Who Are the Widow and the Orphan? Redefining James 1:27

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27

“Learn to do right; seek justice.

   Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

   plead the case of the widow.”

– Isaiah 1:17-18

Throughout the Bible, we see the “orphan” and the “widow” mentioned as people God protects, helps, and cares for deeply. His expectations of us as His children are no different, but most of us know very few “orphans” and “widows,” as we commonly define them. But in fact, the Bible almost always references them together, not as separate groups. Caring for the “widow and the orphan” then means not just caring for the woman with no husband or the child with no parents, but caring for vulnerable and single parent families and restoring family structures that have been broken. To better understand what this means for those globally working to “look after orphans and widows in their distress,” and what it could mean for you, your church, and your community, let’s take a look at who “orphans” and “widows” are.

When most people hear the word “orphan,” they imagine a destitute, impoverished child with no parents. Yet of the 140 million+ “orphans” worldwide, only about 15.1 million have lost both parents. The majority of these continue living with extended family. In most parts of the world, around 80% or more of the children living in orphanages have at least one living parent, and a far greater percentage almost certainly have living extended family members. Most of these children (about 4 in 5) did not become orphans until they were placed in orphanages, taking on an “orphan” identity along with their new living situation. With this in mind, it’s fairly reasonable to conclude that “orphans” are vulnerable children who have already been separated from their family or are at a high risk of being forced to trade the care and love of a family for the four walls of an institution. They are the victims of poverty, war, disaster, abuse, neglect, illness, or death.

Similarly, the “widow” is generally imagined as the woman left to fend for herself after the tragic death of her husband. Yet if we can open our eyes a bit wider and consider the widow with the same broad lens we use to look at the “orphan,” we’ll see that there are far more “widows” in our midst than we would have thought. With this broader scope in mind, we see that a widow or widower can be left to fend for themselves not just at the death of a spouse, but also because they left their spouse to escape abuse, or because their spouse is incarcerated, suffers from a chronic and debilitating illness, is engaged in war or conflict, is unemployed, or any other number of factors that leave a single parent to meet the needs of their children and, sometimes, their spouse. Just like the “orphan,” more often than not “widows” are victims of poverty, war, disaster, abuse, neglect, and illness. While death has left those 140 million+ orphaned children with single parents or no parents at all, countless millions of “widows” are parents in destitute poverty or single parents left to care for the children on their own through abandonment or some other non-death related separation. While single parents (specifically single mothers) are an incredibly vulnerable population, even couples who are still together can find themselves in such dire circumstances that they may lose their partner or have their children become “orphans.”

While the orphan is certainly the child with no parents, he is also the child whose parents couldn’t afford to send him to school so they turned him into the local orphanage that provided the service for free. She is the child who has to work instead of going to school because her single mother cannot afford to care for her otherwise. They are the children with no mother who are left locked at home because their dad is working all day and has no money for child care. We must look at struggling parents in the same way. While the widow is surely the single parent whose spouse has died, she is also the mother who had to escape her abusive husband or boyfriend for her own safety and the safety of her children. They are the parents who need their children to work the fields with them so that they can scrape a living together and afford their next meal. He is the husband whose wife suffers from a debilitating chronic illness and so is unable to work.

Widows and orphans, then, are vulnerable children and families. Plain and simple. Not just those who have lost family, but those who could lose their family at any moment. So, the call to care for the “orphan” and the “widow” is not just a call to care for children living without families and single parents. It is the call to respond before these vulnerable children and families become orphans and widows. Church and the communities are responsible for identifying and accompanying children who could end up as “orphans” living inside the isolating walls of an orphanage, and families in dismal circumstances, and struggling single parents whose best efforts are still falling short of their children’s needs. By stepping in before the crisis results in “orphans” and “widows,” we will see stronger families, stronger communities, and stronger countries, with no need for orphanages.  

“Looking after orphans and widows in their distress” is a much bigger and much more urgent calling than we’ve been taught to believe. We must do justice, fighting for families to stay together by coming alongside them in their trials and figuring out how to prevent their children from becoming orphans. We must love mercy, offering resources and opportunities for reconciliation and redemption where generational poverty or cycles of abuse have damaged family structures and relationships. We must walk humbly with God our Father, knowing that He desires to see healthy families and homes and praying relentlessly for this to become the reality. 

Open your eyes; the “orphan” and “widow” are all around you, and God is counting on you and me to come alongside them and strive to see His will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. 


This post was written by Levi Bareither, our 3rd and 4th grade teacher at the School of Hope and advocate for family-based care. 

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