According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, in 2016, there were 437,465 children in foster care, with 117,794 waiting to be adopted.
The numbers may seem overwhelming, but with more than 300,000 churches in America, I am convinced the church can make a giant impact on the system. I have been thoroughly encouraged by the amount of fellow foster parents I know that are Christians. My hope is that I will continually meet more.
Here are five ways your church can participate.
1. Proclaim the good news of the imago Dei imprinted on every human being.
If we, as Christians, believe in the imago Dei imprinted on every human being, we must assign dignity even where society does not. This is true of every child in the foster care system—and it is true of the biological parents as well.
This means helping people wrestle through the tension of potential loss as foster parents as they express, “Oh, I couldn’t be a foster parent because it would break my heart when the child goes back to their parents.”
Instead, we can help people recognize that if the biological parents whose children enter foster care carry the image of God within themselves, if they are worthy of redemption and God hungers for their lives to be made right, then this means that reunification—even in a very flawed system—is a piece of divine redemption.
Yes, there are many cases where judges order reunification when social workers and foster parents disagree. Should all children return to their biological parents? No. But all biological parents should get a chance to turn their lives around. We must spur on the biological parents as much as we do the foster parents and not assign “good” to one and “bad” to another. That type of dichotomy does not fly in the kingdom of God where every human is a sinner and a saint simultaneously because of the love of Christ. Often times the foundational difference between biological parents and foster parents is the absence or presence of a functioning support system.
2. Form your congregation into one which runs toward pain, not away from it, because they know Christ’s presence is experienced in these places of darkness.
If we really want our hearts broken for what breaks God’s heart, we must prepare ourselves to experience pain. We can’t say in one breath: “Lord, break my heart for what breaks Yours,” and in the next say: “Lord protect me and my family from all harm.” When the Lord breaks our hearts, we cannot walk away unscathed. We live in a world full of suffering, and as N.T. Wright has said:
“We shouldn’t be surprised if the Spirit leads us to places of birth pangs and groanings. The Church is called to stand in the place where the world is in pain.”
We cannot run away from pain. Our calling is to run towards it.
3. Preach from the pulpit about foster care
When church leadership is heartbroken about an issue, it will often ignite the congregation to recognize the suffering and get involved. Most Christians agree that it is a biblical mandate to care for vulnerable children. We often hear of this happening at overseas orphanages, or maybe at Christmas time when our churches serve food to a family shelter.
Sherry Lachman said in a New York Times article:
“There is no national foster care movement, no viral social media campaigns or crowds of protesters taking to the streets to battle for these children. No household name like Teach for America or AARP devoted to fighting for kids in foster care. Foster youths are, by definition, wards of the state, but when was the last time you heard any elected official talking about them?”
But the church can stand in the gap. The church can talk about foster youth. Thankfully, pastors are not politicians. But their words do have power. I know a foster parent couple that got involved because of hearing a sermon about getting involved.
Speak from the pulpit. Speak up for justice in our own neighborhoods.
4. Kindle imagination in your church for how everyone can help support foster families, beyond the foster parents themselves.
Not all families should be foster families. But there are other roles to play.
Convincing families they should be foster families when they aren’t ready or aren’t at a good place in life to do so will further harm foster children. Fostering is a big life change, and it is important that families understand the need for their time and energy to be redirected from other areas of life. If people aren’t able to become foster parents, there are many other support roles to play, such as:
• Babysitter. In some states like mine, you don’t have to be a licensed foster parent to babysit a foster child. Check with your county to see if they have a ‘reasonable and prudent parent’ standard which allows the foster family to let another family member or friend watch the child if they would let that same person watch their (theoretical or real) biological children.
• GAL. Guardian Ad Litem is a court-appointed volunteer who works on behalf of the foster child to make sure solutions are in the best interest of the child. There is often a shortage of these volunteers.
• Foster family wrap-around. Be a family that supports another foster family. Be friends with them, build relationships, make them a meal every once in a while, ask how the family is doing and when they say ‘OK’ translate it to ‘We’re making it, but this is tough’. Ask them how you can help.
• Host an event for foster families. The most encouraging time for me as a foster mom is when I am with other foster families. Because there may be county-licensed foster families in your community along with private agency-licensed foster families, host an event that connects them both.
5. Invite your county’s foster care coordinator to come speak to a group of interested individuals at your church.
Currently, there is a shortage of foster parents in America. There is a shortage of foster parents in my county. Much of this is due to the opioid crisis. That same aforementioned New York Times article stated:
“As more Americans struggle with opioid addiction and find themselves unable to perform their duties as parents, children are pouring into state and county foster care systems. In Montana, the number of children in foster care has doubled since 2010. In Georgia, it has increased by 80 percent, and in West Virginia, by 45 percent.”
It is important to note that there are private foster care agencies and your county’s foster care agency (usually DSS or DHS). Do research on which one you want to get involved with. From my perspective, I would suggest going to the county first. They are usually low on resources and in need of foster parents. When they have to outsource foster care to a private agency because they don’t have enough families licensed with the county, it requires more resources to be spent, especially if they have to place a child with a family from another county.
RELIGION THAT IS PURE AND FAULTLESS
“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
Getting involved in foster care is an active and intentional way of fulfilling the James 1:27 call of caring for our vulnerable neighbors. The church can become a catalyst for providing very real and sustainable change to a very complex and tough societal need. Shalom comes as we step toward pain and bring the peace of Christ.
Gena Thomas served as a missionary for 4-plus years in northern Mexico alongside her husband, Andrew. After returning to the U.S., Gena published A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices. She currently works as a contract writer and cohosts a Twitter chat on missions called #JustMissions. This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org.