Peter and Paul were the first two children I remember meeting in Kenya 10 years ago while there on a social work trip with students from Baylor University. Having my photo taken with them felt truly apostolic, I must say. Their names had a profound enough of an impact, but the tenderness of their smiles and affection was nothing if not spirit-filled. At the same time, there was an emptiness I saw in these children. It may be the result of living with an HIV+ status in an impoverished country. It may be the fact that this disease resulted in the death of at least one parent of each child. But, it may also be the fact that they are surrounded daily by more than 100 children whose experiences are far too similar.

Peter and Paul were orphans living in institutional care. Our trip was focused largely on institutional care settings, residential settings, children’s homes – all this to say we began by working in orphanages. Over the years, I came to learn about alternative models of care for orphans and other vulnerable children. Family and community-based models. Models that promote kinship care. Models that promote respite for caregivers. Models that promote economic opportunities for groups of women working together. Models that promote education for young children. Models that need to be shared more widely.

In Blantyre, Malawi, UNICEF found that less than 2% of all orphans in the area (which has been seriously affected by AIDS) are either living on the street or in some kind of residential care. 98% of them are living in a household. We know these households struggle and we know it is not easy for them to care for additional children. However, strengthening these families is part of our faithful response.

James 1:27 calls us to care for orphans and widows. Most churches I know have made these into two population groups. The impact of global poverty and disease removes the man from a household, this passage calls us to care for the husbandless woman and fatherless child together. An orphanage cannot do this; too many women leave their child on the front steps assuming the care at the institution will be better for the child. Adoption does not do this; too many women relinquish their rights assuming they are not fit to parent. This Bible verse makes it clear that our care for orphans and their mothers insists on family-based care.

We may want to support families, but where do we start? Popular wisdom tells us that poor families can barely fend for themselves, let alone take care of staggering numbers of orphans and vulnerable children. However, a growing body of research tells us that extended families have more strengths than we often realize and that institutional care presents great social and psychological risks.

As North American Christians hear the call of God to care for orphans, we know we must respond in ways that demonstrate God’s love for families and care that is in the best interest of the child. Strengthening the capacity of those households to provide better care and support must be our first priority. From financial support to short-term volunteer missions, and from donated goods to research, there are many opportunities for us to participate with and to learn from the care offered by family and community-based models and the principles that guide their work.

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