I blew into the room with my arms full, and I saw her sitting there. I knew immediately who she was. I checked in up front and made my way to a seat on the other side of the room. It wasn't that I didn't want to go sit next to her; I nearly did. But there was something about her closed demeanor and the way she avoided my eyes that told me to wait. Just wait. We will meet soon enough.
I sat down and unloaded my arms. Diaper bag, purse, keys in my hand, baby in the baby carrier. I checked my phone. I glanced up at her. She had come with empty arms. I looked down at my clothes. New sweater, new jeans from Christmas. I looked at her clothes: a worn sweatshirt and sweatpants. I could see on her face the hardships of life, weathered by years of what? Homelessness? Drug use? Sexual exploitation?
My foster son's caseworker walked into the room, greeted me, and greeted this woman. I had been right - she is the mother of my foster son.
There is an awkwardness that settles upon a room when you first meet the biological parents to your foster child. Why the awkwardness? Because this is the most unnatural interaction; it isn't supposed to be this way. Here you stand, loving and caring for this little one as your own, next to the mom and/or dad who are biologically tied to this child forever. You never know how the biological parents might react. I have had some parents weep and fall into my arms, thankful that we are loving their child during this season. That is a most humbling moment. I have had others shake my hand but not say one word to me. I understand that, too. How do you greet the one who is raising your child? The responses are varied, but the heartache and regret are almost always there.
I walked back to the visitation room with the mom, the dad (who showed up separately), the caseworker, and my foster son. We crowded into the tiny room, and everyone waited in uncomfortable silence as I unbuckled his safety harness and pulled out our precious baby. As the mom reached to hold her son for the first time since he left the hospital, we made eye contact, and I saw it: humanity. I looked in her eyes, and I saw the brokenness and emptiness that comes with the human condition.
In the world of orphan care, it is so easy to vilify the biological parents. I hear it all the time as people look at the innocence lost in these helpless children and wonder aloud, "Who could do such a thing?" It is a fair question, and I have wondered the same at times. But then, I have looked in their eyes. I have seen their silent tears as they hand their children back to me at the end of the visitation hour. They are not villains. They are human beings, with the same longings for love, acceptance, and fulfillment that we all have. They bear the same sin condition that we all have. They carry their shame over what they've done just as we all have. So what's the difference?
When speaking to His disciples about what will come in the end, Jesus described this scene:
"Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’" Matthew 25:34-40
The parents, like their children we foster, are counted among "the least of these."
We as the body Christ have a great opportunity and responsibility. We can step in and speak dignity over these parents, many of whom have been rejected and stripped of dignity their entire lives. We can love them with Christ's love even in their broken functioning, their vicious addictions, and their maladaptive coping skills (we might even recognize the presence of the same brokenness in our own lives as we do). We can take every opportunity that comes our way to share the Gospel with them. We can utilize our material and/or financial excess to meet the needs of those around us.
Instead of caring for their children and just "hoping for the best" while the system plays out its process, we can get involved and help the parents succeed so that reunification isn't scary anymore. Sometimes, of course, the safest decision is to remove the children permanently. When that happens, the parents' need for Jesus does not diminish.
What's the difference between us and them? On the most basic level, only the redemption of Jesus Christ. Outside of His restorative work in our lives, we are no better than them. Outside of the cross, we all stand equally sinful and equally condemned. We have what they need - the Gospel - and it is our responsibility as the body of Christ to share that with them.
The world of orphan care is vast and dynamic. Fostering and adoption are only two branches of the raging river we face in society. Caring for these children is vital, but it does not fix the root problem, which begins in the nuclear family. There is more we can be doing as the church, the body of Christ. We must wade into the murky waters of broken families and tackle the root of the problem. We need to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Some have already forged ahead and created tangible ways to get involved. The nationwide program Safe Families reaches out to families before their children are removed by the state. They minister to the parents through mentorship and other services, and they place children in safe homes during this time. Maybe your home could be a safe harbor for these children, or maybe you could offer your time to be mentors to the parents. Some churches have their own programs that target specific populations, such as Long Hollow's Jonah's Journey in Hendersonville, TN, which provides foster care for the children of incarcerated moms. For any churches interested in starting a similar ministry, Jonah's Journey would be a great place to get guidance. The Care Portal is another avenue connecting the state and the church. The Care Portal allows the church to meet the material needs of hurting families, as well as other vital needs, such as offering mentoring to parents. Your church can sign up to be a part of the care portal if it is already established in your area, or you can raise awareness to rally other churches to help bring it to your area.
The call to orphan care is not optional for the church; it is mandatory. Genuine faith in Christ means joining Him in His work, and orphan care is a part of that. Today, join me in the challenge of thinking through how we might all get involved.
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."