Journeys in life rarely take a straight path, and my journey into orphan care is no exception. Yet, God promises that if we trust in Him, he will direct our paths (Proverbs 3:5–6). In my case, God’s directing was a U-turn.
In 2010, I signed up to go on a short-term mission trip to serve at an orphanage in Zambia. Five years later, I found myself in Uganda empowering local churches to support vulnerable children and their families, advocating for family-based care rather than the use of orphanages.
When I signed up to serve at the orphanage in Zambia, I believed this was my opportunity to live out the command in James 1:27 to “visit orphans.” Excited as I was to experience “true religion” firsthand, God had a different plan in mind.
My first experience in Africa was not at an orphanage run by Americans, but instead at a ministry founded and led by Dorothy and Davidson Phiri, a local Zambian couple dedicated to serving the most vulnerable in their community through education and community outreach. My first week at Mercy Ministries provided me with a unique perspective that would eventually form the foundation of my understanding of what effective orphan care could look like. But it was Dorothy’s passion and vision that drew me back to Zambia. I returned the following year, first for a month and then full-time for almost two years.
The more time I spent in Zambia working alongside Dorothy and her staff, the more I began to notice how Mercy Ministries differed from many other organizations that focused solely on the children in their care. Mercy Ministries’ impact did not stop with the children who attended their school; it expanded to their families and communities. The heartbeat of Mercy Ministries was Chifundo Mission School. Yet, the group of grandmothers who gathered each week to pray for the students and the single parents in the sewing room learning a new skill were a testament to Mercy Ministries’ impact on families. Beyond the school grounds, Mercy Ministries’ community outreach team showered families living in poverty with prayer and the small necessities needed for daily life.
Living in Zambia showed me that effective ministry happens in knowing the stories of the children and families you serve and looking beyond their physical poverty to begin restoring their brokenness. With this knowledge, I wanted to be a part of creating a shift in how churches in the U.S. approached ministry to the developing world, particularly in regards to short-term missions. However, my glimpse into the complexities of poverty had convinced me I was not yet equipped to do this well. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in Justice and Mission at Denver Seminary.
I began seminary in the fall of 2012 and was committed to my plan of changing how churches approach global missions. However, my introduction to family-based orphan care didn’t come until I began research for my thesis project. Based on my experiences in Zambia, a logical place to start was researching the orphan crisis in Africa and how churches in the U.S. have most often responded to it.
In my research, I was surprised to learn how large the evangelical orphan care movement was, but from my time in Zambia, I was not surprised to learn the primary response of churches was to build, fund, or visit orphanages. What did catch my attention was that these approaches were not inline with the recommendations of the majority of experts in the field of orphan care and child protection. I discovered that poverty, not a lack of family, is a leading factor in why children are placed in orphanages, and that a more effective response was to empower families through family-based care. I realized that while research on effective orphan care is available, many Christians are unaware of it. Therefore, as my final project, I created Orphan Calling, a guide that allows individuals to bridge the gap between their passion to follow Christ’s call to care for orphans and an understanding of best practices.
I had determined that after graduation my plan would be to speak into the evangelical orphan care movement through educating American churches using, in part, the resource I had developed.
Just weeks before graduating from seminary, I received an offer from Bright Hope to travel to Uganda to help launch the Orphan to Family Initiative, a new program designed to empower the local church to support vulnerable families and children. Rather than using Orphan Calling to educate the evangelical church in the U.S., I was assigned the task of adapting the resource into a training manual that my Ugandan colleague, Charity Oyo, and I could use to train 75 local pastors and church leaders on family-based care.
While my most of my time with Mercy Ministries was spent interacting with the teachers, the students, and their families in the community, my role at Bright Hope was focused on training pastors and church leaders about the role of the local church in caring for orphans and vulnerable families. In developing the training manual and then conducting the trainings, I realized that for my two years in Zambia, Dorothy had been modeling what Charity and I were equipping the Ugandan church leaders to implement in their own communities.
In 2010, I thought I would have a once-in-a-lifetime trip to an orphanage in Zambia, but God had a better plan. His unexpected diversion led me down a path I could never have anticipated or prepared for. On this journey, I have learned that it’s not the building of another orphanage that is going to end the orphan crisis. Instead it’s organizations like Mercy Ministries and local churches led by pastors like those I met in Uganda that are preventing the need for orphanages as they fulfill their role in caring for the orphans, widows, and vulnerable within their own communities.
A key resource in my discovery of family-based care was From Faith to Action. You can find this resource and the Journeys of Faith Study Series on Faith to Action’s website to learn more about family-based care. I also recently developed Family First, a condensed version of Orphan Calling, as a brief introduction into family-based care.
Jessica Johnson has lived and worked in Africa for several years. In addition to writing for Faith to Action, over the last couple of years Jessica has worked in Uganda with Bright Hope International helping to implement the Orphan to Family Initiative, completed a fellowship with HOPE International, and consulted with various organizations and networks related to family-based orphan care. Jessica resides in Fort Worth, Texas and holds an MA in Justice and Mission from Denver Seminary.