For many orphans, poverty is a common denominator. Some children become orphans because the lack of adequate food, clean water, or health care resulted in the death of one or both of their parents. Other children have been placed in the care of orphanages by living parents who cannot supply for their children’s needs because of poverty. Because poverty is a factor in so many children becoming orphans, understanding orphan care requires an understanding of poverty.
In fact, the Bible beseeches us not merely to fight poverty, but to understand poverty. Psalm 41:1 reads, “Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.” (KJV) In his book Generous Justice, Timothy Keller points out that the word consider in this passage means “to ponder and have insight,” and as a result of this insight, “to act wisely and successfully.” In other words, if we intend to care for orphans, we must not only be aware of their poverty—we must understand their poverty, and act wisely and successfully to solve it.
In conversations with people at church and through my work at Food for the Hungry, I have seen over and over that most people care about the poor, and many have a dear place in their hearts for impoverished or orphaned children. However, very few people understand poverty. This combination of high sympathy and low understanding results in activities that can actually cause more harm than good. The good news is that there are solutions that release people from physical poverty. These solutions can prevent children from becoming orphans.
First, it’s important to recognize that at its root, poverty is not a physical problem. Western minds tend to think about material things first. Without thinking twice, we often define poverty as the lack of food, shelter, or other resources. Of course, poverty does involve physical needs. However, as Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out in their book When Helping Hurts, people living in extreme poverty tend to explain their predicament in social and spiritual ways. They use words like “inferior,” “powerless” and “destiny” to describe their experience of poverty. This hopelessness exacerbates physical poverty by convincing people that there is no use in even trying to overcome their situation.
Recognizing that hopelessness is at the root of poverty, restoring hope to people’s lives is an important factor in setting them free. This means that rather than giving handouts of food or clothing to needy families, it’s more empowering to walk with them in solving their problems. Job training or education may be more valuable and long-lasting than a handout.
Second, poverty is not a life sentence. Most of us hope that people living in poverty can one day escape their plight, but do we address poverty in a way that truly solves it? For example, how do we address the needs of a parent who feels that she is too poor to care for her child? Do we wait until she has made the unbearable decision to abandon the child, and then take care of the orphaned child? Or do we provide a few things for the family to get by for a short time, assuming that there is no lasting way out of their predicament? Our first priority for children should be not only to keep them in a loving family of origin, but also to help that family to thrive. This means that even as we help abandoned children and provide for emergency needs, we must also be walking alongside families as they solve the problems that have kept them in poverty.
Finally, any person, any church, and any community can act to solve global poverty. All over the world, churches and organizations are implementing real poverty solutions that prevent children from becoming orphans. At Food for the Hungry, we focus on education, health, livelihoods/income, and disaster risk reduction. We have discovered that when these four areas are addressed appropriately, communities are able to overcome their poverty in just a decade. Many other organizations also use similar approaches with remarkable results.
Orphan care requires recognition that there is a continuum of care to be provided. It begins long before a child loses a parent, at a critical time when we can prevent the child from ever becoming an orphan. Caring for orphans starts with truly “considering the poor,” by thinking about poverty and then acting wisely and successfully to solve it.