Nerida Taylor Bates | 21 July 2023 |
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. James 1:27
Care for widows and orphans is a strong Biblical imperative. So it may come as a surprise that the Adventist Church does little to financially support the parentless. A few conferences run orphanages; Possibilities Ministries periodically supports some group homes, and ADRA Switzerland runs a home for vulnerable girls in Thailand.
These are exceptions to the very blunt assessment of a General Conference (GC) official, “We don’t do orphans.” Official correspondence is more tactful: “The GC does not have the budget to financially support all the orphans’ physical needs.”
The church’s gospel commission-oriented focus often neglects charity-for-the-sake-of-charity in favor of adding more members. In terms of cost per potential baptism, caring for orphans is low yield. It must be clearly stated that growing the church membership competes, sometimes bitterly, with doing good.
Challenges to supporting orphans
Orphans face significant disadvantages, as they are more likely to live in an impoverished country without an adequate social safety net. And they often occur in resource-draining clusters due to war or natural disasters. Their long-term care requires up to 18 years, spanning many leaders and budgets.
Vulnerable children are at risk for physical, sexual, and financial abuse. Not caring for them risks justifiably damaging the church’s reputation and detrimentally impacts the children’s lives. Because it is well documented that smaller family-like care is best, orphanages that do not move towards home-based care as rapidly as possible also face justifiable criticism.
The church’s image is damaged by exploiting potential donors’ feelings by defining communities by their worst suffering. An Adventist article telling how an orphan’s microloan enabled enough success to buy and run his old family-based orphanage was used to raise money for his Sabbath School and many others in the Union, not to help run his children’s home or offer microloans to newly adult orphans.
Some Christians actively oppose caring for orphans, believing each community should care for their own, and ignoring unequal economic realities. Some say that helping the poor actually hurts them by robbing them of their own ambition! (This despite disagreement from those on the ground.)
But the major difficulty is simply the overwhelming need and “giving fatigue.”
Adventist-adjacent orphan funding organizations
Many Adventists have taken the words of James 1:27 to heart, organizing charities to serve to raise money in wealthier countries to support Adventist projects caring for orphans abroad. These charities don’t have many major donors or endowments and live everyday worried that they cannot support the impoverished children they are already sponsoring.
These Adventist-adjacent charities began with a firsthand witness to great need.
- Jasmin and Peter Jacob started Reach International after being shocked by the poverty surrounding them on a trip to India.
- Asian Aid was started when Maisie Fook had a similar story after visiting Korea.
- Cynthia Prime had an epiphany speaking to youth in Eswatini and started Saving Orphans through Healthcare and Outreach (SOHO).
- An earthquake in Guatemala sparked Ken and Alcyon Fleck to start International Children’s Care, which sponsors family-based orphan care.
- Dr. Saleem and Grace Farag started Newstart Children’s Home after witnessing the need in Zimbabwe.
- Norma Nashed’s resource-poor childhood in Jordan drives her support of orphanages and schools worldwide with ReStore a Child.
- The medical missionaries Stephen and Verlene Youngberg founded Pan American Health Services, a refeeding center and children’s home in rural Honduras to fill the need they found around them. This is far from a comprehensive list.
Difficulties unique to small charities
Despite the amazing work of these small nonprofits, they face many problems. All of these groups are soft-hearted—that is why they started. This can lead to mission creep, or the inability to say no to any good project, which dilutes the charity’s focus. Almost all also support impoverished families sending their children to Adventist schools, and many support health projects.
Some charities have crumpled when the original visionary steps down, resulting in a sudden loss of funds for amazing projects. Others have been taken over by secular boards and lost their Adventist affiliation. This becomes a particular issue when the charity owns the land and buildings, not the church. Some charities go from no, or low, overhead to slowly acquiring more and more administrative costs.
Where the church helps
The church does assist church-adjacent charities in several significant ways. When money has been raised for a specific building or conference project, the church is happy to accept the funds in the United States and distribute them abroad. This saves time and banking costs.
The church has designated every second Sabbath in October as Orphans’ Sabbath, where God’s call to support the most vulnerable is a special emphasis. Sermon resources are sent to pastors by each division. There is also a refugee Sabbath each June.
The North American Division created a weeklong curriculum for K-12 Religion classes called Dofast. Students study Restore a Child, dissecting who runs the charity, whom they help, and how they raise money. This fosters critical evaluation skills needed for future charitable giving. Each day, it is suggested, they forego a luxury such as their phone, computer games, and, on the last day, food, to reflect on how life is very different for some children around the world—and to donate what they save to the cause.
Possibilities Ministries, well known for serving the sight- and hearing-impaired communities, has recently added orphans to their mission. They focus on removing barriers to church participation for those with different abilities and encouraging individual churches to minister to those with special needs. They do contribute specific “on the ground” funds for deserving orphanages in limited circumstances.
What is not clear, and appears to fluctuate, is how they divide their funds between educational and charitable causes. For a few months in 2022, their donations page for orphans gave the option of directly passing funds through to three Adventist-run charities.
Where conflict happens
Most Adventists are aware that the church actively discourages spending tithe money on orphans, widows, and the hungry—indeed, on anything except pastors’ salaries. Surprisingly, several charities reported that church workers directly contacted their wealthy donors, chastising them for sending non-tithe offerings to independent organizations instead of church coffers.
The church policy that funds cannot be raised for non-church entities during church services still applies on Orphan’s Sabbath. Because the division does not run orphanages, offerings for orphans cannot be collected. The congregation may falsely assume money given on that day is for the destitute when it might be for church budget. Perhaps this is why Orphan’s Sabbath is poorly observed in the North American Division. The return of a church-sanctioned passthrough to independent Adventist charities or active endorsement from the pulpit, at least temporarily, would make Orphan’s Sabbath more ethical.
A charity head reported that an Adventist pastor serving on her board was told pastors can no longer serve on the boards of independent Adventist charities. This policy not only infringes on the pastor’s rights but will increase the number of non-Adventists on these boards, making it more likely that they drift from Adventist-only work.
When a General Conference entity used a photograph of orphans, an Adventist charity head complained that they were using a photo of children they did not fund. They replied that her charity supported the children, and the church had helped to transfer some funds for this charity, so they were justified even though they didn’t raise any funds for the pictured children! The charity leader felt this was both an unethical exploitation of her charity and the most vulnerable children.
When there is a crisis, the church and small charities have been capable of working together, as they have in Ukraine and did in Indonesia following the tsunami. It would be beneficial to children if this cooperation happened more frequently. Possibilities Ministries’ new orphans’ ministry has the ability to step into this role, particularly if they show more transparency about where funds are spent.
Call to action
The Bible makes it clear that God expects his people to financially support the disadvantaged. While the church offers a rich portfolio of evangelism and charity, it rarely helps stabilize the most-at-risk children. All Adventists should be encouraged to support the long-term financial care of the most vulnerable children, including serving as board members. If this obligation is to be shunted onto individual Adventist-adjacent charities, it seems obvious that the church should not officially or covertly interfere.
Periodically each of us conducts a personal assessment of our charitable giving. Adventists must carefully assess which charities are most efficient and best represent their desire to help.
We must “not grow weary of doing good” (Gal 6:9), but must press on, as Jimmy Carter says, because “my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have, to try to make a difference.”
Nerida Taylor Bates is a physician specializing in the care of children. She has three adult daughters and loves to travel.