The Heart of the Home

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The kitchen is the heart of a home.” If that is true, then my home is [currently] in critical condition. Our kitchen is being remodeled (yes, during the month of December), and never have I been more keenly aware of how many critical family functions take place in the kitchen.

We cannot cook.

We cannot use the dishwasher.

We cannot store anything in the cabinets, so EVERYTHING from the kitchen has been moved to other parts of the house.

We have no sink. And, for the few dishes we have been using, I have been using a basin and washing in the bathtub. 

And the dust. It’s everywhere. Even the things covered in plastic sheets are still coated with a fine layer of dust. You can see footprints on the wood floor. (It’s a bit like video of the lunar landing.) We cannot decorate for Christmas, because of the chaos. Most importantly, we cannot eat and connect as a family.

I don’t share this situation to garner any sympathy (although I do hope you laugh at the visual of me washing dishes in the bathtub).

I share because, standing in the midst of this temporary disruption in my everyday life, I was struck with the thought of the many children in our community who have never known the warmth and security of a family kitchen. They may have spent time in many kitchens, but not had one of their own. Due to poverty, neglect, abuse, homelessness or transience, they may not had the pleasure of decorating a family Christmas tree, or waiting in joyful anticipation for delicious smells and tastes of a Holiday to emerge from the “heart of a home.”  There may be a refrigerator where they are currently staying, but it probably isn’t packed full of bountiful food choices, and their artwork and photos probably do not adorn the front. So much of their life is temporary.

Imagine how that would feel. Instead of fond memories of Christmases past, approaching holidays bring anxiety, and dread, and an acute awareness of the instability of your current situation. What for many people is a joyous occasion is, instead, a time these children endure—to pretend like it doesn’t matter that Santa seems to visit the houses of classmates but not their own. To ignore the glittery commercials on TV, and to hope that some generous soul somewhere will choose his/her “angel” from a tree so there will be something to open on Christmas morning.

And what if this pattern was repeated, year after year, until that child had lost all hope? My struggle to endure my kitchen project seems very small in comparison to years spent wishing for a permanent family and a loving home. I’m an adult. I can see that the project will get completed, and this disruption is brief in the scheme of things. But a child in need may not see a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Now, you may be thinking that I am about to suggest you send money somewhere. While monetary donations are always needed and appreciated by churches and nonprofits serving children and youth, giving money is not what everyone is called to do.

Look around you.

View the circles in which you travel through a different lens—one that notices a family that may be struggling. They are out there.

Reach out.

Invite them over for a hot meal and a time of fellowship.

Offer to care for their children so the parents can revive their strength.

By opening your home, and offering encouragement and support, you may help keep that family intact. There are children and youth who will spend many more Christmases without a home and a family, but you can have an impact on their quality of life. Not everyone is called to foster and adopt, but everyone can do something. Prayerfully ask yourself, “What is my something?” If you need ideas, please let us know. We are here to guide you through the coming year as you commit to give of yourself and your talents to serve vulnerable children. Share the “heart of your home,” and while doing so, you will be sharing the love of Christ.

Blog post by Amber Fulton

Director of Operations, Embrace Texas

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children

Here are 5 Safety Tip for the Holidays.

Are you aware of some of the most common warning signs of sexual abuse in children? These behaviors don’t mean that a child has been sexually abused, but adults who observe several of these warning signs in a child should take note, and take action. A local Children’s Advocacy Center is a great place to get help. Suggestions for what to do if you see warning signs are also available here.

Warning signs in young children:

  • Behaving like a younger child (regression to bedwetting or thumb sucking)
  • Acquires new words for private body parts
  • Fear of being away from caregivers
  • Sudden interest in sexual organs of self & others
  • Acts out or suggests sexual games with other children
  • Wetting or soiling accidents (beyond toilet training)
  • Mimics adult-like or sexual behaviors with stuffed animals or dolls
  • Avoiding clothing changes or bathing

Warning signs in school-aged children and adolescents:

  • Suddenly has toys, money, or gifts without explanation
  • Seems distracted or distant
  • Sudden change in eating habits
  • Nightmares or sleep problems
  • Sudden fear of certain familiar places or people
  • Talks about having secrets or being unable to talk about something
  • Mentions a new or older friend but unwilling to share details or name them
  • Writes, draws, plays or dreams about sexual or frightening images

Signs primarily seen in teens:

  • Self mutilation, cutting, and other self-injurious behaviors
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Eating disorder
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Rebellion or withdrawal; running away from home
  • Change in attitude towards school or academic performance

Physical warning signs of sexual abuse are rare and may include bleeding, bruising or discharge in genital, anus or mouth, STPs, painful urination or bowel movements, and trouble walking or sitting.

Remember that traumatic events such as a divorce, death in the family, or bullying can elicit similar behaviors, but listen to your instincts. If something seems off, and can’t put your finger on why, talk to the child about it.

The warning signs above are compiled from a number of resources including:

stopitnow.org

Child Abuse Alert: A Desk Reference

rainn.org

d2l.org

Before You Write That Check…

Here we are, almost to the end of the year. Decorating is well underway, and shopping and wrapping are daily activities. Our “To Do” lists grow longer and longer as we hurtle toward the holidays. And with the holidays comes the never-ending list of “opportunities” to give to those in need. After all, who can ignore the steady “ding-ding-ding” of the bell ringer in front of the mall? Or the thought of a child having nothing to open on Christmas morning? We all want to be charitable, right?

Before you write that check (or, for the digital experts, click that “donate” button), pause for a minute to consider the donation you are about to make. Are you being “charitable?” or “philanthropic?” You might be thinking those terms are interchangeable. To some, they are. A quick Google search will provide you with a plethora of opinions. Not to be outdone, I’m here to share mine.

Charity is, to me, the donation of money or stuff (water bottles, food, clothing, etc.) in response to a crisis or a heartfelt plea. We all feel compassion for the starving child on the poster, or the flea-bitten dog, or the photo of the long line of unfortunate souls shuffling along at the soup kitchen. We give to those causes because we “want to do our part,” or because “we have so many blessings,” or really, because stuffing a few dollars in a jar for “those people” makes us feel (at least temporarily) that we are doing something to ease their plight.

As a nation, we are very charitable. According to Charity Navigator (https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=42) an estimated $390.05 billion was given to charitable organizations in 2016. Of that 15% went to education-based charities,12% to human services, and a whopping 32% ($122.94 billion) went to religious groups.

What, then, is philanthropy? Is it a grand gesture by a Hollywood star? A huge gift from a family foundation? A donation that gets a big splash on Facebook and in the media? Yes, it can be all of those things. But in my opinion, it is not the size of the gift that makes it philanthropic. To me, philanthropy is a strategic and sacrificial gift given with the expectation of facilitating long-term results or lasting change. Philanthropy is not a knee-jerk response. It is not a quick fix. It requires discernment, wisdom, and above all, faith. It is a down payment for sometimes yet-unseen results with the reasonable belief that the results can (and will!) be achieved.

I’m not suggesting you halt your charitable giving. Spare change in a jar or small bills dropped in a firefighter’s boot still have merit and benefit many worthy causes. But if you want to have an even bigger impact, consider how you can also become philanthropic. It might mean you narrow down your giving to a select few organizations or churches who demonstrate their ability to be good stewards. It might mean you commit to monthly giving, which provides a predictable funding stream. It might mean you look at giving not as something you do to make yourself feel good (an inward-focus), but instead as something you do to ensure the sustainability of organizations you see effecting real change (an outward-focus). Whatever it looks like for you, do it because you WANT to, and because you CAN, and because you are CALLED to fulfill this purpose.

The Quandary of Foster Care

You’re a foster parent, and you’re standing on the other side of that little half wall in the courtroom with your mouth agape in disbelief.  How did this happen?  How did so many adults with college degrees and positions of authority, people who should do what’s in the best interest of a child, do exactly the opposite?  It’s as if that wall separates sanity and logic from a circus where clowns juggle papers and misinformation.  The gavel slams, and the child you sacrificed, cried, and prayed for is returning home to a parent who has been an addict, in and out of jail, homeless, jobless, and/or abusive.  So, how did this happen?

How does this happen?  The previous scenario is one of many the masses play through their minds or read about online that perpetuate the struggling foster care systems across America.  Maybe you’re considering becoming a foster or adoptive parent and weighing whether you’re ready to commit or not.  Maybe you know someone who is struggling in their experience with the system, and you want to help but don’t know where to begin.  Or maybe you’re a judge or caseworker who just read the scenario above, and you’re already assuming I have no idea what I’m talking about because you’re not a clown.  You work hard under an insurmountable caseload doing the best you can with what you have.  Regardless of who you are or why you’re reading this, I want to walk you through how the foster care system works, the myths, and the realities associated with situations like the one above and ultimately encourage you to act.  While the foster care system may be broken, it will only remain broken if you and I allow it to stay that way.

The most foundational concept to understand about the foster care system is somewhat of a paradigm shift for us because the public is generally ignorant about what the system is dependent upon.  If the general public thinks about foster care at all, we tend to conceptually believe that somewhere neglected and abused children are being taken care of.  Visions of orphanages, children’s homes, and Annie come to mind.  But as early as the 1940’s, the foster care system has been replacing institutional settings.  Today, very few children’s homes still exist within America.  So, where are America’s more than 700,000 neglected and abused children?  In foster care.  And, where is foster care?  It’s in your home and my home.  The foster care system is dependent upon families opening their bedrooms to traumatized children in need of healing.  If there aren’t enough homes for the children from a given county or region, children must be placed in a home from another county or region.  There are emergency shelters and sleeping bags in child welfare offices along with other stop-gaps to help care for children when there aren’t enough homes immediately available, but research has shown children heal in a family setting where they can attach to a caregiver and learn how to cope while continuing to grow.  So, regardless of how many tax dollars are allocated for foster care programs if there are not a sufficient number of licensed foster families, foster care cannot function and children cannot heal in the best environment possible.

Now, just because foster home availability is foundational does not mean sufficient tax dollars from your federal, state, county, and city governments are not also a critical component of the foster care system.  Money, your and my tax dollars, is not only the fuel of the foster care system, it is also a factor in the quality of a given system.  It is not the only factor, but it is a major one.  The United States spends over $25 billion on foster care services each year.  These funds pay for a litany of salaries, services, and administrative costs that cannot be overstated.  For any given child,10 to 15 adults are paid for some service related to their case along with a myriad of other adults providing the infrastructure for the foster care system.  Costs begin with an intake hotline and an investigator who visits a child or family to determine if there is a valid case of neglect or abuse.   Along with this is all the necessary infrastructure to ensure intake, investigations, and removals are possible. Only about 40% of all allegations are confirmed.  Sometimes this is due to a lack of evidence.  Sometimes an investigator is unable to track down a family.  Without a sufficient number of investigators, foster care is halted.  No investigation, no removal.  Costs continue when a determination is made to provide services to a family or remove a child in the case of imminent danger.  The need for a caseworker and their supervisor, along with the aforementioned infrastructure to support the frontline workers, then increase costs, and it doesn’t take a vivid imagination to start adding it all up when we begin to include the courts, lawyers to represent the child and their parents, mental health services, and the plethora of other tangential contributors to the system.

Are you beginning to see a fuzzy image for how our introductory scenario becomes a reality?

Too little funding leads to a poor quality workforce and those who lack the necessary bandwidth to do the job sufficiently.  Investigations aren’t done in a timely manner, children aren’t seen frequently enough while in care, sufficient preventative and rehabilitative programs aren’t available to stem the influx of at-risk families and recidivism.  With too much funding, a welfare state begins to form where the public almost entirely insists on the government addressing all of the needs.  Both situations lead to egregious problems namely the problem of you and I doing nothing.  Too much taxation leads us to believe someone else is dealing with the needs of these children and families.  Too little taxation and there isn’t a sufficient framework or bandwidth of educated professionals organizing a system accountable to the best interests of children.

Another consideration is foster care is intended to be temporary with a priority given toward reunification with birth parents.  Many children in foster care come from single or unmarried parent, low income households, and many foster families come from two parent, moderate to high income households.  This is a generality, but the socio-economic dichotomy is real.  Expectations, lifestyles, language, and various other social norms are juxtaposed.  Therefore, when foster parents enter a courtroom for a hearing about a family’s case, they enter with a set of standards for what is appropriate and acceptable which doesn’t always align with the legal system, the political climate, or the funding issues which can lead to high rates of caseworker turnover and low quality work.  A foster parent typically expects the best while the legal system is limited to what is lawful.

The last point I’ll make is the foster care system and every system involves human beings.  Errant, sinful, selfish, well-intended, occasionally misinformed human beings.  I don’t say this or any of this in a search for the sufficient excuse to remedy the issues that plague the potential success of foster care, but I say this to improve your perspective and charge you to act.  It is easy to to look at how insurmountable the problems in foster care are, believe you have no control, throw up your hands, and refuse to do anything more than complain and rage against the machine on your social media platforms.  But, the foster care system also involves Spirit-filled, well-informed, educated, thoughtful, and yet still sinful human beings who are standing in the gap refusing to quit.

I am never more encouraged than when the above scenario plays out in any of its varieties, and a foster parent or advocate, even one who takes to the blogosphere to inappropriately vent their frustration, lowers their head, pledges to persevere, and affirms these fundamental truths.  First, no parent woke up one morning and chose to abuse or neglect their child.  Parents are still accountable, but pitting them against their child as the enemy is not a productive solution.  Second, caseworkers, lawyers, and judges, even bad ones, don’t work to hurt children or families.  They come to wrong conclusions sometimes that you or I may disagree with, but they also come to right conclusions that you or I may disagree with.  Third, you and I are capable of making an impact.  Our impact is entirely dependent upon our willingness to stand firm and resilient while surrounding ourselves with those who will speak truth to us and encourage us to care for ourselves so we can maintain the capacity to care for others.

One parent’s response to an incredibly trying situation from years ago summarizes my thoughts and admonition to you.  The father said, “I do not know how else to help him. I have tried everything I can think of and exhausted my heart and mind on his behalf.  I cannot fathom why the system has failed him and us in the way that it has.  I do not know what else to do.  But, I do know God has placed him in my family, and if I have nothing else to give him, I will hold firm in this.  He has a family who will not give up on him.”

Foster, adopt, advocate, mentor, and support.  You are not alone.  Join us in reclaiming the care of these children and families.

So Your Pastor Doesn’t Get It

Here’s how the conversation tends to go.  After a series of questions and answers about foster parenting or adoption or starting an orphan care ministry…

Me:  It sounds like you have a great passion for this… how else can we help?

Them:  My pastor doesn’t get it.  To him (or her), it’s just a trend or an extra kind of optional ministry he believes will cost money we don’t have or take away our congregation’s focus on evangelism or discipleship or the capital campaign…  I’ve been persistent, but I’m getting nowhere.  What did you do?…

Well, sadly, I was that pastor just like I was that husband that didn’t get it.  My wife approached me to become foster parents, and I just thought, “Sure, I guess we have an extra room, and I’ve read something in the Bible about caring for orphans.”  And likewise, even though I had been foster parenting for more than 6 years at the time, a mom of a couple of our students in the student ministry who had no background in child welfare or social work approached us asking, “Would you help me start an orphan care ministry here at the church?”  My response, “Yes!… but what’s an orphan care ministry?”

Since then, I’ve come across a number of pastors varying on the continuum of resistance to orphan care ministry.  Worries of cost, theology, parenting philosophy, bandwidth, etc. seem to form in a cloud behind their eyes as the plea floats across their desk, and a determined but politically correct, “No.” forms in their lips.

It’s discouraging to say the least.  We read it over and over again throughout Scripture… Deuteronomy 10:18-19Psalm 68:5-6Isaiah 1:17Romans 8:15Galatians 4:4-7Ephesians 1:5, and James 1:27, but no passage has been more poignant in my understanding of our mandate to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners than Jeremiah 22:15-16,

“Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?  Did not your father have food and drink?  He did what was right and just, so all went well with him.  He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well with him.  Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.

To defend the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God?  In part, it’s not that your pastor doesn’t know these passages, it’s that your pastor is human with limited vision to all the Holy Spirit is working in.  Just as pastors and seminary professors prior to decades as late as the 90’s (and still many today sadly) failed to see that their is no segregation or discrimination in the kingdom of God, they’re missing this as well.  But, the cloud of concerns that formed behind their eyes as you pled with them is legitimate.  Who is going to give to this?  Is that giving going to impact other areas of giving the church has prioritized?  Is it going to be championed by someone or a group who understands orphan care in respect to the entire kingdom and message of the Gospel?  Will it become it’s own little clique?  Am I going to be expected to spearhead the effort or hand over the pulpit to the cause?  And even if all those questions are answered, he may feel you are the wrong person to lead this only he can’t say that out loud.  So, these are just a few in a litany of questions that must be addressed and solved over time.  Pastors get hit up with “pet projects” of church members who may have previously not followed through all the time.  Or, it may be some outside parachurch organization that really just wants money, and like many of us in response to telemarketers, the answer is a premeditated, “We’ll see.”, “Let’s talk later.” or my personal favorite, “I’ll pray about it.”

Of course, there are still those pastors whose response is less thoughtful, and anything to do with social justice is met immediately with a closed door.  Why?  George Marsden coined the term “The Great Reversal” in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture.  In the early twentieth century, evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity.  Liberals led the social gospel movement equating any humanitarian work with reinstating the reign of Christ.  As the movement spread, evangelicals distanced themselves and bunkered down in theology to the detriment of the poor.  This is at least one factor in your pastor’s response.

Another is the ignorance of the masses.  In speaking with a pastor friend recently and sharing about what our family and ministry does, he said, “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of foster care or adoption is a child coming into my house and ruining my life.  I’m glad to share insight about the strategic approach of your ministry, but if you’re trying to get me to become a foster parent or adopt, the conversation is over.”  This wasn’t the only thing he said, his insight was helpful, and he genuinely resonated with the needs of children as we talked so I don’t want to vilify him… but this is how the masses, including some pastors, perceive foster care and adoption.  I would suggest the same is true for the homeless, the poor, widows and immigrants.

So if your pastor doesn’t get it (and we should note that some pastors do get it, and do a great job of encouraging their lay leaders to engage in the care of orphans), he is most likely indirectly or directly influenced from the Great Reversal and/or the common misconceptions and negative media attention given to foster parents and neglected and abused children.  Also, your pastor’s seminary almost certainly did not address caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow or the foreigner in his missiology studies.  They focused on church planting, unreached people groups, the Gospel in different cultural contexts, an evangelism practicum, and so on.  Little or no time was spent discussing poverty alleviation, economic development among the poor, child development or the fact that the Church’s historic foundation was built through ministry done by and to “the least of these”.  Your pastor didn’t obtain a social work degree in seminary.

I suppose that’s all the bad news.  We may have missed some details or circumstances in there somewhere, but in general, that is why a pastor doesn’t get it.

Here’s the good news… your pastor doesn’t hold the keys to the kingdom of God.  I don’t say this to be controversial or encourage dissent, I say it because churches have far too long seen themselves as consumers of religion and their staff as producers of it.  In reality, your pastor, as one of the elders, should be equipping, encouraging and multiplying disciples as ministers of the Gospel.  But even if they’re not, you don’t need your pastor’s permission to obey the Holy Spirit.  In fact, your pastor may appreciate the fact that you are not seeking his continual involvement or blessing over every aspect of the ministry God has called you to.

In the event your pastor has actively discouraged you from this, as an ordained pastor myself, I would encourage you to find another local church where you are fed, equipped and sent out.  This should not be done in a spirit of disrespect or division.  Make your peace, and move on.  This is at least one reason why denominations and more than one local church can and should exist in a community.  We are not all [insert name of denomination here] and that’s okay.  I grant this is not an issue of non-essential doctrine, but alienating yourself in an embattled stance on the need for orphan care ministry to the detriment of all involved parties can’t be a preferred course of action.

It should be noted here that if we had to select one mission of the Church outside of worship (if we can in fact separate worship out from anything we do) it would not be orphan care… it would be evangelism, and the two are not synonymous.  They certainly overlap in ways.  In paraphrasing Dr. Russell Moore, “For us to say we care for the orphan, and to not share Christ’s message of salvation is to say we don’t really care for the orphan.  Every human being is comprised of a body, soul and spirit, and to merely care for the temporal needs is not in fact loving as Christ loved us.”  Salvation is tantamount, but the Scriptures don’t seem to neglect having a family or basic needs as if to say, “You can be saved or eat… choose one.”  Their is a tension held between the two throughout Scripture (see Isaiah 1James 21John 3:18).

If you are already embattled or there is nowhere else to go, I would encourage you in the same way I have encouraged wives and husbands who are at odds over foster parenting or adoption or an unbelieving spouse.  Pray unceasingly for the movement of the Spirit in your marriage, church and community.  Pray for your pastor.  (Shouldn’t this be something we are doing anyhow!?)  Advocate for vulnerable children with other members of your church.  Again, this is not an encouragement to stir up conflict, but at the very least the volunteers or nursery workers who are caring for your foster or adopted child need to be educated.  (For a resource to get you started read Dear Sunday School Volunteer.)

As you are praying, begin working as the Spirit guides you.  Encourage and support other foster and adoptive families.  Gather other advocates in other churches who are experiencing or not experiencing similar resistance and work together.  God is not interested in which person’s or church’s name is attached to this ministry… this heart-wrenching, self-sacrificing, continually plodding forward ministry that reflects and is the heart and redemption of God.

In our frustration, perseverance and faithfulness, to Him be the praise, glory, honor and power forever and ever.  Amen.