Talking about Orphan Care with Tony Merida
Orphan care is more than just adoption. At the heart of orphan care is grace - grace that flows from Christ's redemptive work on the cross, that reconciles us to God, that we extend through the care of orphans and others. Joining me today is pastor and professor, Tony Merida, co-author of the new book Orphanology: Awakening to Gospel-Centered Adoption and Orphan Care (New Hope, 2011).
Trevin Wax: In the past decade, it seems like evangelicals have suddenly woken up to the orphan crisis around the world and have begun taking steps toward adoption, improving orphanages, and opening homes to foster care. One of the interesting points you bring out in Orphanology however is that orphan care is not new to evangelicalism. In fact, it's a thread we see running way back. What does our history look like in this area?
Tony Merida: Wow! Where to begin? We could actually go way back. Paul tells us of God’s sovereign plan saying,
“He [God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1:5).
Before the world, God already had adoption in his redemptive plan! That’s why I laugh when people ask, “What’s up with this new adoption emphasis?” I like to respond with, “New? You call before the foundation of the world new? Taco Bell is new.”
Related to our care for the fatherless, I would actually go back to the doctrine of imago dei in Genesis. Our view of human beings affects how we view them and care for them. If we believe that all people are created in God’s image, then they are worthy of dignity, value and love.
As the story of Scripture unfolds, we see how God has a particular concern for the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner, and commands his people to show this concern as well. In fact, it is interesting that God refers to himself as “father to the fatherless.” (Ps. 68:5). Think about that. What is God like? One of the features of our God is that he is a father to the fatherless.
Later in the NT, we see James urging us to practice true religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father by visiting orphans in their affliction (1:27). This word “visit” is the same root word from which we get our word “pastor” from. James says that we should shepherd the orphan.
Trevin Wax: So you're saying, we can trace this emphasis back to the Scriptures. But in the book, you also show that orphan care is a big part of evangelical church history as well.
Tony Merida: Yes. We have documented accounts from people like Aristitides who says that believers were known for (among other things) looking after the orphan. Others tell us that Christians were known for taking unwanted children which were often left in trash heaps. In a day where human life was not valued (like ours), it was the believers who were known for caring for the little ones.
Fast forward to the Great Awakenings and you see guys like George Whitefield raising money to build an orphanage in Georgia. Later, the mighty Spurgeon builds in orphanage, and some of these children later attended the pastor’s college. Then there is George Mueller, living by faith, displaying Christ’s love to hundreds of orphans. These are just a few samplings in history of people who proclaimed the Gospel in word and practiced good deeds of mercy to the fatherless.
Trevin Wax: That brings us to today. Why do you think we've seen a resurgence of orphan care in the past few years? Obviously, this issue goes back to the Bible and has been prominent throughout evangelical history (as you've pointed out), but the current resurgence seems to be a response to many years of little attention given to this issue. Any thoughts as to why we're seeing so many people involve themselves in this movement today?
Tony Merida: First, I would point to what seems to be a resurgence of interest in theology in general among the rising generation. For example, my friend David just taught from 6:00pm-midnight on soteriology to thousands of people at Secret Church. There he covered doctrines like propitiation, substitution, adoption, and many more.
This sort of interest in biblical theology and God’s grace in salvation has led to an understanding of mercy ministry. As important as the doctrine of creation is as a motivator for mercy is, the doctrine of redemption is greater. Once people begin to realize that they have received from Jesus the opposite of what they have deserved, they will then begin to show grace and compassion to anyone in need. So, I think the better our understanding of grace and gospel, the greater our level of concern will be for those in need.
Once people see that “they themselves” were the orphan until God adopted them, they were the sojourner until God welcomed them, they were the widow until Christ became their bridegroom - once they see this, their lives are impacted.
Trevin Wax: Do you think that another reason might be the ease of communication and travel?
Tony Merida: Absolutely. Globalization and the internet have opened our eyes to the need. Even though people still do not understand the vastness of the orphan crisis, at least there is some measure of accessibility to news about this reality.
Further, people in my generation view the world as their neighbor. Traveling to Africa isn’t as big a deal today as it used to be. There have been times that I have been talking to students about the orphan crisis and I'll notice they are already looking up prices for plane tickets on their iPhones!
Likewise, the internet has made possible a new wave of theological and missional development through podcasts and online teaching. People in years past may have rarely heard any preacher other than the one in their home church. And if he never mentioned orphan care, then they could have spent their whole lives never dealing with it. Today, however, people generally listen to more preachers/teachers than before. So, if you visit John Piper’s website, for example, you will find over 40 pages about adoption and orphan care. Or, if you listen to Rick Warren for any period of time, you will hear him talking about it as well.
Trevin Wax: What about the snowball effect? I know dozens of people who have adopted children or who have been involved in the orphan crisis at a personal level. How does personal example persuade people to get involved?
Tony Merida: Once people actually see children adopted, see pastors coming to church with their ex-orphans, go over to visit their friends who just got back from Uganda with a new little one, then it hits them emotionally. They see that the orphans are not a cause; they are people. And once they hold an ex-orphan, play catch with an ex-orphan, it rocks their world.
The old adage of “success breeds success” seems to be happening right now. Even though I wouldn’t call what we’ve done as “successful” (we still have 130,000 in U.S. foster systems ready to be adopted!), we have seen a growing movement, which has in turn created more movement. The more “successful” examples people see, the more adoptions we will see.
Trevin Wax: One of things I like about Orphanology is that you deal holistically with the orphan crisis. This book is not just about adoption, though adoption certainly plays a key role. You also address the institutional side of orphanages, the foster home situation, and the need for transitional assistance for orphans who read adulthood. Why is it important for us to see the big picture when we think about orphan care?
Tony Merida: Because the orphan crisis doesn’t have one simple solution. We like simple solutions. But this is a complex matter.
For instance, adoption isn’t the only solution for solving the orphan crisis (though we need to adopt more kids!) for the simple reason that many orphans are not available for adoption because of the country in which they live. In this case, we need to learn how to care for the fatherless through mission trips, partnerships, and ministries that help kids when they transition out of the orphanage.
Just today, I talked with a church member who has started a non-profit ministry designed to help kids work in a business once they transition out of the orphanage. Those are the types of things we need to learn how to do well. The future for un-adopted orphans is not bright. The majority of them, in many countries, end up in a life of crime and prostitution.
So, we want to say, “do something.” What can you do?
- Are you a business man? Help these kids in the Dominican Republic start and maintain a business.
- Are you wealthy? Help these parents financially adopt these children.
- Are you not in a position to adopt? Then will you consider being a foster parent?
Ministry to the fatherless involves a variety of activities that we can do as the diverse body of Christ.
Trevin Wax: How we keep the orphan care movement from running out of steam? There's so much to do that many Christians might get overburdened by the need.
Tony Merida: I think we must keep telling people that ultimately everything we do is for the glory of God, not the immediate, observable impact that we see.
I remember hearing Alistair Begg tell a story about his early days as an assistant minister before he came to the States. On one particular occasion, he and the senior minister were visiting a senior care facility. Begg asked him about why they should make these visits since most of the people were unable to mentally engage due to their age and physical situation. The senior minister said that he was missing the point. Ultimately, they were making these visits and doing these Bible studies as unto Christ Himself, not for those in the facility - for as often as we have done it unto the least of these, we have done it unto Christ.
I remember that story had a great impact on me as Begg shared it so transparently and eloquently. I could see how someone may look at the orphan crisis and say, “What’s the use? The problem is too big.” Or, “Who am I? What can I do?”
Let’s not miss the point, everything we do in the name of Jesus, on behalf of Jesus, because of Jesus – matters. We must keep driving this point home. This will keep us from losing hope, growing discouraged, and living man-centered, results-driven lives. In other words, we can keep the movement going by staying true to the Scriptures and keeping our motivation Christ-centered.
Beyond this, we need to keep telling the story of life-change, keep writing books, keep preaching on the doctrine of adoption and orphan care, keep starting new ministries, and keep influencing influencers – and all of this in a spirit of prayer for God’s help.
Trevin Wax: You are one of the people who is doing that well, Tony. Thank you for your book and for joining me in this conversation!