What comes to your mind when you see or hear the word, “orphan”?
Five years ago, I would have answered, “An orphan has no living parents, right?” But after traveling to and from Guatemala over a dozen times in the last two years to oversee the birth of our church’s new orphanage, my eyes and heart have been opened wide to what a true orphan is.
This week, World Orphan Day is observed as an annual reminder to our planet that an orphan, in the deepest sense of the word, is any child who has no one to protect them, care for them or nurture them.
There are over 140,000,000 orphans in the world and Guatemala, the relatively small Central American country only a five-hour plane ride south of us, has over 370,000 children who tragically are orphaned — abused, neglected, abandoned — discarded and devalued.
In my many trips to Guatemala, I have seen first-hand the heartbreaking consequences of the bloody civil war (1960-1996) that this fertile and gorgeous country is still struggling to recover from. Guatemala is called the country of “The Eternal Spring” because the weather is always like a bright spring day. Temperatures hover in the high 70s or low 80s and virtually any plant can bloom year-round.
But for orphans and vulnerable children, Guatemala is the neediest place on our side of the planet! This land of an over-abundance of natural resources and rich Mayan and Spanish heritages has more orphans per capita than any country in the western hemisphere. And to make matters much worse for these precious children, there have been no international adoptions since 2008; very few domestic adoptions; no foster system; and the state-run orphanages are horrendous.
Seventy percent of people in Guatemala live below the poverty level. Over 40 percent suffer malnutrition, the highest in all of the Americas. And Guatemala now has the second highest rate of child murder in the world — only Honduras is worse.
Over the last few years, many people have asked me why we would go to such trouble, expense and effort to start and grow a now thriving orphanage in a foreign country. Especially in the last month, with all the coverage of the Central American caravans traveling to the U.S., have I been asked this question of why.
I usually answer with a simple story: The story of a man who was walking alongside a fast-moving river when, all of the sudden, he heard a cry for help. He looked up the river and saw a head bobbing up and down in the strong river current. It was obvious this person was in big trouble and about to drown.
Without another thought, the man dove into the icy, cold water, grabbed the person by the arms and swam back to shore. No sooner had he dragged the exhausted victim up the bank did he see another person desperately trying to stay afloat as they were swept downstream.
Once again, the man dove into the water and pulled this person ashore as well. But to his utter dismay, two more people, a woman and child, came thrashing towards him. He reached out and grabbed both of them just as they passed by and heaved them to safety. But he looked up and saw more struggling people coming quickly towards him in the treacherous rapids of the river.
Just then a large man walked quickly by him, ignoring the crisis alongside the river. The first man shouted at him to come back and help save these drowning people. But the man said nothing as he picked up speed and headed up river. The first man screamed at him, “Hey, don’t you care? These people are drowning. Where are you going?” The man stopped for a brief second, looked back and said, calmly, “I’m going to the source, to stop whoever is throwing these people into the river in the first place.”
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress …” — James 1:27
This is why our little 112-year-old downtown church, which has no Spanish-speaking members or any direct connections with our desperately-poor neighbors to the south, felt compelled to “go to the source” and do everything we could to stop precious souls — children, women, families — from being pushed into the river of unbelievable poverty, abuse and violence. We won’t be able to save every orphan from abuse or lift every family from devastating poverty, but for each orphan child or single mother we do lift up to new life and hope, it makes all the difference in the world.
The challenges of unmitigated poverty in Central America can seem overwhelming and truly effective solutions seem elusive, but at least for over 70 children who have been brought to our orphanage, “God’s Grace Hogar de Ninos,” in San Cristobal, Guatemala, they now have hope and a future. At least for the eight families our mission teams have built a new home for this year, debilitating poverty has been kept at arm’s length. They now have hope and a future.
“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families …” Psalm 68:5-6
Every child who God brings to our children’s home comes with a heart-breaking story, but hope and healing soon replaces their fear and loneliness.
“Isabella” was just three days old when she arrived at our children’s home. She was abandoned at the hospital by her teenage mother after giving birth. Her young, unwed mother simply walked out of the hospital, leaving her newborn baby for the nurses to care for, and for someone else to decide her fate. Although most people agree that abandoning a child is unthinkable, I don’t condemn Isabella’s mother for doing it. She is also a victim of multi-generational poverty that keeps her trapped in a desperate fight for survival. Perhaps she prostituted her body for food, shelter and pseudo-protection on the streets. She may have been sexually abused by a family member, which is so common there. Isabella’s mother was broken and must have felt in that moment that she had no other choice. So, infants like Isabella are sometimes abandoned in hospitals, or worse, on the street or in a dumpster, and left to die. Their lives are considered worthless, of no value at all.
Fortunately, during Isabella’s first days of life, she was welcomed into the loving arms of our nannies who took such good care of her, along with some of the older orphaned children, who treated her as if she was their baby sister. She was dearly loved, and she learned to love back. Today, she is happy, trusting, optimistic and full of joy. But what will happen next in her life is uncertain. So far, Isabella’s family has completely disappeared. She’ll likely be with us for a long time.
Another orphan in our children’s home is a lovable five-year-old boy named “Pablo.” He had been abandoned as an infant by his mother on the steps of another children’s home, which has since been shut down by the government because of unhealthy and unsafe conditions. In the first few hours after birth, Pablo was unresponsive and they thought he was going to die. After receiving urgent medical attention, he rallied and lived.
He came to us at three years of age with many early developmental problems, including his inability to speak or walk. But today, Pablo is a spunky, barrel-chested, beefy little guy who is fearless, mischievous and adorable all at the same time. He’s as sharp as a tack, laughs incessantly and creates a lot of fun for the other kids. He runs everywhere he goes. As the longest resident of our home, he’s become a leader. The encouragement, love and security offered him by our excellent staff has made all the difference.
Isabella and Pablo’s stories from tragedy and despair to hope and healing have been lived out in over 70 beautiful children’s hearts over the last two years through the loving care of our children’s home staff. It’s so incredible to walk through the iron gates of the tall, thick, razor-wire protected walls of “God’s Grace Hogar de Ninos” (our children’s home) and hear the joyful cries of a dozen young voices, shouting, “Jeff! Jeff!” as they spot me entering, and the humble thrill of being tackled by the whole grinning, giggling group as they welcome me back to their home! And for this critical time in their young lives, it truly is their home. For each one of them, we made all the difference. This is the “source” where God has sent us to save orphans, one by one. But the work has just begun for us. So many other Guatemala children have it far worse. Instead of being received and welcomed into a safe, warm and loving children’s homes like ours, their orphan journey begins on the streets with a lonely, fearful fight to just stay alive. They grow up with no education, parental guidance, training or discipline. Boys often join gangs. Girls are trafficked into sexual slavery. For these children, going to school is out of the question. They learn how to survive at a remarkably young age — sometimes as young as 2 or 3. And tragically, orphans beget more orphans. The intergenerational cycle of poverty will continue until someone helps them break it. This is why we are serving, loving and caring for as many precious orphan children and desperately needy families as we can. This is the source at the river of poverty where so many are falling in or being pushed in, with tragic results. This is where we are making our stand.
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17
As you read these words, during the week of World Orphan Day, I am actually in Guatemala right now, working with our children’s home and mission teams staff to take steps to be more effective than ever for the sake of orphans and families who need God’s love in the most practical of ways. We are meeting with the top Guatemalan orphan experts to learn how to save more children than ever and visiting many of the families we have built homes for this year.
But most of all, I am going to be holding our babies, hugging our toddlers and playing hard with our older kiddos, making sure they know without any doubt that they are valuable and precious and loved; that they have a bright future. We will do everything possible to bless and protect that future! I invite you to partner with us here at the “source.” We need all the help we can get. So on World Orphan Day, please join us in saving one child at a time.
Please go to our website or Facebook page to partner with us by sponsoring one of our orphans or to learn more about house-building mission trips or to become an ambassador for Child Beyond International. The more partners, the more precious children we all can lift to a new life.
Thank you, Hood River! Thank you, Columbia Gorge!