from the Government; I’m here to help.”

32618985644_dd410eabb0_bIf your child needed to be cared for long-term by someone other than yourself, who would you feel good about? The DMV? The post office? How about the local school board? This is what society, and the church in America, has decided is best for children in need of a home, turn it over to a government agency. It has now become the government’s responsibility to care for widows and orphans.*

One of the questions I get asked all the time is whether the Mexican government helps to fund our orphanage. It surprises most people when they hear that we get no government funding to care for over one hundred children in need. Although we work directly with the government, and we have a lot of oversight, we are funded entirely through private donations. We depend on volunteers and our great donors for the work to continue. This is a system that works. Around one hundred years ago this is how it was in the US: privately funded, privately run, faith-based orphanages to care for the many children who fall through the cracks. Every country has a percentage of children in need of a home, how they approach it varies dramatically. Sadly, very few countries care for orphans well.

A couple of generations ago, the church in the US knew their mission was to care for others and do it with quality. In the past, churches opened hospitals to care for the sick; they built orphanages to care for the abandoned, the church was a place society turned to whenever needs were present. Some churches still understand the mandate to care for widows and orphans, but it’s usually blended into “benevolence” and turning over to a few people to manage while the bulk of the church carries on with the “real” ministry. Social services, as a whole, has been turned over to the government and abandoned by most churches. No wonder so many people are leaving the church. If we aren’t following Jesus’ example of loving and serving the poorest what’s the point? If the true religion of caring for widows and orphans is just a footnote, where are we focusing?

In this rambling rant, I’m not saying there aren’t some great people in any church who understand the call to serve the poorest of the poor; I’m just saying it seems like the church as a whole has shifted from the call to serve, to the call to be entertained. While some churches are great about supporting foster care or encouraging adoption, today, many churches are more likely to focus on opening coffee houses or brew-pubs. Is your church youth group more focused on entertaining activities or finding areas to serve in your town? Sure, service to others is a tough sell, but it’s a big part of living out the Gospel. We need to follow Christ’s path of sacrificial service to the “least of these.”

Jesus gave us a very clear example. He was all about service to others. He was about teaching, encouraging, feeding, healing: we are called to do the same. Not that service does anything to add to our salvation, Jesus handled that for us on the cross. What service does is draw us closer to Him, it helps our relationship with Him, it’s part of us taking on His image. Loving service to others is walking in His footsteps and makes churches come alive.

You might not be able to shift the focus of your church, but you can make a difference. Consider doing something radical with your life. Foster a child, adopt a child. If that’s not an option for you find a foster family you can help support with supplies, prayer, or anything they might need.

Someone asked me recently, “What if I’m hurting and not able to serve?” I probably surprised them with my answer: “I don’t care who you are, you can help someone. Everyone is hurting; we begin to heal when we start to focus on the pain and loneliness of others.” God doesn’t need us to help others; He wants us to help others because it’s good for us. God wants His church to help others because it’s good for the church. Maybe, just maybe, if the church learned to take the lead in social services, in serving orphans, in caring for the hurting, the church would become healthier. Maybe instead of people drifting away from the church, they would be drawn to the love and care that they see within the church. In an odd way, service to others is a selfish act. God’s rules are not like the world’s rules. If we learn to give to others, serve others, love others, we will find the joy that God wants us to have in this life.

Stop letting the government corner the market on serving widows and orphans; they’re not as much help as they think they are.

 

*(Covering my butt here: This is in NO way a criticism of the many great people working within the foster care system. Many foster care parents are incredible, it’s the system that’s lacking.)

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There’s Nothing at the Top

light-love-clouds-riverAnyone in missions hears the same one phrase whenever groups are visiting: “They’re poor but so happy.” It’s an interesting observation, and it seems to come from every age group and income level of visiting Americans. What does this say about the culture of US consumerism? Why do we automatically equate our collection of stuff to happiness? If you look at happiness studies (yes, that’s a thing) for the most part, there is no correlation between income and contentment. Once a person’s basic needs are met, more money and more stuff adds nothing to their lives.

Here in Baja Mexico, every year we host a large group that comes down from a very wealthy area in Northern California. This group has been raised with all the worldly goods this life has to offer, and are all on track to ivy league schools. I know many of them are just serving here to add it to their resumes. I’m OK with this because we can still expose them to the “real world,” even if that’s not why they came. With this group, we make it a point to get them out to spend time at various ministries in our area and meet with the leaders. These are ministries working with some of the poorest of the poor and in some of the most challenging areas. Before I send the team, I suggest they watch the leaders who, in most cases, walked away from “successful” lives in America to come and serve the poor. I specifically asked them to watch and see if these leaders seem like they are suffering, or have they found purpose. Are these leaders fighting for a goal that is never within reach? Or have they found profound joy living a life in direct conflict with everything American culture teaches us about what is important? It leads to some great follow-up discussions about what matters in life and what we should be working towards. I want them to see and think about people who have taken a path far different than most of the examples they have in their lives. I want them to experience people of depth and purpose.

Most Americans spend so much time fighting for goals that don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things: the cooler car, the bigger house, more likes or followers on social media. So much of our lives are focused on things that will mean nothing someday when we’re laying on our deathbeds. We need to be working towards impactful, eternal things, goals that move life from drudgery to joy.

This past week many of the news stories have been about two very famous people who both committed suicide. These two people had reached the top of their chosen fields but still did not find enough in this life to keep moving forward. They had attained it all and found it was nothing after all. The default response when these things happen is to blame it on mental illness, that is not always the case. Frequently suicides are triggered by circumstances or events in a person’s life; they reach a point where they can’t deal with what the world is giving, or not giving them. Sometimes people are just worn down by the grind of trying to attain something that is just out of their reach. We will probably never know the real backstory on these two tragic, headline suicides. We do know they both, for whatever reason, had no reason to go on. Once they reached the top and looked around, they found nothing.

Each one of us might attain our own misdirected goals in this life. But whether it’s fame, money, prestige, or titles, they are only an empty, shallow, echo of joy. They might bring some short-term happiness, but it will fill that aching hollow in our lives for a short blip of time. We must find more, we must find purpose, we must find a relationship with our creator.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We need to see the world, and our lives, through the eyes of our savior and redeemer. There is depth and joy in walking in Christ’s example. Most people are not called into missions or even full-time ministry, but we are called to follow Christ’s example of service to others. Walking in the shadow of Christ is brighter, warmer, and more fulfilling than standing in the full sunlight of anything this empty world has to offer.

Don’t spend your time climbing the ladder of success only to tragically find out there is nothing at the top. Have your ladder pointed in the right direction.

_____________________________

If you are in that dark place:

I’ve had two people in my social circles take their own lives in the last few years. Suicide is a tragedy for all those involved and echoes on in the lives of those left behind. If you have reached that point, or think someone in your life might, please seek help. There are people available who can help you. Please reach out to someone or call the number below.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

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Voluntourism Isn’t So Bad.

travelOver the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.

I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.

I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.

The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.

People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.

Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.

So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  2. Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
  3. Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.

It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.

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What is an Orphan?

Armenian_orphans_in_Aleppo_collected_from_Arabs_by_Karen_Jeppe

What is the definition of orphan? I know this sounds pretty straightforward but depending on who you talk to the definition of what an orphan is can vary widely. Most people assume that an orphan is a child that has no parents. But orphan can also define many other situations where the child might have a parent or two; they just aren’t around to care for the child. Both UNICEF and World Vision define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

I, along with an exceptional team, run a large orphanage. We care for about 120 children from newborn up through adulthood in a family like setting. The bulk of our children are not technically orphans in the traditional sense; this sometimes surprises people. “If they’re not an orphan, why are they in your home?” Well, it gets complicated.

If a parent or parents are in prison, rehab, or some other institutional situation where they can’t care for their child, the child needs to go somewhere. Frequently there is no extended family available or willing to care for the thousands of children whose parents are no longer in their lives. These children are technically not “orphans” but still need a home. Of the children in our care, 70% will never see blood relatives again. The parents might be out there somewhere; it’s just that reunification is impossible. We are big fans of adoption, but it’s not a reality for most children. Because there are still parents somewhere, the children are older, or there are siblings in the picture, adoptions are pretty rare.

Some children are brought to us due to severe abuse or neglect. Some have gone through things that would rip your heart out if I were to detail them here. Even though they have been removed from a home situation for their protection, they still technically have parents and are not “orphans.” They need to be cared for, counseled, and brought to a place of healing.

Occasionally a woman will give birth and for any number of reasons decide to abandon that child. The mother might be too young, they might have hidden the pregnancy, or they don’t want to acknowledge it, they might be going through some deep psychological issues. For whatever reason, in any society, a percentage of infants are abandoned by their parents. Once again these children are not technically orphans, they have parents somewhere. These abandoned children need to be cared for and raised in a way to show them how valuable they are. They need to be shown that they are not a mistake or just something to be thrown away. Being abandoned at that level leaves some deep scars.

The work of orphan care is rarely black-and-white, there are a vast amount of gray areas that we work in every day. Many people accuse orphanages of breaking up families just for the sake of filling their dorms. I’m not saying some orphanages haven’t done this, or even continue to do this, but in my experience, it’s less frequent than some people would lead you to believe.

Most of our children are referred to us by social workers just like they would be assigned to foster care families in the US, but occasionally a child will be brought to us by a parent asking us to take their child. We will do everything in our power to keep the family together. Whether it’s counseling, short-term financial help, housing, etc. we fight to keep families together. We’ve even gone so far as hiring qualified single mothers so that they could stay here with their children in a safe place. We feel a healthy family is without a doubt the very best option for a child. Unfortunately, for many children, the family option is not on the table.

So why this rambling explanation of the difficulties of defining an orphan? I just wanted to bring up the idea that orphan care can be very nuanced, complicated, and it can be hard to peg down solid answers. Orphaned and abandoned children don’t fit into our preconceived boxes. In any ministry, there are Solomon like judgment calls made frequently. What is your definition of homeless? What is your definition of a “special needs” child? Words and definitions matter a great deal, but the realities are people are messy, and we need to meet them where they are. We are all on a sliding scale of messed up. Just because a child doesn’t fit our exact definition of orphan, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Too many children in this world are desperate for a place to call home, filled with people who genuinely care about them.

In orphan care, we need to see each child as God sees us. God sees each one of us as individuals with needs, desires, and profound pains that are uniquely our own. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” God cares deeply for each one of his children. He cares so deeply for us; we should also care for those lost children all around us, whether it’s a true orphan, an abandoned child, or the lonely child next door or in our church. There are more “orphans” among us than we might realize: act accordingly.

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