Rick Morton is Vice President for Engagement for Lifeline Children’s Services in Birmingham, Alabama. He is an international advocate for adoptions and orphans.
He is the co-author of Orphanology: Awakening to Gospel-Centered Adoption and Orphan Care, which I reviewed here, and he has recently written a new book entitled KnowOrphans: Mobilizing the Church for Global Orphanology.
Rick was kind enough to answer some questions about his book and the way Christians and churches can engage in orphan care.
Trevin: The adoption and orphan care movement in the U.S. has flourished in recent years. You take a look at where we’ve been and where we are today. What are some mistakes we’ve learned from as we’ve promoted adoption and orphan care in the past decade?
Rick: There are several key mistakes we can point to that the evangelical orphan care and adoption movement is rapidly moving past.
1. We have over-romanticized adoption in some ways, particularly in our efforts to draw the connection between spiritual and earthly adoption.
Certainly, there are parallels between God’s adoption of us and our adoption of children, but there are some major differences as well. The analogy breaks down because we are not God, and we live in the presence of sin. We can’t talk about the adoption of our children without entering into a gospel conversation, but in the end, we adopted because we had a desperate desire to be parents.
We have to see adoption as more than missional activity, as we would see having and parenting any child. Although our adoption of children testifies to God’s character being active within us, our reasons for adopting children are not the same as God’s reasons for adopting us. I think we have to be careful not to overdo our theological rhetoric in advocating for adoption in our zeal to do good theology and good ministry.
2. Second, the over-romanticization of adoption may have led some families to fail to count the cost of adoption fully. In our first adoption, we believed that the hard part was getting to a child. In reality the hard part was just beginning.
We have to acknowledge that, before an adoption happens, some brokenness has taken place. That brokenness may or may not carry with it trauma and long-term consequences, but it will always carry adaptation in bonding, and there will be a moment for every family to deal with whatever brokenness is present.
Whether that moment is immediate or whether it comes later as a child sorts out his or her identity in adolescence, you must know that it is coming. I’m not sure we have always prepared people with that part of the story, but I am confident that more and more, we are now.
3. Finally, we have been guilty of oversimplifying the world’s orphan crisis. The orphan crisis is not an adoption crisis, at least not how most people think of it.
The vast majority of orphans and vulnerable children aren’t adoptable to westerners. But according to Scriptures, we are responsible for them. As the Church, we must respond to them in Jesus’ name. That is a big part of what KnowOrphans is about.
Trevin: About the church you write:
“We have the means, the opportunity, and the call from God to ease the suffering of orphaned and vulnerable children around the world in Jesus’ name.”
Which of these three things (means, opportunity, or call) are churches most likely to doubt they have, and how can we convince them otherwise?
Rick: That is an interesting question and a difficult one to answer because at various times churches may doubt all three. Still, I believe understanding the call of God is the key.
In the conservative evangelical church, we have doubted that we actually have a call from God to care for orphans because we haven’t understood how orphan care fits into God’s story of redemption and God’s plan to communicate the gospel.
When we see how orphan care and care for other vulnerable people are living object lessons that God uses to announce His redemptive character to the nations, it changes everything. In the Old Testament, God accomplishes that through His commands to Israel about care for the fatherless.
That care is extended through the New Testament Church by our brother James, and understood this way, we can easily see how orphan care must be part of the natural work of today’s church. When we believe that God has actually called us, we will act.
The means and opportunity have more to do with the scope of the problem. When we look at the magnitude of the needs worldwide, people, local churches and even entire denominations can feel overwhelmed.
I spend a significant amount of time in KnowOrphans detailing what God is doing in His church globally to awaken the church to care for orphans. It is unprecedented in history. God is doing what we cannot do on our own to foster cooperation to care for orphans and extend His gospel.
Our responsibility is to lift our gaze and see the opportunities to join the work among the nations and support it with the wealth of resources that God has given us. Those resources include social work expertise, medical expertise, theological training, discipling training, help with economic sustainability, and so much more.
Trevin: You recommend we be cautious with our statistics and illustrations, since orphans can be defined in different ways. What types of orphans and vulnerable children are there?
Rick: As I said, I think many evangelicals have been awakened to the world’s orphan crisis, but still see it as an adoption issue. That is far from the truth.
The number that is most often quoted (153 million) as the number of orphans worldwide comes from UNICEF and is meant to demonstrate the vulnerability of the world’s children to HIV/AIDS. In other words, UNICEF is trying to communicate the message that “these children are orphans or could be in danger of becoming orphans because of the AIDS epidemic.”
In actuality, the UNICEF orphan statistic accounts for children who have lost one or both parents to death, but the children counted are actually living in homes. What the UNICEF statistic doesn’t take into account are children living in institutions, street children, stolen and trafficked children, undocumented children who are born without legal identities, and orphans who live in nations where statistics are not reported.
Some of these children have been abandoned or their parents are incapable of caring for them as a result of poverty, disease, addiction, or incarceration, but their parents maintain legal rights to parent them. These “social orphans” are vulnerable children, who fit the biblical concept of being fatherless, and their defense is our responsibility.
Trevin: How do our strategies change based on the type of suffering we intend to alleviate?
Rick: The question of how best to care for them is complex. Adoption is not the answer to their plight because they are not adoptable. We have to seek solutions that provide for their care in a way that best meets their need based upon where they are and how they can be best be transitioned into a loving, Christian home or home-like environment.
Our best hope to accomplish this goal is found in church-to-church partnerships as we work through the local church in other nations to address the orphan crisis in their own midst. Through adoption, foster care, and family-like group homes, indigenous churches have the best opportunity to care for children and to represent the gospel well to their communities.
Further, I believe that as part of the ministry of reconciliation that we are charged with in gospel ministry, we have to seek reunification for a family of origin whenever possible. Local churches are best positioned to do this work as well both geographically and culturally.
To that end, we have to be active in things like creating economic opportunity and addressing public health issues which are at the root of family breakup and the creation of orphans in partnership with local churches.
In seeking justice in these ways, we are able to demonstrate the evidence of gospel transformation like Jesus described in Matthew 25:34-40 and show the gospel to the world as we tell it to them.
There is a role to be played by denominations, parachurch ministries, and NGOs as well in coming alongside the church to help facilitate the cooperation and to provide necessary resources that are beyond the church’s normal reach. Bringing local churches together to cooperate and pool resources multiplies the impact they are able to have with partnering churches across the globe.
Tomorrow, Rick and I will discuss whether evangelicals have unintentionally exacerbated the orphan crisis and what else churches can do outside of adoption.