Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?

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Spiderman, Batman (and Robin), Superman, Ironman, etc. Why are so many superheroes orphans? It’s more than just an odd coincidence. Comic book writers know basic human nature. They know that, when channeled correctly, trauma and pain can be used for good. Unless someone is cut deeply, it’s challenging to have the empathy and understanding needed to truly help and reach out to others. Unless someone has lost everything, they have no idea how to reach others who have.

In our area of Mexico, broken tile mosaics are very popular. You start out with clean, bright, shiny, usually flawless tile. You then drop it, or in some fashion shatter the tile to break it into sharp, jagged, usable pieces. After the first breaking, you take a specialized type of pliers to crush off rough edges or create new edges, to shape it into the perfect piece to create the design. Without that shattering and crushing, the tile might be flawless, but it would be useless for its intended purpose. The artist creating the mosaic sees the bigger picture and breaks each piece to create a stunning masterpiece that brings joy and beauty into the world. Sometimes, we are that tile.

When my wife and I first got to Mexico, the children in the orphanage had seen a lot of people come through and had heard a lot of false promises. When they met us, in their eyes, we were just another couple that was going to abandon them. The first few weeks they tested us, and we had a hard time connecting with our limited experience and horrible Spanish. One night, while talking with some of the teen boys, it came up that my mother had died when I was fairly young and my wife came from her own challenging upbringing. The moment they heard about our histories, I could see something change in their expressions that said: “Oh, they get it.” Suddenly, although our Spanish still sucked, and we still had a LOT to learn, a door was opened between us, and we had a connection. Without the pain we had gone through, that door would not have opened. Without our histories, I doubt we would be in orphan care today.

We interview a lot of people who feel called to orphan care and want to join our team, and we ask all the standard questions. The one question where I carefully watch their response is “tell me about your childhood.” If they get nervous, they move to the top of the list. Over the years, we’ve found that our BEST staff are the ones with the worst childhood. I don’t wish pain on anyone, but I know God can use it. Abandonment, child of divorce, alcoholic parents, time in foster care, should never have to happen. But man, it can create people of depth and understanding. They “get” the pain our children have gone through. They understand the healing that needs to take place, and how to guide our children through it. The Master has used their broken edges to shape them in such a way that He can use them for a masterpiece.

We had one long-term volunteer come in that seemed perfect, on paper. He was raised in a great family, very polite, came from a very active church, impressive education, etc. It quickly became apparent that he was a disaster in orphan care. He didn’t do anything wrong exactly; he just couldn’t connect with the kids. He didn’t get it; there was no empathy in him. He even had a hard time connecting with the other team members on a deeper level. It just didn’t work. In talking to him even, he used the term “charmed life” when referring to his history. Ideal family, small-town upbringing, popular in school, etc. He had never really suffered anything. He went home to the US after a few months and he’s doing fine, I’m sure he’ll have a good life, but his lack of suffering hindered his ability to minister to those in need. He had never been broken.

If you’ve gone through loss, abandonment, the death of loved ones, etc., take joy in knowing that we have a loving Father, a master artist, who can take our broken, rough edges and shape them into a masterpiece. If we’ve turned the pain over to God, and allowed Him to move us through healing, we can now be the tools He will use to change lives. There is nothing that has happened to us that God can not use if we allow Him.

If you’re in orphan care, the healing process is long, complicated, and can sometimes be an agonizing experience as we lead children through the pain. But it can work. God can bring children through horrific experiences and bring them to a healthy place. The sad truth is, not every child heals emotionally. Some will make poor life decisions and never reach that place where they have moved on from what’s been done to them. Our job as caregivers is to guide our children to healing, to show them that what’s been done to them is not who they are. We always need to remember that God is the master, the artist, who will shape the broken parts into His perfect masterpiece. We just carry the broken tile to the Artist.

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It’s OK to Say “No” to Someone in Need.

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We live in a broken world. Unless you’re living in a cave, it’s impossible not to be aware of people all around us struggling with difficulties in life. We see suffering in the news from countries far away, we read about war and injustice in so many places. If we haven’t become too calloused, we see struggling people in our towns, in our churches, and maybe even in our own homes. It can be overwhelming. We almost have to maintain a certain level of denial, or we would curl up into a ball to give up hope. BUT, sometimes, with God’s guidance, we can maintain hope and make a difference in someone’s life. We CAN make a difference. Hang on to that. Seek God’s will with who you should help.

In my line of work, caring for orphaned and abandoned children, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the staggering numbers of children in need. Depending on how you define “orphan,” there are around 150 million orphaned or abandoned children worldwide. If the international numbers aren’t discouraging enough, even the numbers of a single city can be overwhelming. In Tijuana, the city closest to where I work, the figure that’s used is roughly 5,000 children living on the streets. You can’t save everyone, no one can.

Yesterday I was contacted about a single mom with four kids. She will likely die in the next few months from an ongoing battle with cancer. There is no extended family and dad abandoned the family long ago. Someone helping her reached out to us about taking her four children into our home. The details are still being worked out, and we’re doing what we can to help. The four siblings will probably wind up moving into our home at some point. It’s making the best of a heartbreaking situation. BUT, for every child we’re able to help, there are 60, 80, 100 children that we need to turn away. The team here has to make Solomon like decisions every day: Who do you help? And who do you turn away? You can’t save everyone.

Anyone working full-time (or even part-time) in a service focused ministry needs to make hard decisions every day. For every homeless individual you serve, there are 20 more people outside the door. For every family a food bank helps with a box of groceries, there are 30 more families needing assistance. For every child rescued, there are dozens more in danger on the streets.

If we try to help everyone in our sphere of influence, we might wind up helping no one. I work with orphanages from many different countries. I’ve found that just like people, orphanages tend to land into personality types. One type of orphanage that I understand, but dread walking into, is what I call the “crazy cat lady orphanage.” Occasionally an orphanage is run by someone who is so overwhelmed by the hurting children around them that they take in any child in need. That might sound very noble: “I never turn away a child in need,” but it sets up a horrible situation. If the home has space, resources, and staffing to do a good job for 30 children, it can be a beautiful thing. If that same home, with the same resources, grows to 50, 70, 90 children it can be horrible. Lack of food, hygiene, and general attention can make some orphanages a filthy, lice and rat infested nightmare. Last year, one home I visited staggered me, my first thought was “these children would be better off on the streets.” I really liked the director. I think her heart truly was to help the kids, but she was so overwhelmed she became ineffective in reaching her end goal. Where do we find the balance?

There’s a topic that most people don’t talk about. Jesus, in the three years that he minstered on this earth, didn’t help everyone. For every cripple he healed there were hundreds he didn’t. For every injustice he confronted there were dozens he walked past. For every person He taught, there were thousands that never heard Him speak. Jesus fed the 5,000, but there were many others that went hungry. No one would call Jesus a failure, He found a balance and did the will of his Father. That’s all He was required to do, that’s all any of us are called to do. Jesus spent a tremendous amount of time in prayer, He spent time alone, and then went and did what He was called to do. It’s a pretty good model, one more of us should follow.

Whether we realize it or not, we all make decisions every day about who we can help, and who we turn our back on. How many homeless people do we walk past on the way to Starbucks? Are there people in our church, school, or office that just need someone to listen to them? It’s ok to say “no” to someone in need IF our hearts are open and sensitive to serving those in need when we are called. We need to seek to understand God’s will. We need to be seeking His eyes and heart for the suffering around us, and the wisdom to represent Him well.

If you’ve become overwhelmed with the challenges and suffering around you, and don’t help others because you can’t save everyone, please step out and help just one person this week. It will matter greatly to them, and your life will be better for walking in the example of Jesus. If you’re the one overworking, killing yourself trying to save everyone, please have some grace for yourself and take a break. You can also walk in the example of Jesus: say “no” to someone, say yes to helping the ones God is calling you to help, and in all things: seek the Father’s will.

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Orphans Should Get Off Their Butts and Help Someone

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Orphan care is more than a little complicated. Along with all of the basics of childcare and raising healthy individuals, you are also guiding a child from a wounded place to a place of restoration. One of the realities of running an orphanage is that everyone who visits considers themselves an authority on parenting. I don’t claim any great expertise. The longer I do this, the more I realize what I don’t know, but I believe over the years we’ve modified, and stumbled into, an approach to healing the children in our care.

No childcare system is perfect. The philosophies and approaches to raising children have swung dramatically over the years, especially in the field of orphan care. You can find a book, study, or website to back up almost anything you choose to believe about helping children through hurt and abandonment issues. Combined with a loving, family based environment, in our experience, the best way to help a child move to a healthy place emotionally is to let them help others.

Over the years we’ve had what we consider to be a very high success rate with children in our care. “Success rate” is honestly hard to define, and can be fairly objective. The last I read, 70% of all children in foster care wind up in prison. These statistics aren’t much better for many orphanages around the world. What I consider a failure in orphan care is a failure to break the cycle. Unfortunately, most children raised in the system wind up with their own children back in the system. Honestly, some of our children have made poor life choices, but the vast majority of the children we are in regular contact with have gone on to have healthy lives, marriages, and are doing a fantastic job of raising their own kids. Several of our adult children are now married and caring for orphans themselves, that’s an excellent way to be “back in the system.”

So how do you move a child from a broken hurting, angry place to an emotionally healthy, functioning, contributing member of society? The number one way we’ve found to move a child to a healthy place is showing them the joy of helping others. We don’t ignore the fact that they’ve been abandoned. Though in many cases our children have gone through horrific abuse, we show them that what has been done to them is not who they are. They are precious and valuable individuals that God wants to use to bless others. God does not make mistakes, He can and will use the broken, He can use the wounded, and there’s incredible healing in experiencing that joy of being used by God.

In our home, the goal is to have service flow through everything we do. Bagging groceries for needy families in our community, painting a house for an elderly lady, going and preparing a meal or bringing supplies to other orphanages, etc. are all part of what we do. We want service to be taught through both word and deed. When a new child is brought into our home, one of the first things we do is set them up with a “mentor child,” a child a year or two older than the new one coming in and one that’s been here a few years. The mentor child has the important responsibility of taking the newly arrived child and explaining how everything works. The mentor explains how the different homes on our property work, how the dining hall works, how the activities work, and everything he or she might need to know. Not only is it less intimidating for the new child to get all of this information from another child, think how meaningful it is for the mentor to be trusted at this level and given this great responsibility. They are the first friend the new child will have on a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Most of the children in our care have some pretty horrific stories from before they came to us. Some of our children have quite literally been thrown away; you can only imagine how this would affect someone emotionally. By showing them that they have something valuable to offer to those around them, that they have something to give, it gives them purpose. By showing them that they are the hands and feet of Jesus, it shows they are valued by Him.

The idea of service as a healing concept is not in any way new, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of only providing and “protecting” the child. Don’t get me wrong, we take good care of every child in our home, but if you only treat them as fragile victims with nothing to offer that becomes their identity. Our children are so much more than what has been done to them.

The idea of service to others as being fundamental to our emotional health should be obvious to anybody who professes to be a follower of Christ. If we say we are followers of Christ and are not actively serving others in our daily lives, we are hypocrites. Jesus gave a very clear example of service in his everyday life. Everything he did was focused on blessing those he encountered. He spent his time teaching, encouraging, healing, and serving those around Him. On the last night he had with the apostles he chose foot washing as his final example for them. Service is important to God. Not that He needs us to help others, He knows that helping others is good for us. He only wants good things for us.

We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been abandoned by someone, but that is not who we are. Over and over again we’ve found that if moved to a healthy place, God can use those hurts to create powerful ministry. We have a great team of long term volunteers/missionaries. When I’m interviewing someone, and they get nervous when I ask them about their childhood, I always bump them up the list. It’s not always the case, but we’ve found that if people have been hurt in childhood, and have moved through it, they have a much deeper empathy for the hurting and wounded. They get it. God can use our hurts to soften us, to shape us, to prepare us to reach others. Through serving others, orphaned and abandoned children begin that slow process to healing.

Please know, I’m not saying this is easy or quick. Incorporating service into the healing process will take years and can’t be a just a program or an experiment, it needs to be part of the base culture of a home. Service is not a cure all, service is just one part of moving a child into a healthy place, but we’ve found it to be a profoundly important part.