Gary worried about impending famine in that country, real famine, and “starvation, then hunger, and then anger.”
But then givers sent in donations earmarked for COVID-19 relief. One giver included a note with the gift:
“We are giving as a defiant act of worship. With confidence that what the enemy intends for evil God will use for GOOD. Thank you for your part in that!”
“God redeemed that situation!” Gary says. And immediately the teachers and leaders from the school were able to go out and talk with the families in the homes, meeting needs and caring for whole families.
In almost every situation where Lifesong works, they serve orphans and highly vulnerable children. They call them “single orphans” or “double orphans,” depending on how many parents the kids have lost. Others come from homes that struggle to give their children proper care. The ministry was able to help these families.
At Lifesong School in Zambia, the toughest time is the beginning of each school year. The indigenous Zambian leaders have the difficult task of determining which kids will attend. Those who are orphans, highly vulnerable, or show signs of abuse or neglect, go to the top of the list.
Many of Lifesong’s ministries in countries like Zambia and Uganda, are truly evangelistic, intentionally planted among Muslim communities or where witchcraft and voodoo are prominent. Lifesong wants to be light and bring the gospel, but there is often resistance. However, when the pandemic hit those parts of the world, and Lifesong’s indigenous staff showed up to meet needs, something changed.
They told the families, “We’re doing this because of Jesus,” Gary says. And that opened up a lot of conversations.
“…This food means that entire families won’t starve. But even more, this will prove to many of the often-resistant Muslim households that we are truly there to serve them with the love of Christ. In a land that is very familiar with corruption…this public display of significant relief without regard to religion or clan is noteworthy. This witness of provision in an unprecedented time of hunger will be spoken of for generations.”
– Ugandan Staff
Lifesong’s mission to “bring joy and purpose to orphans” is fulfilled through a four-part pledge. They know the pledge is full of very challenging goals, but they commit to it in faith that God will equip and enable them to keep it. First is to make sure kids’ physical needs are met. Second is to help them receive a quality education. Third, and the ultimate goal, is to disciple them in Christ.
The fourth part of their pledge sets them apart. “As kids age out, we want to help them break the orphan cycle,” Gary says. “By God’s grace, we want them to be future leaders,” and they can’t do that if they’re starving now. Full circle back to the first goal in the pledge. Bringing food to these Zambian families is part of a much-bigger strategy.
Because of his business background, Gary thinks strategically. He uses NCF’s solutions (like a supporting organization he set up through NCF 18 years ago), to help fund administrative and overhead costs, making it possible for 100 percent of donations to go directly to orphan-care work locally and globally. Lifesong has created businesses in many of the countries they work in, which provides vocational skills training, creates jobs, and generates revenue. Some of the orphan-care ministries are sustained by these business initiatives.
Back in the U.S. …
There is both a “front door” and a “back door” to foster care in the U.S., says George Tyndall, senior vice president of operations for Bethany Christian Services, a large Christian foster-care organization that works in 30 U.S. states.
The front door is how kids are reported. Teachers, social workers, and other mandatory reporters advise state child welfare systems about children who may be in dangerous situations, says Cheri Williams, Bethany’s senior vice president of domestic services. But when schools closed, most of those mandatory reporters were no longer in daily contact with kids.
The back door is kids leaving the system, either going back to homes – because the problems there have been alleviated – or being adopted out of the system. But because many courts around the country were closed, that door was also shut.
This left many kids “stuck in limbo,” George says. Now, as states are opening up and courts begin working their way through cases, the need for foster parents – which is always great – is increased.
There is another “back door” representing another at-risk group of kids – those who will have aged out of the foster-care system during the months of the pandemic. Most states across the U.S. have enacted laws and policies to offer additional support to youth after they turn 18, Cheri says. “But let’s be real. If they’ve grown up in the system, as they turn 18 and don’t have to listen to adults anymore, they’re ready to go.” The outcomes for those kids can be dreadful.
Even prior to the pandemic, the statistics were staggering. Almost 50 percent of kids aging out of foster-care end up unemployed. Fewer than 3 percent will receive a college degree. Half will end up with some sort of addiction. In the U.S., 23,000 kids age out of the system each year, and 20 percent of them become instantly homeless.
But there have been times when Bethany has experienced great success stories helping these older kids, and that’s what they hope for now. Cheri tells the story of a teen who saw this transition coming when he turned 17. He’d been in the system for years. He told the adoption worker on his birthday, “If you haven’t found a family for me by the time I’m 17 and a half, I need you to stop looking, because I’m going to need those six months to prepare myself emotionally.”
Almost 50 percent of kids aging out of foster-care in the U.S. end up unemployed. Fewer than 3 percent will receive a college degree. Half will end up with some sort of addiction [and] 20 percent of them become instantly homeless.
Within a month, two families came forward asking to adopt him. One of the families … “only the Lord could have designed” for him, Cheri says. Their life experiences and the boy’s needs were perfectly matched. He was adopted, and now – as he’s moving forward with his adult life – “he has a soft place to land, a family to come home to,” she says.
Being a foster parent requires us, as Christ did, to step into the hard places and take on the pain these youths are experiencing. And that’s really hard, George says. You have to say “I’m going to offer up my comfortable middle-class suburban life to step into this messiness, into my space,” George says. “It’s disruptive, but we know that it’s what Jesus called us to do.”
For those interested in becoming foster parents, “there is still a path,” George says, even for states that may still be closed. “One of the bright lights in these dark and difficult times is that we have been able to open up and use technology in ways we haven’t before.” They’ve seen an increase in the number of people who want to help. And through online video calls, they’ve been able to walk prospective foster parents through how the system works. Technologies like electronic document exchange helps move the process along.
Though certain points – like checking homes for safety and adequacy – couldn’t take place while families were sheltering in place, the bulk of what Bethany needed to prepare foster parents was still possible. And it still is.
“Foster families are superheroes,” George says. But it’s important for people to know they don’t need to be superheroes to step into this space. “We need folks with room in their hearts and room in their homes, but we’ll provide the training they need to develop an understanding of trauma, provide supports they need, help them develop skills. What’s needed from the foster parent is that hopeful curiosity, faith in the human spirit to rise above challenges, and adjust parenting styles to the unique needs of kids,” he says.
Cheri and George also both encourage others to get involved, even if they’re not able to bring a child into their home. They encourage people to call Bethany Christian Services (1-800-Bethany) to become mentors, tutors, short-term volunteers, backpack stuffers or wrappers of Christmas gifts. There are all kinds of ways to help.