In Pursuit of Better Answers

On October 20, Story International hosted our second community event of the year: a church engagement event with over 40 local pastors and church leaders. Our goal was to educate attendees about the realities of vulnerable children and families in our community and to encourage them to partner with us in the work we’re doing.

We truly, deeply, and confidently believe that a Biblical calling like the call to care for widows and orphans requires a response from God’s Church. When families fail and the government fails, the local church and the global church cannot fail. As God’s hands and feet in the world, we are called to respond when and where there is injustice, brokenness, sin, and darkness. We have to be the light, finding better answers and bringing hope to hopeless places.

With this in mind, we have been working super hard to engage the local church this year. As a non-profit, we can provide services and support. But what we as a non-profit cannot do is adopt kids or foster kids. Only families can do that. Yet the concepts of adoption and foster care are still very foreign in Guatemalan churches. The legacy left by Westerners’ philanthropic and well-intentioned efforts to help orphans in Latin American countries such as Guatemala has left enduring and damaging cultural perceptions and orphanage buildings that have become a natural part of the landscape, all in the name of “helping children”.

Yet the scars are just as deep - these well-intentioned and misdirected efforts have left Guatemala in the past as the builders of these orphanages (many from countries that have already moved towards family-based care options as a healthier response to the needs of vulnerable children) have left these orphanages as they are, leaving countries like Guatemala with lasting incorrect notions of what is best for children and families.

What has made this all the more difficult is that these orphanages have become resources not just for orphans, but for any poor or vulnerable family. This is why we see statistics like those saying that 80% of children living in orphanages are not actually orphans - just children from vulnerable families or children lost in a system that isn’t working. They say that orphanages create orphans, especially in poorer countries where families often feel as though their kids would be better off with free schooling and three solid meals a day (benefits considered pull factors). Yet even knowing (subconsciously or consciously) that orphanages are an outdated model, Western churches have been actively perpetuating this model through child sponsorships in orphanages, short-term mission trips to orphanages, and other altruistic yet misguided efforts to support children in need.

Again, these statistics aren’t meant to bash the Western church - it is to remind us (myself a member of the Western church) that much of the problem we are dealing with today in places like Guatemala has been created and perpetuated by Westerners. It can be easy to look at a country like Guatemala where rates of family separation are high without considering the reality that the Western Savior Complex greatly exacerbated and continues to exacerbate this problem.

That said, a lot of the challenges we’ve had in educating local church leaders on topics like foster care and adoption are directly related to the fact that orphanages have been and continue to be the go-to solution for kids who are separated from their families. Currently, there are still far more children’s homes than foster families in Guatemala, though slowly but surely the ratio is beginning to shift. It will be a long uphill battle that’s beginning with just a small number of existing foster families, around 5,000-6,000 children in residential care/orphanages, and about 100 domestic (and zero international) adoptions per year. If the Church doesn’t start acting soon, thousands of kids are going to get lost in the system and age out without families, without support, and without hope.

That stark reality is why we are engaging the local and the global church. Both are players in this game, and both must step up and provide solutions. Just as we have been actively working to teach Guatemalan pastors about foster care and adoption, we’ve been trying to educate the global church on ways they can help - healthier ways of doing mission trips, the importance of supporting family-based care initiatives, and ways to be more active in supporting vulnerable children and families in their own communities. It’s going to be a long battle. Like I said, orphanages are often the only thing Guatemalans have heard of as a solution for children in need, and few know of the potential dangers or the better options.

Our team has learned a lot about family-based care this year and what it means for us in our context. We’ve learned better practices for ethical mission trips, better ideas for engaging with local churches, and better ways to communicate what we’re learning with our Western donor base. In 2019, we hope that these churches we’re building partnerships with will step up and provide the answers that Story cannot and answer the call that we cannot. Specifically, we hope that our partners in local church congregations step into roles as adoptive parents, foster parents, mentors, and supporters of hurting and broken families, modeling and facilitating redemption and reconciliation.

The point of all this isn’t to criticize the Western church or the Guatemalan church. Both have failed and made mistakes. Both are capable of doing better. This is no time for blame, no time for frustration, and no time for criticism. Now is the time for action, and both the local and the global church have a role to play in ending the global orphan crisis. Hand in hand, our team of Guatemalan and Western Christ followers continue to seek out better answers every day, knowing and believing that Our God and His Church are capable of marvelous things.

*This blog was written by our Advocacy and Development Coordinator, Levi Bareither

Melanie Chandler