I spent ten years serving the world’s most vulnerable children as a humanitarian professional, but it took having my own children for God to teach me some important lessons about the humility and sacrifice required in serving children, and appreciation for the adults who love and care for vulnerable children up-close.
I loved my career as a champion for children’s rights and protection with World Vision International. I felt privileged to be paid to put my faith and vocational calling into action through serving staff around the globe as they empowered children with skills and opportunities to speak their opinions about the oppression and vulnerability they faced. The children I served, usually quite comfortably from my office in the US, were the world’s most vulnerable children. Their lives were characterized by extreme deprivation and violations of their rights; often living in catastrophic situations and experiencing relationships characterized by violence, abuse, neglect, exploitation, exclusion, and discrimination.[i] After working FOR children for so many years, it was a significant change, and frankly somewhat of an identity crisis, when I made the weighty decision to stay at home WITH my children after the birth of my second child.
On a recent morning I was home with my two and four-year-old girls making them lunch, but mentally preoccupied with lamenting the loss of my career, and my struggle to embrace serving my own children at my table. I love my girls, but I was missing the glamour of ‘saving the world.’ The scream from my two-year-old as she threw her yellow yogurt bowl in protest against its offending color roused me from my thoughts. In that frustrating, yet typical of toddlerhood moment, God spoke to me. It wasn’t a fully audible voice from on high, but I clearly felt God telling me, “Your service for the poor and oppressed children around the world was and is good. But I am calling you to serve your children here, now.” God brought to mind the passages from my Bible study in Mark, where Jesus uses children to teach his disciples the principles of servanthood. Mark 9:35-36 describes: “Jesus sat down and called the twelve apostles to him. He said, “Whoever wants to be the most important must be last of all and servant of all. Then Jesus took a small child and had him stand among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said, “Whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me. And whoever accepts me accepts the One who sent me.” Jesus was asking me to lay down my pride, and my expectations of what ‘service’ was supposed to look like, and to serve my children.
As a professional child rights advocate, I thought that I was serving children – and I was. But it didn’t require of me the hard sacrifice and humble servant’s attitude that serving temper-tantrum-throwing-toddlers requires of me daily. I believe that the families who welcome orphaned and vulnerable children, and the local staff and volunteers who serve in grass-roots organizations and local expressions of international organizations, are the unsung heroes who also have to make daily sacrifices and acts of humility and courage to serve the most vulnerable children of their communities and families.
Loving from afar is much easier than the messy, hard work of serving real people with real problems. As Christians called to respond to God’s commands to care for the orphan, we desire to find effective ways to build safety-nets and safe homes for vulnerable children. These only work when individuals and families take the time to build relationships, to dig in to knowing children, and understand why real children are vulnerable and hurting. This requires time, listening, and paying attention to their needs and own voice in their development. Sometimes it even means facing rejection, from a community that marginalizes such vulnerable children, or even from the very children who have been so hurt by others. This is hard work and for many it takes great bravery, commitment, and total dependence on God. But in our limitations, He makes His power known, for it is only through God that we are able to demonstrate great love.
We know that safe, stable and loving alternative family-based care is the best solution for children who cannot live with their birth families. One of the most important ways we can love orphans is through supporting the brave, hardworking adults who offer their lives as living sacrifices to love and care for these vulnerable children. These grandparents, aunties and uncles, older siblings, single parents and foster families put their own needs and desires aside daily to serve these children. It is not always glamorous or immediately rewarding, but it is the model Christ has set for us. Children need a loving adult not just to set up systems and programs, but to rock them in the middle of the night and love them even when they throw fits or later rebel. Our role as the Church is to do everything possible to ensure those loving adults are able to strengthen their own families and serve well; with all the financial, spiritual, emotional, and social support they need. As a wife and mom of two small children I am supported by a wealth of financial, spiritual, intellectual, and social resources- but even I get tired and overwhelmed. How much more does the woman, who takes on the care of multiple orphaned children, need support!
Serving children can be hard, thankless work. It can also be joy-filled and greatly satisfying. Whether serving vulnerable children orphaned in Africa, or toddlers in a California kitchen, Jesus gave us an example of servanthood that goes all-out. Love like this requires humility, patience, courage, and God’s power. It is no small thing when Jesus asks us to embrace children as if we are embracing Him.
[i] Description taken from the World Vision International Children’ Well-Being Policy
Ruthi Hoffman Hanchett has worked in the field of children’s and women’s rights for the past 12 years. She currently serves on the board of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice and often lectures and speaks on issues related to human trafficking and child rights in her local community of Southern California. She worked for World Vision International from 2004 -2013 and represented World Vision on the United Nations NGO Advisory Council on Violence Against Children. Today she is a wife and mother to two little girls aged two and four. She enjoys book club, beach days, date nights, and little girl tea parties.