(Note from the author: This post is going to challenge your mindset. If you’ve adopted, are considering adoption, or are thinking about pursuing foster care, I hope that it makes you look at things through a new lens. If you’re a single mother, I hope it helps you realize how you are to be loved, honored, and cared for. If you’re a mother who gave her child up for adoption or who has a child in the foster care system, I hope it reminds you that you are deserving of mercy and grace. If you consider yourself to be part of the church, I hope it encourages you to step up to help and step out in faith.)
We’ve all heard the verse. It has been used to justify countless adoptions. It is the backbone of numerous non-profit organizations. It is why people become foster parents, why we save up money and resources to send to other countries in need, and why we do missions.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27, ESV)
I know this verse well and I used to view it the same way as everyone else. This was the verse that prompted me to adopt two children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is why I started a non-profit focused on orphan care and poverty alleviation, it is why I pulled my adopted children out of Africa in the middle of a divorce when their adoptive father no longer wanted them. I didn’t believe you could love and care for orphans by adopting them … and then making them orphans again.
I’ve come to realize from my new vantage point that I never understood what this verse meant and honestly, it’s probably because I had a very narrow view of what it meant to be a widow or an orphan. Though this verse can be used as a justification to create families and serve others, it can also cause us to adopt an unbiblical mindset and further corruption as it pertains to both adoption and our foster care system.
The Bible talks numerous times about caring for the orphan and the widow. An orphan is a child who is “fatherless.” A widow is actually “any woman who lacks a husband;” in other words, not only elderly women who find themselves arriving at old age without a husband or the barren … but the single mother. If you go back and read the verse with the true meaning of the words, it would look something like this:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless (“yathowm”) and childless and single mothers (“chéra“) in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
In biblical times, the vast majority of women became “widows” when their husbands died from hardship, battles, or disease, leaving them with or without children — not because they were making it to a ripe old age or because of divorce (which is much more common today). God didn’t forget about the widow when he breathed His book into existence. It is clear that the single mother (for purposes of this post) is not to be mistreated. Her clothes and property were not to be taken, she was to be given a provision of grain and fruit, she could return to her family, remain single, or remarry, God was her personal protector, and she was to be shown the same honor, grace, and mercy as the fatherless.
Single mothers still exist in our society today (about 13.6 million according to the U.S Census Bureau to be exact). The provisions to care for them haven’t changed, what has is how the majority of women are becoming single mothers and our mindset towards them. There is simply no call within the church to care for the single mom because it doesn’t fit our modern definition of who a widow is. We in turn disregard mothers in our efforts to care for the “fatherless.”
Think about it, how many of your foster care ministries are supporting the actual parents of foster children? How many people sign up for foster care because they’re promised a child through adoption? How many oversees missions are focused on reunifying orphans with their families verses just meeting the material needs of the orphan? How many churches have single mom ministries? A lot of churches have divorce care, teen mom ministries, and ministries aimed and supporting foster care families, but where are the resources for the single moms?
Instead of supporting the single mother, she is left to drown in a world where the cards are stacked against her. She may have ever desire to care for her children, but because of her hard circumstances, resources, and support … cannot. According to the research, she will probably never break free from poverty (at least if she remains unmarried), will end up working the equivalent of four full-time jobs, and her children will still be lacking. Despite her absolute best efforts, her children may be placed with relatives or could end up in foster care, not because she is a bad mom or doesn’t love her kids, but because she simply can’t meet their needs.
We can argue back and forth about the best method to care for the fatherless, but it goes without saying that you can’t truly care for the fatherless without caring for the mother, and there’s no question that God is a God of reunification. Yet, we as the church have the dividing mentality that a foster child is an orphan and therefore, without any regard to the mother, we pursue adoption as “the” method of caring for them.
Many people become foster parents for the purpose of adoption, not for the purpose of truly “fostering” a child. When this happens, we are in essence praying for that mother’s failure, because an adoption cannot take place without it. We are praying against healing and restoration and for the division and brokenness of a family. As a result, we can find ourselves playing active roles in facilitating that brokenness and using the Bible to justify it as we “care for orphans.” This is not love.
We don’t think about reunifying that child with their mother. We don’t think about pouring ourselves into the mother so that she can care for her own children. We judge her, isolate her, and step in to take her kids for the purpose of making them our own. We fly across the world to scoop up what we consider to be an unwanted child in an orphanage, without any consideration of why that child was truly placed there in the first place. Was it because the child really lacks a mother and father, or was it because the mother wanted her child, but couldn’t care for him/her? Something that might easily be addressed through education, resources, and love.
We forget about all of the Bible verses that talk about God’s call for us to love and His heart for reunification. We forget that almost every time the bible talks about the fatherless, it talks about the widow of the fatherless also. You cannot care for one without caring for the other.
I wonder how many children would escape the foster care system if we poured resources into the mothers who find themselves in impossible situations, if we gave them the opportunity to turn to us instead of drugs (a mechanism often used to cover inner pain and cope with life’s hardships), if we gave them provision, stopped judging them, pointing our fingers, and withholding our grace, if we stopped reinforcing their shame, stopped pretending we are perfect parents, and recognized that our perceptions are limited by our experience.
I wonder how many families would be restored or redeemed if we came along side the entire family – if we stepped in to make a mother’s life just a little bit easier, if we gave her encouragement, and respite, if we helped her be the mom she needs to be or wants to be, instead of deeming her unworthy and stepping in to take her place.
If you’re unwilling to do this, then you’re just taking a fatherless child and making them motherless too, and this isn’t caring for orphans.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever adopt, because it is an absolutely noble calling. The savior of mankind was adopted, we are adopted, and there are situations where we should step in to be the parents to children who don’t have them. Some of us are truly called to it and when we are, it can be an amazing story of redemption and grace. The same is true for foster care. We live in an imperfect world and as long as we do, there will be families that with even the most love, care, and support, cannot put their lives back together for their children, but the point is – we are to provide that love, care, and support.
We simply cannot care for the orphan without caring for the widow. We can’t love the orphan without loving their mother. We shouldn’t wish for our family to be built on the failure and brokenness of another. It’s not our place to judge and it is not our place to deem ourselves more capable or more worthy. If we would adopt this mindset, far fewer families would be broken and what’s left are the children who truly need adoption, whose placement isn’t continuously being taken by children who actually don’t. This … is orphan care.
I wish I could tell you that I came to this mindset via some sort of epiphany from God that required nothing of me, but I didn’t. I came to it through experience, circumstances that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and a renewing of my mind as I walked through it.