The Missing Alleys of New York

pexels-photo-917372Whenever we see New York in movies or TV shows, the plot winds up in an alley. Drug deals, dead bodies, etc., always wind up in an alley. Law and Order spent a LOT of time in New York alleys. There is just one problem with this: New York doesn’t really have alleys, it was designed in such a way as to not need them. But every director wants an alley to create that dark, dramatic scene. So the ONE alley in New York that works for filming is in everything. From this single alley, most people assume New York is just a weird maze of back alleys of red brick, fire-escapes, and overflowing trashcans. Our assumptions are frequently wrong.

Many beliefs are just assumed to be true. “Smoothies are always healthy.” (not true) “A college degree will guarantee your future.” (not true) “The more money you pay for an item, the higher the quality.” (not always true) There are countless “beliefs” that we pick up every day that are not necessarily true. It’s good to question our assumptions, to confirm or change our beliefs, to learn what reality is. This applies to missions, but also at every level of our lives.

I once hosted an orphanage director from Kenya on a visit to our orphanage in Mexico. Driving through Baja Mexico, he was amazed at the new high-rises, beautiful homes, and modern highways. He was surprised to see Costco, Walmart, McDonald’s and many other major retail chains. From everything he knew to be true, he thought Mexico was all adobe huts and dusty roads like he had seen in The Three Amigos and every other movie cliche about Mexico. He was also pleasantly surprised to find out how safe Mexico is, compared to what he assumed. To be honest, when I visited Africa I was kind of amazed at how modern the capital of Ghana was. “Hey, look, KFC!” “Is that a mall?” We all have assumptions or preconceived ideas about the world. Frequently we’re wrong.

If we’re going to be effective in short-term missions, or any area of life, we need to be working from accurate information. When we travel to foreign countries, we need to do our research, so we know what to expect, what the needs are, and how to make a positive impact. We also need accurate details, so we don’t create unintentional harm.

So how do we learn what reality is when we’re planning a mission trip? We can’t know everything about where we are going, but here are a few tips to be as prepared as possible.

1) Talk to people who’ve been where you’re going. Ask them about surprises they had, changes they had to make mid-trip or things they would do differently. Anyone who goes on a trip learns something, we can learn so much from the mistakes and profound experiences of the countless people who have gone before us. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

2) Talk to your host or host organization from your destination, and really listen to them. Odds are, your host has helped facilitate many groups and teams before yours, and has seen the best and worst of what well-meaning people try to do. “Yes, dress appropriately.” “No, you don’t need to worry about translation.” “Yes, you are welcome to attend this church service or outreach, but this is what would be culturally helpful.” If your host is serious about directing you in the right direction, they can be a huge help. It’s also SO important to know what the actual needs are, and how to address them. Whether you’re going to spread the Gospel, help with construction, or something else, you need to know what the real needs are and how you can fit in with goals of the local church.

3) Read about your destination from a wide range of knowledgable sources, but read through everything with a filter of what you’ve heard from actual people with experience. Years ago, I was all set to visit Ghana in West Africa just as an Ebola outbreak spiked. EVERYONE here in the US said I should cancel; all the news media made it sound like the world was ending. I called people in Ghana, and their response was, “What Ebola outbreak? That’s two countries away.” If we had just listened to the accepted wisdom and stayed home, we would have missed out on a life-changing, impactful trip.

So much of what we think we know might be a little “off.” We all view the world through our filters or the filters of those around us. Take a mission trip, but go with as few preconceived ideas as you can. By going with your eyes open to whatever God has to show you, you might be surprised by the people, experiences, and opportunities God might open up for you. Avoid walking down those alleys that don’t exist anyway.

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Why There Will Always Be Orphan Care

poorchildI recently had a conversation with someone who follows orphan care, and he made a statement that led to an interesting discussion. He claimed orphanages were ending in parts of the world. That many of the children were moving into foster care or larger care facilities. “So…into an orphanage?” I responded. “No, they are homes for children without other options.” He enthusiastically clarified. “So…orphanages?” “No no no,” he protested, “just big houses to care for children.” “So…orphanages?” We did not get far in the conversation. Calling an orphanage something different does not change the fact that it’s a system to care for kids who are abused, abandoned, or orphaned. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and has feathers, calling it a banana does not change the fact that it’s a duck.

I wish orphanages did not exist. The fact that society needs a place for children born into horrible situations, who are abused, who have parents on drugs, is terrible. That wars, aids, and natural disasters happen every day leaving children to fend for themselves, is a fact that needs to be addressed. We live in a broken world. We, as a society, fail children way too often. Until we live in a perfect world, kids will be victims, and they need to be rescued and cared for.

To say that we should close all orphanages because children should be with families is a worthy goal, but it’s not living in reality. It’s like saying let’s close all the hospitals in the US because the billing system is a nightmare. “But if everyone worked out, lost weight, and quit smoking, we wouldn’t need hospitals!” If you could get everyone to look after their health more, we could cut down on hospitals, but cancer, accidents, etc. would still make hospitals a necessity for many people. Even the healthiest people age and eventually wind up in the hospital. You could make inroads, but ending hospitals because you don’t like hospitals makes no sense. It just isn’t reality. The idea of ending orphanages is just as crazy.

There has been a tremendous push in the last few years for the church to take up the biblical call to care for orphans through adoption and quality foster care. This is fantastic. Everyone who can, should be caring for the less fortunate, the marginalized, those who can’t care for themselves. The problem is, even if adoption doubled or tripled in most countries it would just begin to address the problem. Inroads could be made to address the issue, but to eliminate orphanages does not take into account the many situations where adoption or other placement is very difficult or impossible.

The latest estimates say there are 150 million orphaned or abandoned children in the world. If a child is in a system, orphanage or foster care, they have a 2% chance of being adopted. Adoption is not a reality for most children who need it. Adoption, when done right, is a beautiful, biblical, life-changing event. But adoptions are just too rare to make any real impact on the vast majority of children who need a home.

Orphanages should be the last resort after healthy family reunification, adoption, or some style of foster care. But countless children still need attention after all other options are exhausted. Severe special needs children, children with multiple siblings, or children with extreme behavior issues are complicated to place. There are also many children left in limbo because the parents are still in the picture in some way but can not (or should not) care for their children. Parents in prison or parents dealing with substance abuse might take their children back when or if healing does take place.

So given that orphanages need to exist, they should be outstanding. Back to the hospital analogy; I’m not crazy about hospitals, but if I’m in one, I want it to be the best hospital possible. Orphanages should be beautiful, inviting places. Orphanages should give the children as much stability, attention, and love as they possibly can. Around the world, so many children are left in systems that, due to lack of funding or lack of caring, are horrific places to grow up. We need to do better.

If you’ve adopted or have worked in foster care, THANK YOU. Keep up the difficult work you’ve been called to do. If you work in orphan care, thank you for being the last line of defense before children wind up on the streets. It’s a worthy calling.

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The Danger of Short-term Missions

Detour1As much as I promote short-term missions, it would be disingenuous not to point out the genuine risk of taking a short-term missions trip. It’s very common for people going on short-term trips to go in with expectations and goals that are suddenly thrown out. Sometimes, something completely unexpected happens. They might be seeking to change other people’s lives, but wind up having their lives upended and transformed in the process. Some people have a defining moment, a revelation that changes the direction of their lives forever. Going on a trip might put the life you know, and are comfortable with, at risk.

Recently, my wife and I helped host a dinner party for a group of local missionaries. We hosted about fifty people representing eleven different ministries: some people serving in orphan care, some in medical outreach, some in education. We had people from a ministry for deaf children, others helping special needs children, and others working in straight up evangelism. One thing every missionary in the group had in common was how they got started. Every missionary I’ve ever met got their first taste of missions and international service while on a short-term missions trip. They had experienced their defining moment.

Aside from getting their start in missions on a short-term trip, the people assembled at this recent dinner party had a few other things in common. Most of them had never even considered themselves missionary material before that first trip, some still don’t see themselves as missionaries, but they have all found a purpose in their lives that is bigger than they’d ever considered. They would not be living in a foreign country, doing something they love, if they had decided to put off a short-term mission trip until, “the timing was right”, “next year”, “when the kids are older”, or any one of dozens of other reasons people give for not going. They took a chance, and it made all the difference in their lives. With unexpected joy, they walked away from the “comfortable life” in the US to serve others for a season. They had found purpose.

Obviously, not everyone who goes on a short-term trip becomes a long-term missionary. Not everyone who walks into a church becomes a pastor, but a few do. Not everyone who plays football in high-school will go pro, but now and then, it becomes their calling. Until we get a taste of something, until we experience something outside of our normal life, we cannot know what it’s all about.

Is there any guarantee that you’ll experience a life-changing revelation on a missions trip? Of course not. What you can expect on a missions trip is to have your world expanded, to have new eyes for the needs of people around the globe, a new understanding of the needs in your own life. Travel expands us in countless ways, even more so if we seek to get to know others at a deep level, to serve alongside others, and experience life in cultures that are entirely new to us.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

I have a friend who was sure he hated fish and seafood in general. Being raised in the mid-west by a mom who was a lousy cook didn’t lend itself to great fish dining experiences. Once he moved to the west coast, he was exposed to fresh fish, prepared by talented chefs. Suddenly his eyes were opened to what great fish, shrimp, and seafood were all about. Until he tasted it first hand, he had no idea what the experience was; he had been living within his limited experiences and missing out on something great. Ultimately, fish became his go-to dining choice whenever possible. His dining world was expanded by traveling to a new location and trying something new.

Should you go on a mission or service trip because there are needs around the world? Yes. Should you go on a trip to make an impact on others, to serve others, and to represent the gospel well? Of course. But, if you take a trip, please be aware of the genuine danger that exists when you step out like this. Your world will be expanded, your understanding of others will grow, and you might have that defining moment that will change you forever.

The life you know and are comfortable with will be put at risk on a trip, but nothing of great value has ever been accomplished without risk. Don’t reach the end of your limited time here on earth with the regret of putting off a mission-trip until it was too late. Go, serve, learn, give, let your life be rocked.

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Giving Bacon to Vegans

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 8.35.23 PMI like bacon. A lot. Bacon is the meat candy of the food world. Bacon is compelling proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Few things are not made better by adding wonderful, crispy bacon to them. I once made bacon chocolate chip cookies, and the salty, sweet, gooey combination was life-changing. I want everyone to experience the joy that is this greasy aromatic gift from God, but some people just don’t appreciate it.

I have some vegan friends. I don’t understand why they don’t want joy in their lives, but hey, that’s their decision. Maybe they don’t feel worthy of bacon? Who can answer such odd mysteries as why people would give up this tasty joy? There are many decisions I don’t understand, but I do understand people have the right to make these types of decisions. I would never force people to eat bacon. I would never give people bacon knowing they would throw it away. It makes no sense to give bacon to vegans. It would offend the vegans, and it’s a horrible waste of bacon resources. Unfortunately, people in short-term missions do the equivalent thing every day.

I’m not actually talking about people getting on planes with loads of bacon to be given out to underprivileged people (not that this is a bad idea). I’m talking about serving people and giving things away to people, who have different priorities and goals than us without taking their opinions and desires into consideration. Just because something makes sense in our eyes, does not mean it’s important to others, or even wanted.

A few years ago, after a severe volcanic event in Guatemala, a very well-meaning celebrity stepped up and did something very cool. He bought a substantial tract of land, divided it up, and built five very nice houses for five families who had lost everything in the volcanic explosion. On almost every level, this was a cool event. The families graciously accepted this incredible generosity. There were a lot of tearful photo ops and articles written about it. What could go wrong?

Over the next ninety days, four of the five families sold their new houses, took the money, and headed back to the burned out shells of their old property to start over. The new houses were nice, and clean, and new, and they hated them. The new houses were a couple of miles from their old homes, and they missed the old neighborhood (even though it was mainly gone). The kids missed the old schools. The parents had a history in the old area; the old area was home. No one had asked the families what they really wanted; assumptions were made, time and money were wasted. Bacon had been given to vegans.

We had to learn the importance of considering the recipient the hard way in our own ministry. One of the ministries we run is building homes for needy families in our area. Years ago, we would build fairly humble “shelter housing.” One big, kind of unfinished room, and then give it to a family. The families were always thankful and gracious, but we noticed that within a few months they would either take down the house and use the wood to build what they really wanted, or they would abandon the house and move on. It took us a while to realize that we were doing it all wrong. We started working with the families, building alongside the families, and helping them construct what they really wanted. Today, we visit the families months and years later, and they have pride of ownership, they add on to the houses, remodel, and create a home, not just a shelter.

I speak with orphanage directors all the time who ask me how to educate their donors to do a better job. Most people bring piñatas, candy, and toys to an orphanage. I can guarantee, what any orphanage really needs is food, cleaning supplies, and other day-to-day supplies. The candy and toys make the donors feel good, there are some great photo ops, but most children in orphanages get plenty of candy. As I was writing this an orphanage director came by, he shared that he’s asking groups to bring food instead of Christmas gifts this year. The kids will still get something for Christmas but “The $20 toy will be broken in two days, $20 of food can feed the whole orphanage a meal.” He’s hoping his donors understand.

When giving to others, whether it’s an orphanage, food bank, needy family, or even people in your own life: consider the recipient. Is what you’re doing honestly about blessing others in a way that makes a difference, or is it about you feeling good? Are you assuming what is important to you, HAS to be important to those on the receiving end? In any relationship, communication is critical to understanding needs and expectations. We should all ask, listen, and seek to understand more about those around us.

Please stop giving bacon to vegans. Save the bacon for those of us who appreciate it.

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Migrant Caravans and a Missions Response

migrant.jpgIt’s been interesting to see the response to the migrant caravan moving through Mexico and landing at the US border. From both countries and every political persuasion, there are strong opinions and emotional reactions. Usually, this blog is not used as a platform to discuss current events, but this topic is (quite literally) in my backyard. I’ve spoken with ministry leaders serving the migrants, some of the US border guards, and politicians here in Mexico. I’ve had churches contact me in fear, and other churches contact me asking how to help. I’ve also had the profound privilege of spending time with the migrants themselves, serving with others, and serving alongside some great people in the “caravan.”

Within the group assembled in Tijuana are families, some young teens traveling alone, some single men, etc. They’re a cross-section of any society in the world. Are there some scary people? Not as many as the media would lead you to believe. Generally, this is a large group of people who left a horrible situation hoping to make a better life. They were mistaken or misled into believing it would be simpler than it is. Now they’re stuck; some are going home, some are finding jobs and settling in Mexico, some are still holding out hope for the golden ticket into the US. All are scared, tired, cold and hungry. They are like any of us, looking for a secure future and a place to raise a family.

The topic of the migrants is a hot-button issue. People have been VERY clear on social media and elsewhere about their specific opinions. Even here in Mexico, the response is very divided; many people are stepping up to help feed and care for people in the camps, others are protesting and complaining about their presence here in Baja.

So what should our response be to the migrant caravan? Politics and agendas aside, there are clear biblical directions as to what our response needs to be.

“I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:36-40

It’s interesting to see that Jesus mentioned, “I was in prison, and you visited Me.” Well…this seems kind of extreme. Jesus never specified whether or not the person made bad decisions to wind up in prison, He never said the person in prison deserved it, He was just pointing out that we need to visit and help those who need help. Period. There is not a lot of wiggle room here. It doesn’t matter if we agree with why they’re in the position they’re in, it doesn’t even matter if we are put at risk or not, we are called to help.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:43-44

Hmmm, “pray for our enemies?”, This also seems kind of extreme. But our faith is also called to be extreme. Even if we disagree with why people are in the caravan, even if we feel they should just go home, even if we know from our gut they should never be permitted into the US, we are still called to pray for them. We are called to show grace and shower blessings on them as God has blessed us.

Our response to the needs around us, and more importantly the people in need around us, says a great deal about the maturity of our faith. Are we responding like spoiled children defending our toys? Or are we showing grace and generosity to those around us? Our response in challenging times and circumstances means more than we can possibly understand. Our response is a stronger testimony than a thousand sermons. It matters how you respond to an enemy, perceived or otherwise.

Are we more loyal to our politics? Or to God and our faith in Him? We have a guidebook to tell us how we are to respond. We have a faith that directs us. Political parties come and go. Men will always fail us eventually. Stick with the only cause that is truly worth fighting for.

The migrant problem will eventually fade away; our response might be brought up later on: “I was hungry in the migrant camp, and you fed Me.”
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Kicking a Child Out of an Orphanage

cryingAt what point do you kick a child out of an orphanage? Last week I received a call from a new, well run orphanage with this very question. Yes, it does happen. The single hardest decision we make as a home is: at what point do you “give up?” At what point do you remove a child from an orphanage?

I still remember the first child we moved out of our home over twenty years ago. Sergio was about twelve; he was a terror child. I liked him, everybody did, and in his case, that was part of the problem. He was smart, well liked, a natural leader. The problem was, he was using all his natural gifts in the wrong ways. He could manipulate anyone, break into any building, get the other kids into trouble to shift blame, he was brilliant. He was also half our headaches. Incredibly foul language, stealing whenever possible, and leading others into trouble was Sergio’s full-time job. He was very good at his job.

We tried everything to shift Sergio’s efforts. Counseling, grounding, extra projects, more counseling, prayer, moving him into new dorms, etc. I still remember when we decided to kick him out, to give up and move him to another orphanage. I remember him pleading with me for a second (40th?) chance. His tearful begging to stay in our home as we loaded him into a car is permanently seared into my memory. For many days and weeks I second guessed our decision: “Did we do the right thing?” But, almost immediately after he left, it was like a heavy blanket of oppression was lifted off our home. The stress level dropped way down, the darkness lifted, the other children seemed incredibly relieved, joy returned to our home: we had made the right call for the home. But, did we make the right call for Sergio?

Sometimes a child just doesn’t fit. For whatever reason, not every orphanage, or family, is the best fit for every child in need. It’s not talked about a lot, but even in adoptions, sometimes it does not work, and a child winds up back in the system. Truly incredible, loving couples sometimes just cannot break through the walls and challenges of a wounded child. There are many stories of “failed” adoptions where the children are sent back. We’ve received children back after an adoption goes sideways. It’s easy to judge a couple for giving a child back until you’ve walked a few weeks or months in their shoes. Until you’ve lived with a violent child, who does not respond to the best, loving efforts, you cannot understand. People are messy.

It’s taken me years to reach a semi-peace with the fact that not every child “fits” every home. In the case of the orphanage who called me recently, it was an easy call: “Move the child NOW.” This new orphanage is just starting out, and the government sent them a young child with autism, this home does not have the training, nor ready for the challenges, that an autistic child brings to the table. It’s not fair to the home, the staff, and most importantly the child. This child needs special attention, and people with the calling and training to raise them in the best way possible. Many times, moving a child out of home can be the best thing for the child, if they wind up in a situation better suited for their particular needs.

Think of a church. Could you grow as a Christian in a church that was not comfortable or a good fit for you? We each need to find a church, school, medical center, whatever, that best fits our needs at a particular place in our lives. This does not mean that a church or school is “bad” or has failed, it just says that they are helping people in ways that don’t fit our needs. People each have different areas and wounds that need addressing; we can not be all things to all people and do it well. There are many specialty orphanages: deaf children, autistic children, HIV positive, etc. that are the perfect fit for specific children. Some homes do better with rebellious teens, children with attachment issues, etc. Not every child fits every home. That is OK. It is so much better to realize this and act on it than force a child to be raised in a place that cannot give them all that they need to grow into healthy adults.

A couple of times a year now, we choose to move a child to another orphanage. Several times a year, we take in children that have been removed from other orphanages. It occasionally takes a few moves until a child finds a home that fits their specific needs, history, and temperament. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just finding the right “fit” for a child.

A few years ago a car pulled onto our property and Sergio, the child we had kicked out years ago stepped out. Sergio had grown up and moved on with his life. He brought his wife and two children back to show them where he had lived for a few years. Sergio came over and, to my great surprise, thanked me for kicking him out. He told us that it was the wake-up call he needed to turn his life around. He landed in a smaller home, with much tighter discipline that he desperately needed. It was a good day.

If you run an orphanage, take in foster children, or run a school, please realize you can not help in every situation. You have gifts, callings, and talents that can impact specific children. Keep up the efforts, and reach those you can. You’re already doing more than most people ever dream about.

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Breaking the Cycle of Orphan Care

IMG_7507 2Most of the time, orphan care seems like a losing game. The bulk of the time it just doesn’t work the way we envision it. Often, a child is brought to a home with so much baggage that it’s almost impossible to help them reach a healing place emotionally. Frequently, a child is in an orphanage (or foster care) for a short period and then returned to the family, and the cycle of abuse or neglect continues. Orphan care can be a discouraging, heart-wrenching journey. But it can work some of the time. The times orphan care does work makes all of the other times worth it.

Recently, two great young adults married. Weddings go on all the time, but this marriage was a little different. Both had been raised in an orphanage. For reasons that aren’t important here, they were each brought to an orphanage with other siblings at a very young age. They were raised in this large home, and it was the only family that they knew for many years. They grew up independently, she going on with her education, him apprenticing in construction and learning various marketable trades. After they were out and on their own, they started dating and continued to make healthy life decisions as they planned for the future. A few years later, once she graduated, and he had established his own successful construction firm, they decided to marry. Today they are constructing their own home and building a wonderful life together. They’re a joy to be around. Granted I am biased; I so am proud to call Jerri and Yury two of my many children.

So how did these two beat the odds of becoming healthy productive adults while being raised in the system? I’m not saying we have all the answers, and I’m not saying every child brought to us has the same outcome, but it can work. We have found that many of the children raised in our home for years have gone on to be healthy productive members of society. Today there are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, many healthy individuals that can look back and say they were raised in an orphanage. It can work.

Many factors go into what makes a successful orphanage, even defining what “successful” means can get complicated. But, there are two factors that we’ve found to be the most impactful for children who need long-term care and healing.

1) Consistency. We all need a stable environment. Most children in the system anywhere in the world are moved to new homes, returned to blood relatives and then removed again, moved to another home, etc. If we each had to change homes, schools, friends, churches, etc. every month or two we would have some serious issues also. Constantly shifting living arrangements is not how people are designed to live and grow. God is consistent; He does not change. We all need a certain level of security in our lives. Over time, we’ve found that children given a loving, consistent upbringing will eventually learn what it means to feel comfortable, to know they are loved and wanted. We all need this.

Part of consistency is building traditions into our lives — the same activities for the holidays, the traditional meals, celebrations, and events that occur annually. The simple rituals that happen in most families: birthday cakes, the tooth fairy, etc. almost never occur in the lives of children who are in the system. They never know what the next week will bring, they don’t know what to look forward to. We need to be consistent in our care and model stability in these fragile lives.

2) A Servant’s Heart. We are designed to serve others. Most child-care systems never give the children the privilege of serving others. Children are fed and cared for, but a life of just receiving is an empty life. It also creates a victim mentality that does not make for healthy relationships in adulthood. By allowing children to experience the joy of serving others, it gives them purpose. When a child is abused or abandoned it can be hard to show them they have value. When a child has been thrown away, it teaches them at a profound level that they have no worth. By showing them they that can have a positive impact on others, it shows them they have great things to offer the world. Service shows them they have value. Service shows them God wants to use them to impact other people’s lives in a positive way.

An attitude of service makes us all healthier. It makes us better workers, bosses, spouses; it just makes us better people. Christ’s example to us is a perfect servants heart. We need to not only follow that example ourselves, but we also need to instill that humble servant’s heart in the children we are raising. A humble servant heart is the most empowering gift you can give a child. It will heal them, and change them for the better.

Does orphan care always have a happy ending? No. But it can work. Even in the cases where we feel it’s failed, we need to know that the seeds we plant in the hurting children we encounter are what matters. Those seeds can grow down the road; they can impact lives. If you are in orphan-care, please know your work matters a great deal. Your efforts are needed, work through the discouraging times. It can work, hang on to the times when it does.