Hidden away in a remote town across the ocean, there lived a young girl.
She was one that not many know and very few meet. But one day, I got to meet her, and she became my friend. She told me her story, one that I didn’t want to hear—but I needed to. She handed me a photo of a little girl, not more than five years old, holding a stuffed bear. I recognized that young face, though the one I was presently staring into was more matured and weathered than the one pictured.
That was years ago, before her orphanhood, but now this twelve-year-old accepted orphanage life as home. She relayed a narrative of survival, fear, and abuse. She told me of her mother’s drug addiction, prostitution, and imprisonment, and of how other family members deemed her too big a load to take on and closed their doors to her.
But the orphanage’s doors were open… and she had no other option.
During my time spent with her and the other children in her orphanage, the term orphan became much more to me than an issue or a statistic. I began to love them, personally. They had faces and names and stories. I made the overseas expedition four times to visit them, and each time we were made to say goodbye, the imprint of their lives went a little deeper into me.
When I left them, I carried away with me a holy disturbance, painfully alerted to what a great injustice fatherlessness really is. God wounded my heart for these children, and I never recovered. Their stories changed me.
All over the earth, stories like theirs are unfolding—stories of children who are filling foster care systems and orphanages, who are living on the streets, and who are trafficked as slaves. They are the orphaned and the fatherless, those who not many know and very few meet. Their stories are worth being told … and we need to hear them.
I’d heard stories from those who lived over the sea, but my knowledge stopped at our ocean’s border. In the years gone by, the picture that my mind held when I thought of orphans was primarily that of poor children surviving on the streets, or hunkered down in the dirt in a third-world nation, or packed into congested orphanages.
Though it was an accurate picture, it was incomplete. They’re all over America also.
And one day, I began to learn their stories, too.
It started the day I met him—the little stranger boy who’d been swept into the foster system just six months earlier. After living through throes of abuse, homelessness, and crime, this young one now stood before me. He looked up at me with a droopy, overmedicated gaze and asked, “Will you hold me?” His question hangs on to my heart still with an unremitting remembrance.
That day, I scooped up his small, four- year-old frame and pulled him in close, embracing his brokenness. He leaned his head against me, and my heart was pierced through. “They’re right here,” the truth gripped me. “The orphaned are right here. They’re in my own city, and I’m holding one of them.”
Though this three-foot-tall foster kid had not a single possession to his name, in that moment I first held him, and in a hundred moments with him to follow, he gave me a very rich gift. He caused me to see. While the faces of the orphans I had known overseas were indeed etched into my memory, I know now that the Lord wanted to expand my vision to see more.
Though I’d known about foster kids, I didn’t think of them as orphans—one reason being that our affluent nation has cast out the third world terminology. I gave very little thought to these children, mistakenly considering the plight of America’s kids as less tragic than that of orphans overseas. Maybe it was because they just didn’t seem as poor, or desperate, or destitute. Or maybe it was due to a stigma that is sometimes placed on “foster children”—rather than being sympathized as helpless orphans, they are sometimes resisted as wild or malfunctioning children.
How wrong I was. And now I’ve come to know…
I’ve known a teenager who entered the foster system as a six-year-old, who has survived the onslaught of abuse and neglect, and who has waited, year after year, for a family to belong to.
I’ve spent time with four foster siblings whose mother trafficked them as slaves.
I’ve known a five-year-old boy who lived in fear, who kept his eyes on the floor, who shrank away from the slightest touch on the shoulder, and who was placed into foster care after being sexually abused.
I’ve known a houseful of siblings who’ve gone hungry, unbathed, and were hospitalized for severe malnutrition.
I’ve met a nine-year-old living in a group home who was in his 27th placement.
I’ve spent a Christmas Eve with an eight-year-old girl who was separated from her little brother, each of them waiting for a reunion that would come only when an adoptive family was found. And they are waiting still.
I came up close to the orphaned in my city and was gently convicted that though I had crossed an ocean several times and raised thousands of dollars to go visit orphans in other nations, I’d never visited the fatherless right down the road, practically in my own backyard. I hadn’t even seen them… because I hadn’t been looking.
But one day I learned of a children’s home that was literally just a few minutes’ drive from my house. Almost fifty orphaned children lived in the facility, but I’d been unaware of their existence. I then learned of another facility holding seventy-five, then of a boys’ home where there lived sixty, and still another, and another, and another. In the nooks and crannies of our cities, all over our nation, these homes for the fatherless stand—but most do not see them, and very few of us ever meet the children.
Twelve hundred children a day are entering into our nation’s foster system (Children’s Defense Fund, 2010, p. xv). Their stories pile high, and my heart needs to connect to the crisis. More than 100,000 of America’s children are fully orphaned and waiting for adoption, while the number of church congregations (disturbingly) outnumbers these waiting ones by about a three-to-one ratio.
For many of these orphaned ones, hope dwindles with each passing year, and for some, hope expires as they age out of foster care. Every year in America, about 20,000 of our teens graduate the government’s system under fatherless identities.
But their lives are not their fault. And they deserve a chance to be free.
Maybe one day I’ll get to thank the little stranger boy who opened my eyes … and who broke my heart. His life shouted a message. A message arising from the fatherless all across America, resonating in the silence of their hiddenness—Do you see me? It’s a question that beckons another—Will you fight for me?
Among the orphans scattered across the globe, perhaps those in America are some of the least considered or remembered. The stranger boy gave me a precious gift. One that came with a deep ache, but also with the sweet sacredness of sharing in the Father’s burden and feeling a piece of what He feels for a fatherless and forgotten children.
I’ve often wondered how far this little American boy’s message will reach … Do we see them?
I pray that his message would sound clearly and widely—for the sake of the nation’s fatherless and fostered, for the ones who are waiting for families to belong to … and for the Father’s heart, who never intended that these would be alone and without a home, who has named Himself a Father to the fatherless and a Rescuer of the weak, and who calls His people to join His heart in fighting for them.
May these forgotten ones become famed among God’s Church, and may we see the rewriting of many broken stories.