What does the word "orphan" mean to you?


It is a word used increasingly more in our society as, praise be to God, there is a growing movement among believers to care for these children who have no one else. But as with any familiar term that is central to a movement, I fret that it is so common that we take for granted what it truly means to be an orphan. 

For some, the word orphan mostly brings to mind this adorable little red-headed girl whose "happily ever after" included a fireworks display from Daddy Warbucks. And that is as close as they come to the global orphan crisis. 

I was pretty immune to what the word "orphan" really meant for a long time. I thought about all the little orphans in Africa about as much as I thought about global warming. It was a thing that was this Very Huge, Massive, Concerning, Really Sad, Overwhelming Thing, but what was I gonna do about it? I was just a kid trying to learn how to log in to this newfangled thing called the Internet, barely able to pay for my college textbooks and $170.56 note on my 1997 Chevy Cavalier.  

But then I went on an international mission trip. And while in the barrios of Nicaragua, a desperate mother thrust her newborn into my 19 year old arms and begged me to take her. The baby was wrapped in a scrap of cloth (and peed on me a little bit) and as mom had several other children hanging off of her, she was completely overwhelmed. She wanted what was best for that baby, but still to this day I can't believe that she thought I was that child's best chance. It was one of the more humbling moments of my life. As our van pulled out of the barrios that day I became unnaturally hysterical with brokenness as God let me have just a glimpse at His sorrow over that baby and mother and family and millions more just like them around the world. 

One of the pictures I can still find from that trip to Nicaragua. 

One of the pictures I can still find from that trip to Nicaragua. 

An orphan is someone who has lost one or both parents. You'll hear the phrase "163 million" or "153 million" or "147 million" but the fact is...the exact number of orphans wordwide is impossible to know. To me, the only really important thing to know is that there are too many. Of those, many still have one parent, but then again that doesn't mean that parent can or wants to care for their child. There is no way to know how many undocumented children who live and die brief lives because they simply had no one to care for them. 

Let that sink in. No one to take care of them. 

When typical babies are born and held and celebrated and loved, the orphan has no one. They are not held, they are not loved, they are not celebrated. No one holds them regularly or looks them in the eye to help those important first pieces of emotional development take place. 

Born in the most traumatic manner possible and in a filthy “facility,” I was subsequently abandoned by my birth parents for an infinite number of reasons I’ll forever question. Day and night, I lay in the birthing center for over a month until it was eventually decided that I simply could not stay there forever. Fed and tended to infrequently, I had developed a range of infections and suffered physical wounds that remain unexplained to this day.

My arrival at the orphanage was unremarkable. I’ll never know who took me there, what I wore, if I cried. There were no pictures, nothing at all to celebrate my arrival, for my arrival marked a great and sad brokenness. From that day on, there were various different people who took turns holding and changing and feeding me, just as they did for all the other babies. I spent hours in my crib. Hours alone, for there was just too little time and love and attention to go around.
— the voice of the orphan in Woven (Altar 84)

When other babies are being snuggled and nursed and fretted over by a hormonal mama, the orphan has no one to fuss over them, no one who cares to hear or respond to their cries...no one to pay attention to their details. The orphan has no one to notice when they are not well because no one has noticed what their normal is.

The orphan is helpless, alone, rejected by most societies, and left to survive-or not- on their own. The orphan is an easy target for sex trafficking and the slave trade because they have no one to defend them. Many victims of child sacrifice in witchcraft-ridden nations are orphans. The orphan is easy prey because they have no parents to advocate for their rights or to protect them from danger. They are completely and utterly powerless and alone.

There is an epidemic, my friends. And every one of us is supposed to have some part in helping alleviate that. I know the answer for my family, but I would never presume to know what that answer is for yours. We are not all called to adopt. Not everyone is purposed for that. What we are to do, however, is figure out our place in the movement. 

Maybe it is adopting. But, maybe it is something else. Like foster care. Or birth mother/family ministry. Maybe it is service to those who are directly involved with adoption and foster care. Or maybe it is child sponsorship. Maybe it is the gift and position of giving, to help make adoption possible and improve the quality of foster care. 

What does the word orphan mean to you? 

And what are you going to do about it?

Just do something.

*Image courtesy of Unsplash.com, under Creative Commons Zero licensing. 

*Image courtesy of Unsplash.com, under Creative Commons Zero licensing.