“Do No Harm” in Short-Term Missions

pexels-photo-209235With the flooding in Texas right now many people are jumping up to do what they can. They’re reacting to the horrible images we’ve all seen by heading out to help, this is a great thing. I truly respect anyone willing to step out of their own lives to help others in need, we all need to grow in this, but we need to do it in a mature and wise manner. None of us wants to add to an already difficult, complicated situation.

As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the basics of that oath is “first, do no harm” or “primum non nocere,” They need to treat their patient in a way that does not harm them. They can’t experiment, or rush in to “heal” them, if they don’t know that what they’re doing will be beneficial. It might be a good idea for anyone going into short term missions, or serving in an extreme situation, to take this same oath. So often, we rush in with well-meaning intentions but wind up making the situation worse than it already is.

There is an endless list of examples of well-meaning plans that went sidewise once they were put into action. Unintended consequences can have effects way beyond what most people would even consider. There’s a story of how cities across the north east US changed the traffic lights to LED technology. LED lights are cheaper to operate, they last a VERY long time, what could go wrong? Well, LED lights don’t heat up. Once the snows hit, the traffic lights would fill with snow and without the heat from the old-school lights it would just sit there blocking the signals. People had to go around with brooms on long sticks to knock the snow out of the traffic lights. No one saw this coming; no one realized the unintended consequence of this well-intended action.

Often, at first glance, a missions idea to “help” might sound like an excellent idea and an act of generosity. The results of our actions might ripple out in ways we might have never considered.

I know of one local church in our town that hosts a lot of groups. Out of an abundance of hospitality, the pastor feels he needs to offer the visiting leaders the pulpit on Sunday. What winds up happening is the church might go several weeks without hearing their own pastor teach. They hear from a line of well meaning people who they don’t know, in a language that needs to be translated. The visiting pastors don’t know the needs of the congregation or where they are spiritually. These visiting pastors mean well but hold the church back. Unintended consequences.

Here at our orphanage, we’ve had well-meaning people visit and pass out loose change to our kids. They think they’re blessing the kids when they see them light up at receiving this money. Well, if you were visiting a family in the US would you just randomly pass out cash to their kids? It’s just weird. Also, by groups doing this, it teaches our kids to beg or manipulate guests in our home. Before they came to us, many of our children were begging to survive. We try VERY hard to teach our kids how to work for extras in life and not to beg. By people kindly passing out quarters, they’re working directly against some of our goals here with the children in our care.

I’ve seen very well-meaning groups come into a community, find a local pastor, and offer to build a church building from the ground up. On the surface, it might sound great. In a bigger picture, fully funding a church build usually sets up an unhealthy dynamic. Does that Church congregation have emotional ownership of their church if they have no skin in the game? Are they learning to share and give to the church if they think their “widows mite” isn’t needed? It’s incredibly healthy when a congregation comes together to work towards a common goal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support and help churches in the missions field, but by doing everything for them, we’re not allowing them to grow in a normal healthy fashion.

So how do you go on a missions trip and not do more harm than good? The best way to move forward with any missions trip is to prayerfully consider our impact, both positive and negative, in any community we’re going to serve. Along with prayer, one of the most important things we can do is partner with, and listen to, an on the ground ministry already serving long-term in that area. These are the people who’s ministries are either blessed by your visit, or are left to clean up the rubble. Organizations hosting groups in Mexico, Haiti, or any country in Africa have seen and worked with a lot of groups. They know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to leverage the skills and resources you want to provide. Let them guide you into a productive, helpful trip for all involved.

Here is one example of how subtly shifting a project will bring it from harmful to beneficial. We have teams that want to do food distribution for families in poorer areas. They might hit Walmart in a nearby city, buy lots of groceries in bulk, and bag them up for distribution. Yes, they are providing food and a blessing for families in the community. But what are they doing to the local mini-marts and farmers markets who are losing sales? Most small stores are barely staying open with what little sales they have in poorer areas. The result of this short-term blessing might be people in the community losing jobs. If that same group buys locally, they might pay a little more for the groceries, but along with blessing the families in need they would be pouring money into the local community and help to keep businesses and jobs moving forward.

With subtle, wise shifting, our efforts can have the desired positive impact that we want to bring. Maybe instead of preaching at a local church, ask to participate and listen to what the local pastor is teaching that week. Maybe instead of passing out loose change to kids in an orphanage, we can find ways to bless the over-worked staff who most people ignore. Whether it’s food or construction materials, maybe we should buy locally whenever possible. Maybe for every person on our team pouring that concrete slab, we commit to hiring a local construction worker to help for the day.

We’re called to serve, and I believe short term missions can and does change lives for all those involved. Go, serve, give, but please: do no harm.

 

“Thank you for the Y2K shot glasses?”

 

You’d be amazed what gets donated to an orphanage. There’s an endless stream of shot glasses, water bed heaters, ice skates and an ongoing list of items that seem to beg the question: exactly what was the thought process that went into this? I keep a bowling ball resting on a shelf in my office, when asked about it I tell people it’s “a tribute to the bizarre donation.”

Sometimes it’s easy to categorize donations when they come in: “Dead people things,” an elderly person passes away and rather than sort through everything, all their belongings are boxed and shipped to us (Soooo much old Tupperware and rusty canned goods). “Garage sale leftovers,” bags of clothing and knickknacks that still have the .15 cent price tags attached but wouldn’t sell even at that price. “Schools cleaning out their lost and found closet” (this actually brings in some cool stuff). We love the “little kid donations” a young child presenting a box of “their” toys for the kids in need, you can tell they struggled over every item.

We honestly appreciate any donations coming in. In our home, we care for over a hundred children entirely through donations of goods and funds. Our many children are fed, clothed, and educated thanks to the generosity of many great people. We do have some really great stuff donated along with the not so great.

In running an organization that both receives and distributes donations, we spend a lot of time looking at this topic, and we realize it’s a big deal. Sometimes, receiving donations can be heart-wrenching. A while back we had a couple dropping off a few bags of clothing, nothing unusual. Watching the couple from a distance it just didn’t feel right. I walked over to talk to them and found out they were donating the belongings of their nine-year-old son who had recently passed away. We sat for a very long time over a cup of coffee as they told me about their son, this donation was part of the mourning of their child. They came back every few weeks for a long time. It was good for them.

Our attitude about “stuff” matters profoundly. Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about our reaction to money and belongings. How we handle what we have should be a part of our everyday thought process. Are we good stewards of the things we’ve earned or been entrusted with? Are we sharing with others as we should? This is a thorny topic that draws a strong response from almost everybody, just ask any pastor who has taught on tithing. Everyone from the rich young ruler in the gospel of Luke to this present day struggles with this issue. I know I haven’t figured it out.

Mathew 25:35-36 & 40  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me,…..The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

If we knew we were feeding our Lord, what kind of meal would we serve? If we knew we were giving a drink of water to Jesus, would we send it in a dirty glass? We can’t help everyone, and I don’t believe most people are called to give EVERYTHING away, but when we do give and serve it should be our best. Few things get me more frustrated that the phrases “it’s good enough for an orphanage,” or worse “it’s good enough for orphans.” Sometimes I want to punch a wall. These children are precious in His sight and deserve the same quality of life that any child deserves, maybe better.

Please think long and hard about the quality of items you or your organization sends to the missions field. Are you sending clothing or items you would want your child to receive? Please take a hard look at any project you’re working on during a missions trip. Would you want to live in the building you’re putting up? Would you want your home painted the way you’ve painted someone else’s? The quality of our work, and how we treat others, is a greater testimony to the Gospel than any words, dramas, or programs we might bring to the missions field.

Obviously, I have a huge conflict of interest in writing this. But I’m also writing this on behalf of the many, many organizations around the world doing really great work on a shoestring that receive supplies and groups every day. I know more than a few missionaries who want to write this but are understandably afraid of offending donors. (My wife is more than a little nervous after proof-reading this blog)

There is no greater indication of our spiritual maturity than how we give to others. We know everyone is different. We know for some people giving that half bag of used clothing is a BIG deal, that’s OK if that’s all they’re ready to do. We hope people like that grow in the joy of helping others. Whoever you choose to give to and support, please give to them as you would want to be given to.

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.

 

I Hate Orphanages

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I wish orphanages didn’t exist. A child in an orphanage means the enemy has won a battle, a battle to break a child and parent bond or destroy a family. Orphaned and abandoned children exist because we live in a broken world. I wish we didn’t need the foster care system and I hate orphanages, but if these types of homes have to exist, they should be GREAT.

People frequently ask me “why does a child wind up in an orphanage?” There are a lot of misconceptions about this; most people assume all kids in orphanages are “orphans” who have no living family. The short answer to why most kids are in orphanages is “sin.” Severe abuse, neglect, abandonment, substance abuse by the parents, etc. are all results of flawed people who have fallen into deep sin. Some people should just never have kids. Unless you’re dealing with AIDS, war, or severe natural disaster, true orphans where both parents have died are kind of hard to find. Frequently, a parent might still be around, but for many reasons, they just can’t/won’t care for their child or have chosen to abandon their child or children. In any country, you can read stories every week of babies left at hospitals, fire stations or even in trash cans. Today, in many countries, there are thousands of children that are sold into slavery every year. We live in a deeply broken, profoundly messed up world.

Some people believe orphanages break up families to fill their dorms; this does happen in some cases, but less than you might think. There is an assumption that many children are in homes world wide due to poverty, this happens also, but most of the time there are other, deeper underlying issues. In most cases, it’s not easy to say what’s best for a child: A marginally abusive/neglectful situation or an orphanage?

In our home, as in any healthy ministry, we do everything we can to keep families together if it’s truly in the best interest of the child. The family is the ideal model, and every child deserves a healthy family. Every child needs the love, acceptance and loving guidance of their parents. If a parent needs short term help, counseling, etc. to keep the family together in a healthy situation, that should always be the first choice. If there is some extended family that can help that’s an excellent second choice. Sometimes all that’s needed is daycare to keep a family together so the parent can work and still care for their children.

Unfortunately, sometimes, it really is in the best interest of the child to break up the family. You can imagine some of the horrific stories of the children in our care. We had a five-year-old brought to us after the step dad held him against a hot stove for wetting the bed. We had a two-year-old dropped off late one night with bruises over much of his body and a broken leg after the mom lashed out in a drunken rage. We took in a girl who had just turned fourteen and was pregnant after being raped by her step dad. (he is now in prison) These types of stories are much too common. Even the most ardent defenders of family would be hard pressed to defend keeping some families together.

A well meaning, well-educated individual once passionately shared with me that orphanages are a broken system and that they should all close down. I agree that it’s a broken system, but saying all orphanages should be closed is like saying the health care system in the US is broken so all hospitals should be closed. Just because we close a broken solution, doesn’t mean the problem goes away. I so wish there were better options for the countless children who fall through the cracks of society.

If the family is not in the picture, and adoption is a real alternative, it should always be encouraged. Unfortunately, adoption is not a reality for the vast majority of children living in any care situation. The latest figures available are that only 2% of children living in care situations world wide ever get adopted. Most have multiple siblings, are “too old” to adopt, or they have some living family that still has a claim on them. Depending on adoption for a child’s future is very much like depending on the lottery for your retirement: It might work, but not likely.

A couple of years ago, eleven-year-old Pablo (not his real name) was brought to us after being removed from his home due to neglect on the part of his mom. He had been bouncing around the system for a while. He hadn’t been in school, was in bad shape physically, and had spent way too much time on the streets. After a few days here, he expressed amazement that he was getting three meals a day and asked if that was normal. His mother is currently working with the government to receive custody of Pablo. Mom visits from time to time but is still not doing very well; she’s dealing with some long standing substance abuse issues. Pablo is now doing great in school, just graduated top of his class, and has become a real part of our family. We know we don’t replace loving parents, but here Pablo has a loving home with people who deeply care about him, great opportunities, and a future that was just a dream a few years ago. Very recently, Pablo came to us with a request. He knows his mom is working to get him back, but he’s also bright enough to know he has no future with her. He has asked that if his mom gets custody, and if it’s OK with her, if he could still live here. He wants to stay here so he can continue in school, work for a better life, and just visit his mom. We sincerely hope and pray that his mom gets her life in order but until that happens, we want to provide a great home to Pablo, and the many other Pablos who are out there.