What’s Your Role in Loving the Orphan?

For the last few weeks we have been learning all about loving people who can sometimes be challenging to love. With the devastation that comes from drug/alcohol abuse, incarceration, unemployment, divorce, and a myriad of other challenges that can be associated with poverty there is also collateral damage. And the ones that tend to get the brunt of the bad decisions adults can make are their children.

However, as cute as those kids can be, there are many in our communities that are often shunned, cast aside or forgotten. Shocking I know, but unfortunately true. There are children who go unfed, under educated, unloved, and uncared for and the reasons can vary from one situation to another. The cycle of despair in these stories is heart breaking.

I cannot tell you the number of times I heard a woman in jail talk about her own foster care experience and in the same breath talk about the number of her own children that were now in the same care. So what does God say about this? Is He distant from it all? Does He not see the pain of the children? Haven’t they already been through enough?

Believe me, all those questions are true and valid. When it comes to children, it’s almost sacred ground, a no fly zone, right? You can talk about this topic or that one, but when it comes to the children, just no…you can’t go there. There cannot be a God in heaven who loves us if even He cannot take care of the children.

But here is the deal. God, is our “Abba,” meaning Father, which puts into perspective not only His heart for children but His perspective on seeing us, as humanity, as his children.

We see a perspective on this in Mark 10:12-16: 

“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

From this verse you can see Jesus views the children in high regard, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

But notice the disciples reaction to the children, they rebuked “the people” bringing them to Jesus. The disciples who had been with Jesus more than any other group of people, should have known Him better. And what does Jesus do? He rebukes them.

Now what I find to be particularly interesting about this verse is it does not say in any jonathan_bringthechildrentomeversion I looked up “parents” were bringing the children to Jesus. It says “people.” So we can imply that they could have been other family members, friends, or just an adult who had taken them in. It reveals to us that there was a community that was invested in these children and knew something that the disciples did not.

Children need Jesus. Especially those who have been orphaned or separated for a time from their parents, they need the kingdom of God just as much as you and I do.

And just as much as they need Him personally, they also need to experience Him through us.

So why are there so many children who are falling through the cracks of our systems? Lacking mentors, guidance, fostering options, adoptions, and parental examples. Numerous people I have met in the jail and out have shared with me how they moved from one foster home to the next, their parents weren’t equipped to parent them, their parents taught them negative behaviors that now has them in a world of hurt. The number is larger than we’d ever want to admit and because of that I want to challenge us all, myself included, to consider thinking of the children, those falling into those cracks differently.

Now, hear me out on this. I believe emphatically that children in crisis, who have been taken from their birth parent(s) need to be placed into safe, healthy, loving environments so they can be fostered back to wholeness. I also believe that those who are unable to be returned to their parents (for various reasons) need adoptive families that will offer the same. My family has not walked down that road, yet. But, what I would like to attempt to do is open up all of our minds to consider, since it is a biblical mandate for us to care for orphans that there are a variety of types of orphans and a variety of ways for us to help. We may not all either feel called to or able to open our homes as foster/adoptive families, however I do believe we ALL have a role to play in bringing up the children in our community

Let’s begin this process by defining what an orphan is, as I believe there are can be a variety of different types of orphans.

Physical Orphans
First and foremost are those children who have been left without their parents. Whether their parents are deceased, physically and/or emotionally incapable of caring for them, incarcerated, or abusive these are the children who most often fall into the category of orphan, as we know it. They are also those who can fall into the foster care system, unless they have loving stable family members that are willing and able to take them in. These children have been physically left with no parents to support them.typesoforphans

Spiritual Orphans
A spiritual orphan is one who cannot fully understand the Father’s love for them because of the wounds they have from past trauma they have experienced. It’s the idea that though someone may believe in God, Jesus and Holy Spirit and have a relationship with them, they still struggle with understanding God as Father because of how their own father may have treated them or the wounds they have from negative past experiences in their life. Spiritual Orphans struggle constantly with believing they are saved and knowing that their Father in Heaven truly loves them.

Academic Orphans
An academic orphan is one who is left on their own to navigate their education. This can look like a latch-key kid who has no one at home to help him/her with homework and no resources to have a tutor assist in their learning. This could also be a child who has struggled in school so much that the teacher or teachers have given up on their success letting them either fail year after year or pushing them through, and because of it teachers have been forced to give up on their success.

Emotional Orphans
An emotional orphan has been left on their own to deal with the trauma they have experienced in their life. Though similar in experience to the Spiritual Orphan, these individuals have never been shown how to process through any of the challenges they have dealt with and therefore can be left with no ability at all to cope with life. The manifestations of this type of orphan can lead to emotional outbursts, cutting, bitterness, anger, temper tantrums, sexual promiscuity, theft, drugs, assault and worse.

So what can we do as believers or those who have a heart for children to respond to these issues?

We can go back to the Scriptures to see what they say about how to respond:

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.

Exodus 22:22  Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.

Deuteronomy 24:17  Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.

Psalm 82:3  Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

I could go on and list many more verses on how we are to support, love, encourage, defend, and look after those who are fatherless or orphaned. These are only a few but in reviewing these we can ask ourselves these questions…

  1. How can we look after orphans? (James 1:27)
  2. How can we not take advantage of orphans? (Exodus 22:22)
  3. How can we not deprive the orphan of justice? (Deut 24:7)
  4. How can we defend the fatherless? (Psalm 82:3)

To answer these questions we must first recognize that we DO have a role to play in this. The only way we can do that is through aligning ourselves with the heart of our Father in Heaven who adopted us all into His family. So to begin this process, we must REPENT.

Second, we need to PRAY. We need to ask our Father whose perspective is so much larger than our own to change our hearts so that we can see these children as He sees them and in turn we can offer the same kind of pure, unconditional love that we received from our Father. We also need to pray to receive direction as some of you may be lead to foster a ps82_3finalchild, some to adopt, some to mentor, some to teach, some to open up your homes to latch-key kids, and some to sponsor a child’s education abroad. There are many, many ways God could lay on your heart to support the needs of the orphans in your community and beyond.

Third, we need to be willing to SACRIFICE our time, our financial resources, and space in our our homes in order to come along side these children so that we can be in alignment with our Father’s heart. For God did not just love us, He sent His son to save us from our sin. His emotion was not just a feeling; it was backed by an action. We must act. We can do that by getting involved in the foster care process, becoming a CASA volunteer, mentoring a child at school, getting involved in a local boys and girls club, providing the financial means for a child to get the counseling they need, teaching a class to help children work through their struggles, getting involved with a feeding program that provides meals for children, tutoring students after school or becoming an adoptive family. These are just a few of many ways that you could sacrifice what you have to help another.

Yes, there are children in our community that have been the collateral damage of what their parents have chosen, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. Either way we, as the community around them, have a biblical responsibility to love them as our neighbor, to look after them, not take advantage of them, or deprive them of justice. We need to defend them in a world that could easily swallow them up.

Featured in this blog is Jillian Knight and one of the children that she came alongside and loved into wholeness. His response to her investment in his life, was to nominate her as his Super Citizen hero. All because she chose to invest her time in the kingdom of God.

So what will you do for the orphans in your community?

 

How to Reduce Recidivism One Heart at a Time

When I was 26 years old I had an encounter with God like I had never experienced before.  In fact, up until that point, I wasn’t even sure He existed.

At the time I was extremely depressed. Still trying to work through the pain and  guilt of a recent divorce and subsequent bad decisions. You would have never known it as I was able to put on a pretty good show. The mask I wore made me look put together, put underneath I was falling apart.

God knew it and made it very clear how badly I needed Him.

On June 23, 2001 I surrendered my life to Him and everything changed. At the time I was living in Ohio and knew very few Christians.

Once I got connected to a local church. At my baptism I shared my testimony and it was not long after I was asked to go into the local jail to share with the female inmates. At the time, this felt like one of the strangest requests I think I ever received.

I had nothing in common with anyone in jail. (Well, except for that one night in college I spent in the drunk tank) I was different than then as I wasn’t strung out on drugs, I wasn’t a thief, I wasn’t a violent person and I had never killed anyone. So why in the world, would my testimony be of any help to a female inmate?

Nonetheless, I was asked three times to go into the jail.
And three times I turned them down.

Fast forward to 2013. I was now leading this new ministry and about to open up The Link Center in my now hometown of Cullman, AL. The first couple who comes to visit with me were “ex-felons.” They shared that they were homeless, they were in need of jobs, and really just some help/encouragement in moving forward. Even though they shared their story with me, which included Jesus and some pretty horrible charges, I still fell in love with them. It was exhilarating to consider what God could do with their lives now that they wished to live for Him.

At the time, we (The Link of Cullman County) were partnered with our local mental health organization to help homeless individuals get into an apartment. But in order for them to receive the funding, they had to give me permission to speak with local agencies in the community. One of them was DHR.exhilaratingpink

DHR shared the details of their case and I felt like I was punched in the gut.

I went home that night questioning everything. How in the world was I supposed to lead a ministry that ministered to the poor, which would also include those who had been engaged in criminal activity, if I was struggling to love this couple.  I was not the least bit equipped to love these two and help them be restored to God.

At home that night, I started searching the internet for prison ministry information. I don’t know what I thought I was going to find. Google had a lot of information but all it did was remind me how ill-equipped I was for this new role.

As I asked God, “What do I do? How do I love someone who has done these things?”

I felt like God was impressing on my heart, “You love your neighbor as yourself. Nothing changes.They are no different than Paul (murder), David (murderer and adulterer), Moses (murder), or the thief on the cross.” I think sometimes God likes to talk to me in extremes, so I don’t miss his meaning.

From that day forward everything changed. It became blatantly apparent to me at that point that their sin was no different than my own. I was called to love them, just as much as God had loved me in the pit of my sin.
equalatthefootofthecross

From that point on it was like the Holy Spirit put out an “APB” into our community. Every where I turned someone was asking me if we would help ex-felons, if we would give them a second chance. I got Facebook messages, phone calls, and one by one they started coming in.

About 3 months later I was setting up a meeting with the Warden of our local jail to teach a bible-based jobs preparedness program to the inmates. And that is when my calling became more real than ever before.

In August of 2013, we launched Jobs for Life(TM) class. The class started with around 30 women and by the time we ended the 16-week class, we had 3 women left.

During that time, I learned more about me and the things inside my heart than they ever could have taken away from that class.

One of the verses that God used to get Chris (my husband) and I to move to Alabama in the first place (you can read more about that here) was Isaiah 61:1-3.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
 because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
 to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,”

It was at the end of that first class that I read those verses inside the jail.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you can feel the intensity of it. Like you know for sure this is where you are supposed to be, at this moment in time, for such a reason as this? When I have those moments the hair on my arms will often stand up.You too? I knew you would understand.

As I read those scripture verses, it was like everything I had done, everything that God had called me to, everything I thought this ministry was going to be came to a halt. And things got real.

Never before in my life did I realize the significance of me choosing to love my neighbor beyond their choices. It was never more real than standing in the jail that day with those women.

I became committed, sold-out, extremely passionate about understanding the plight of the prisoner and the ex-felon. I wanted to understand everything about their situation. How they got there, what their story was. I asked lots of questions, listened as much as I could, and started watching documentary after documentary on prison and drugs.  But none of it prepared me like actually walking with someone through it.

In that very first class was a woman named Peggy. I connected with Peggy because of her eagerness to learn. I am a teacher, what can I say…I tend to be drawn to the eager ones. At the start of the class she spoke of being tired of going in and out of jail. Peggy had a drug problem and an abusive husband. She needed a GED and was on disability. She had lost her kids years ago due to the drugs and her poor choices. She had landed up homeless and reminded me at one point when she had come to The Link Center to get help with a hotel room.

Peggy, Tutwiler Prison ID

Peggy was taking the Jobs for Life(TM) class because she knew she needed something to be different. Being on disability had held her back from working, but it had also gotten her to where she was, as a repeat offender. Peggy looked like she was in her mid-40s with her mouth drawn in from lack of teeth and her sun-worn skin.

Peggy wasn’t much different than a lot of the other women in there, as she was awaiting her fate in court. But, over time, Peggy started to desire more and more of her life to change. She started to seek God to change her, her circumstances, and her future.

She was inspiring others with big prayers that stretched her faith. And before we knew it, we started to see God move. But, not everything happened the way Peggy had hoped. It wasn’t long after the class was finished, in November of that year, that Peggy was sentenced to Tutwiler.  If you live in Alabama, you know what that means. If you don’t live in Alabama, you can learn more about the all-women’s prison here. Tutwiler is hell-on-earth. It took everthying in me, of hearing of her fate, to not want to burst out crying.

Sure Peggy had some issues with drugs and in her desperation she not only became a user but a seller. But in my mind none of that deserved the fate of Tutwiler.

But God had another plan for Peggy and so off to Tutwiler she went. While she was there we corresponded frequently through mail and phone. Tutwiler offered her a few class options and she was court-ordered to take the SAP (Substance Abuse Program). I often recall Peggy calling me in tears because God had opened up another wound to help her work through the healing. The more I spoke with Peggy, the more I heard her life stories and the more my heart was opened to loving her.

When Peggy secured a bed at a local rehab, I picked her up and dropped her off at her new home. It was a far cry from a mother picking up her child from college to bring them home, but for some reason it felt familiar. I realized then Peggy and I were in this for the long haul, this story was not going to end any time soon.

Peggy grew while she was at the rehab and I would go and visit her frequently as I was the only “family” close by at that time in her life. It was often a tough burden to bare, knowing she may not have someone come see her as she watched the other residents with their family and friends. My only consolation was knowing she had other friends from Cullman who were there for her when I could not be.

About 6 months into her stay there was an incident at the rehab that became a red-flag to the courts. Long story short, the judge released Peggy to come back to Cullman and finish out her recovery through an out-patient recovery program. Peggy had nothing. No home, no car, no job, barely any clothes, no family close by and she was needing to make all new friends.

Thankfully a safe and welcoming family from her past opened up their home to her and gave her a place to stay.

Peggy is one of a handful of women I have walked with in their transition back into society as “returning citizens” (we don’t call them ex-felons, as we tend to live out the labels that are placed on us) that I have seen God do a transformative work in.

You can watch more of Peggy’s story here:

Peggy, along with the others, have taught me so much about what it truly means to love and walk with our neighbors behind bars and then beyond.

Here are 5 ways to cut down on recidivism one heart at a time, starting with yours.

1.Jail is Different Than You Think
When I went into the Cullman County Detention Center for the first time, I experienced something I never expected, acceptance.

After I met with the Warden he asked me to share what the Jobs for Life class would entail  with the female inmates. I was so emotional, filled with fear and excitement, that it overwhelmed me. When I asked them if they had ever heard about The Link of Cullman County before, hands went up. They started telling me, “My Momma told me to come.” “My aunt told me to come.” “I was going to come, before I landed up here.” The tears  just started rolling down my cheeks. I was so overwhelmed I could barely hold it together.

I heard from the crowd,” Its okay, baby girl, we’ll wait on you.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear. It ripped open my heart and allowed me to see, these ladies, well, they were the same as me. Vulnerable and needing acceptance.

2.Loving a prisoner is a heart-issue
We have the tendency to want to put sin on levels. It is understandable. If I am honest, I don’t want my “little white lie” to be as bad as someone else abusing their child. I don’t want my jealous issues to be viewed the same way as someone who sells drugs. It’s not the same, right? Well, yes and no. One is not treated the same as the other, but they all lead to separation from God and eternal hell.

pslam103finalBut the issue here is not their sin, it’s our hearts.

To love our neighbors behind bars or walking on the streets, we must ask God to reveal our hearts. The reality of it is, we never want to see our own sin on the same level as their sin. However, God’s word does not discriminate. The words He speaks to you is the same as He speaks to them. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps 013:12, NIV)

This may be the area that we need to be aware of most. If you are going to love someone behind or beyond the bars, you are going to have to be willing for God to do the work in you first.

3.Just because they are in jail does not mean they don’t know Jesus
I went into jail believing that NONE of them knew Jesus and it was our job to get them all saved. HA! Not true. In fact, churches had been sharing the gospel with them for years before our team showed up on the scene. Many of them experience “jailhouse Jesus.” What I have learned is that at times it’s actually easier for them to follow Jesus in jail than it is when they get out. Why? Because the jail is filled with broken people. And more often than not, broken people realize they can no longer do life as they were doing it and they need a Savior to help them. So Jesus is more tangible in the jail then when they are released.

What became apparent to me is that many of them need to be equipped with how to live like Jesus, rather than being introduced to Him. Now, I will put a caveat on this. I live in the South, where its been said ‘We first have to convince people they are lost, before we can help them accept Jesus.’ On the other side of that coin, there are also people getting “saved” in the jail all the time. This is a good thing. But we need to understand is not all of them need to be saved. What they need to learn is how to live like Jesus.

4.The real test of your character is not loving them in the jail, it’s sticking with them when they get out
In our local Detention Center, there are close to 30 churches/organizations that go in to teach and share the gospel. Thirty. Do you know how many of them stay with them on the outside? About a handful. That makes me sick to my stomach. We are willing to go in and share our “love” when they are in a contained space, but when they are released and most vulnerable we turn our backs on them. Come on Church! We can do better than that.

If I have heard it once I have heard it a thousand times. “Those church ladies/men come in here and minister to us, and they are really nice, but where are they when I need them on the outside? Their churches don’t accept us. They say one thing but their church does something different.” UGH!

We all need a heart-check on this. If we are going to be apart of God’s desire to transform our communities by loving our neighbors, we are going to have to get over ourselves and start changing our ways.

getoverourselves

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  (Luke 5:31, NIV) Our churches and our ministries should be like hospitals set up to receive the sick, not a sanctuary for the healed.

5. Loving the prisoner means believing beyond their circumstances
Remember, every person in jail has a story to tell. They too were once children and their stories can break your heart. In order for them to overcome their circumstances, sometimes you need to see what they cannot and start speaking those things over them, praying it for them, and loving them as if they are such. We have the power to speak life and death through  our tongue. If we choose words that speak encouragement, love, and respect it is only time before they start to believe them. Here’s the bottom line.We can choose to focus in on their sins and therefore perpetuating the problem, only reinforcing what they already believe: they are nothing, can do nothing, and therefore should just continue down the path they are already on.

Or, we can choose to love them as we are commanded to do because it was shown to us in our pit of sin. In doing so giving them the opportunity to be restored back to their God, to themselves, to their relationships, and to the world around them.

We  who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, and the body of Christ, we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus. He came to set the prisoner free both behind the bars and beyond. In order for us to do as He has done, we are going to have to start with our own hearts. As we are transformed, God will use us to go and transform others.

What is it about ministering to someone beyond bars that scares you the most?