James wrote, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” But America doesn’t have any orphans. We solved the problem by renaming them “children living in group foster care.” Yes, it was that easy.
While this change of nomenclature no doubt sprang from a desire to spare suffering children the added burden of the orphan stigma, it also made God’s special concern for them that much harder to see, not only for the orphans, but also for the church in her practice of pure religion.
Long Island Youth Mentoring (LIYM) is a private Christian organization that helps Christians help orphans in the counties east of New York City and helps orphans understand their value and calling as God’s human creation. (Daniel Olasky wrote about this work in WORLD.) They partner with Christian operated group homes (orphanages) to match mentors with kids desperately in need of personal attention from loving adults. In 1956, only 3 percent of newborns came home from the hospital to fatherless situations. In 1981, when LIYM began, that figure had jumped to 18 percent. As if that weren’t sufficient for a crisis, by 2009 the tragedy had swelled to 41 percent of America’s little newcomers.
Consider this sample of alarming statistics. 63 percent of youth suicides, 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children, and 85 percent of all young people in prison grew up without a father in the home. Take the mother out of the picture as well and a child’s prospects become bleaker still.
It is surely the civil government’s responsibility to protect people’s lives, and especially to protect the most vulnerable among us, including orphans, from human predators. But orphans, like all of us, need love. The government can feed, clothe, and school a child, but it cannot love. I don’t doubt that particular government workers, especially if they are Christians, love the people they serve, but it’s uncommon. And they are forbidden to give Christ.
Orphans are understandably suspicious of people who are paid to supervise them. They don’t receive the care as parental, but as mercenary. “What’s you angle?,” they ask. But Christian, one-on-one mentoring can do what in principle no government can do: provide voluntary, love-inspired self-giving to those who have nothing to offer in return. It’s not a job. It’s not a justification for bigger budgets. It’s freely being Christ to the outcasts and the hopeless. It’s redemptive love in its starkest form. Paraphrasing Elijah, Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century London preacher, is famous for his challenge, “The God that answers by orphanages, let Him be Lord.”
And this definitively Christian service is not primarily a way to reduce social pathologies and the economic drag they create. The benefits to the orphan, made in God’s image, are good in themselves. But the mentor also benefits. The learning goes both ways. The self-giving enlarges the heart. The body politic and the human family are knit together just little bit more.