My first experience with actor Sally Struthers was late on a Saturday night during my junior high school years. I had connived my parents into letting me finish watching a TV program well past my usual bedtime. The moment the credits rolled, the extended-format commercial started.
I was instantly transfixed. There she was, this white woman who was presented as a celebrity (I was too young to have watched her in the TV series All in the Family), sitting on the stoop of a hut somewhere in Africa. She was surrounded by black children—some arranged on her lap, others nearby with anxious and desperate looks in their eyes. My heart was broken for these poor African children, and I badly wanted to do something to help through the organization she was promoting. But knowing that I had no money of my own as a 13-year-old, I shut the TV off and went to bed, eager to escape Ms. Struthers’s pleas.
Through today’s ready accessibility of social media, all generations are confronted by the suffering of children well beyond the confines of late-late-night infomercials. In between all of the toddler videos, birthday wishes, and political rants dragging through my Facebook feed daily, I can count on at least one or two promotional advertisements for ministry organizations that feature children. And when a major crisis hits—an earthquake strikes, a war breaks out, an exposé gets released—the stories multiply. Even more, the problems of food insecurity that Ms. Struthers was trying to address seem to pale in comparison to the depths of abuse and exploitation of children that many of these headlines present. So the important question quickly becomes, What should a responsible Christian adult do with all of this graphic suffering of children, especially when it appears so frequently in the intimacy of our personal screens?
In the privileged West, we must be willing to allow difficult news to permeate the membranes of our personal and communal bubbles. Part of God’s identity is father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5), and as fellow children of God, we must recognize that even children who suffer far away are part of our extended family. We have a God-given responsibility to them, even if their needs are not as immediately evident to us as the children with whom we personally interact. So it’s not really an option to simply ignore their pain as I did that night.
COMPLICATED NEEDS DESERVE CAREFUL RESPONSES
Of course, as an American Christian, I would love to immediately board a plane and try to fix the problems myself. But as a teacher who has studied Christian mission with children at risk for the past couple of decades, I know that those kinds of solutions normally end up being more about satisfying the goer than effecting lasting change. Those children we see in snippets and images on our computers have real lives that take more than a quick fix. Lasting solutions require addressing complex and robust cultural systems that are structured to prioritize adult survival over the vulnerability of children in the midst of extreme hardships like ethnic violence and/or extreme poverty. Even if we think we’ve changed the situation for a single child, it is surprising how quickly a powerful social structure can snap back into place once a temporary foreign intervention ends. Instead, the kind of child-focused strategies I propose are slower, more critically reflective, and emphasize strengthening local relational networks to sustain a child long term. They’re the kind of solutions that my teenage middle-of-the-night self never could have fathomed, let alone imagined I would someday be advocating for.
So if hopping on a plane isn’t the answer, we are left to sift through the cries for help and then rely on organizations that are already on the ground and have earned good reputations for addressing local needs in these distant places.
But how should we decide what causes are worth our consideration? This is most certainly a matter for prayer—real prayer. Not I’ll-pray-about-it-if-I-remember-but-I-probably-won’t prayer, but genuine, intentional prayer. In fact, interceding with God as a response to headlines is an incredible first step. As I pray, though, I find it valuable to remain sensitive to those causes that seem to raise the most distress in me. Often these are causes that connect with aspects of my own personal experience. When those connections happen, I know it’s worth the effort to dig a little deeper.
TAKING CHILDREN’S FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS SERIOUSLY
At this point Christians often wonder which causes and organizations are worthy of support. Ultimately that question is much larger than the scope of this article, but my most strategic advice is to search for the ones that take a child’s relationships seriously.
Thinking again about that early experience with Ms. Struthers, it’s probably not by accident that the organization she was promoting chose to use an image of their celebrity sponsor with children on her lap as the center of their fundraising strategy. It strongly evokes the Gospel narratives of Matthew 19:13–15 and Mark 10:13–16, in which children were being blessed by Jesus. But while there may be superficial similarities between these texts and that infomercial, the contrast between the two pictures is profound. Among many other differences, the biblical accounts describe the children as being brought by their parents. In contrast, the Struthers commercial did not leave any room for adults other than herself. This is telling, since sociologists who study imagery around children (there is a surprising amount of literature on this) suggest that when adults are absent in images of suffering children, the unstated implication of that image is that their parents are somehow inattentive or absent. As a result, these images invite viewing adults to see themselves as momentary surrogate parents, and to exercise maternal protectiveness as a way of creating connections between the ideas of children they evoke and the would-be donor. But the presence of parents in the Gospel accounts reminds us that Jesus was working within existing family structures. He was not inserting himself as a surrogate parent for these children (although the idea of how Jesus would have served as a father is a provocative one). Rather, he received the children from their parents, blessed them, and then returned them.
Understanding this example of Jesus is key to understanding effective work, because good work with children sees changing children’s family structures only as a last resort. The most effective efforts first try to understand the existing relational worlds of the children they serve, and then take steps to strengthen those relationships. These kinds of approaches have the advantage of building on the resources a child already has, and minimize the amount of upheaval they might otherwise experience through more radical interventions. So rather than rounding up orphaned children and sending them to a group home several villages away, an important measure of the effectiveness of an organization’s work can come from finding out how much work is done to support parents so that families can stay intact, or to explore extended family networks to find alternative care options if parents are no longer around or capable of offering nurturing care.
Finding out this kind of information about the actual strategies employed by an aid organization takes more effort than scrolling through a news feed. But depending on the transparency of an organization’s website, it can be easier to identify these kinds of ministry priorities than you might expect. Even better, the most reliable way to identify worthy ministries is to work through your own relational networks. Who do you know who might know something about the problem that you are learning about? Perhaps they know someone who knows someone who is addressing the concern in viable and thoughtful ways. Working through your networks can take time, but the benefit is that you are immediately solving one of the inherent problems of much of our giving today: you can never ultimately be sure what has taken place, and how your contribution has been used.
If you find your relational connections don’t extend far enough to help you make informed decisions, perhaps the best strategy is to be guided by what you can learn from Internet research, followed by seeking to establish deeper relationships with an organization as part of your support over time. This will likely take special effort since many donation opportunities are designed to be essentially anonymous—allowing givers to contribute funds without the hassle of having a real relationship. These no-fuss arrangements are solely monetary because this is what Western Christians tend to want. However, I’m advocating for something a little messier. Even if you’re not a major donor (or a financial donor at all), many organizations will welcome the occasional phone call or email check-in from a concerned partner who wants to know more.
Some community-focused child sponsorship organizations show that they know this well. A few even facilitate donor visits with sponsored children so that a supporter can make a more personal connection with a child and their family. But even if these special kinds of opportunities are unavailable, I always urge donors to find ways of making meaningful connections with the people who are doing direct work with children. The most well-known Christian child development agencies have legitimately earned their sterling reputations through decades of achieving effective results with children within the contexts of their families and communities, and child sponsorship is just one part of what they do. So you are wise to do your own research and establish enough of a connection to feel well informed about what is actually happening in face-to-face work with children.
FROM REACTIONS TO RELATIONSHIPS
The next time you encounter a troubling account of a young person’s extraordinary needs, I hope you will take these recommendations to heart. First, pray, asking God to guide what you should do next, remaining sensitive to those needs that you find the most distressing. Second, do your best research and relational networking to find the groups that are focused on respecting and enhancing the relationships that already exist in a child’s life, rather than applying artificial solutions that may not last or might even hurt a child in the long run. Third, ask questions and work to develop or enhance your relationships with those groups you find to be doing the most promising work. In the process, you just might discover a new dimension of your relationship with the Father of the fatherless.