Orphan Care: The Unexpected Difference You Can Make

Excerpted from Orphan Justice: How to Care for Orphans Beyond Adopting
By Johnny Carr, with Laura Captari (B&H)



That day back at James’s orphanage in Zhenshi, China, really messed me up. Afterward, my dreams were filled with images of children wasting away—no families, very little food, tattered clothing, untreated medical issues and few toys to play with. Every nightmare, the story was the same: A child was confined to a crude high chair with desperation in her eyes. She had a cleft lip and open palate, and she was starving to death. She was not just a statistic, but a real little girl who needed a family.  

In every dream, I turned my back. I walked away from that shack of an orphanage and sat down behind my big oak desk as the pastor of ministry and leadership development. I was back where things were safe and comfortable—back to the American dream.

But that little girl’s screams for help echoed through the corridors of my mind. Her eyes pierced to the core of my heart, shaking me out of my stupor. I spent many sleepless nights staring at our bedroom wall, trying to make sense of the blurred lines between dream world and reality. One night, as tears streamed down my face, I finally realized that my nightmare was real. This was the direction of my life. It was a puny, small, self-centered existence, but no one would have ever guessed. I was a pastor and a leader in my church and community.

I was still haunted by scenes of the orphanage as I sat in my plush office, crunching numbers for our next big project—a $10 million building initiative. The new building would include a large gymnasium, a fellowship hall, children’s and preschool suites and a coffee shop. As I looked over the building plans, something didn’t match up. My mind flashed back to James’s orphanage with its dirty and substandard conditions. I felt conflicted and confused. But what could I do about it? Those kids were on the other side of the world. I was called to take care of my own “flock” … right?

Are We Missing Something?

I sat in a strategy meeting with church leaders, bankers, architects and contractors. Everyone else was excited, but my heart was not all there. Ten million dollars, I thought to myself. One hundredth of that would be $100,000, which is more than enough to take care of the desperate conditions of every orphanage in Zhenshi.

The bank made us an offer to finance the new building, but the economy was starting to falter in the recession of 2007. Our ability to get the loan became dependent on the success of our fundraising campaign. Timing was critical. After an hour of discussion, I turned to the banker and bluntly asked, “What is your drop-dead date for a commitment?”

In a last-ditch effort to shake my head free of Zhenshi and really take my job seriously, I told the committee, “If you give me a team, we’ll make it happen.” Nothing like commitment to bring my mind back to the present, right?

I really did try to do my best. We formed committees, wrote job descriptions, developed a plan and even wrote a series of skits to go along with the sermons in the campaign. It was a noble cause, but I have to be honest with you, I was not all there.

One of the skits we wrote hit particularly close to home. A dad and his daughter were having a picnic lunch at the park. “We need to be generous, just like Jesus,” the father said. “That’s why your mom and I decided to give to the building campaign at church rather than going to the mountains on vacation this year.” It was a perfect time for a teachable moment, only the daughter was not listening to her dad. She was watching a homeless man who sat on a nearby park bench. The daughter in the skit (played by my daughter, Heather) ended up walking over to the homeless guy and handing him her lunch. Dad was talking big about giving, but his little girl really “got” it. She lived it.

That girl was my daughter (literally and figuratively) … and the dad was me. In my heart, I felt very conflicted about giving any money to our building. I wanted to give it to my son’s friends who were starving to death back in Zhenshi. These children were forgotten. They were dying of treatable health conditions, sitting in makeshift high chairs with flies buzzing around their excrement.

A few weeks after returning home from China, Beth and I learned that one of the infants at the orphanage—the one in my nightmares—had died of starvation because of her cleft lip and open palate. The cost of the surgery to save that child’s life: $250. Trying to balance $10 million, $250, and the value of one human life kept me up many nights. I have never experienced such a strong internal tug of war between competing priorities.

For growing churches, building a new building is one of the hardest decisions that leadership must wrestle through. Every pastor wants to be part of a growing church, and often, part of a growing church is building a building. But how do you know when it is really time to make a huge financial commitment? Do you go into debt or raise the money first? How much do you need to raise before starting to build? As a pastor, I struggled with these questions over and over again.

As Christ followers, we must commit to asking and answering tough questions before we rush in to supporting a new building project. Have we looked at every alternative? What about multiple services, moving our small groups off campus and into homes, or planting a new church? Many of us have approached such projects with the attitude of “we get to build” instead of “we have to build,” failing to think about the long-term implications.

If we enter building projects prayerfully, methodically, wisely and with God’s blessing, the result should be a larger congregation with more capacity to give. Generosity has to be at the core of our values as a church. However, if we enter building projects with the wrong motives, we will not have God’s blessing. Debt can easily become an albatross around the very neck of the church.

In the end, we raised the money and built the building. The church continues to thrive and grow. Many people have been saved, lives have been changed, relationships have been restored and the church is very active in giving and supporting missions. For all intents and purposes, the building campaign was a success. I was a success. But as friends congratulated me on my hard work, my mind was plagued with one thought: What about those kids in Zhenshi?

I couldn’t escape the reality of what I saw, touched and smelled in China. Then I stumbled on Proverbs 31:9: “Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.” The reality of what I had experienced screamed out one thing: We’re failing. We’re failing our children, beloved creations made in God’s image. We’re failing the body. We’re failing the needy. We’re failing that orphanage in Zhenshi.

Let me say clearly that I am not against new or modern buildings. I am not so idealistic to think that every church should meet in houses or old supermarkets. But we have to ask ourselves: Are we investing the majority of our time and energy in the brick and mortar of our buildings while neglecting the biblical command to be the hands and feet of Jesus?

Johnny Carr
Johnny Carrorphanjustice.com/johnny-carr/

Johnny Carr is national director of Church Partnerships at Bethany Christian Services, the nation's largest adoption and orphan care agency. He and his wife live with their five children (the youngest three are adopted) in Pittsburgh, Pa.