World Orphans | See the vision. Hear the stories. Share the journey
Our Vision: To empower the church to care for orphans - until they all have homes! Our Mission: We equip, inspire, and mobilize the church to care for orphans and vulnerable children. Churches engaged. Children restored. Communities transformed by the Gospel of Christ.
When we consider meals, we often think about the way they bring families together. As food is laid out, everyone gathers around the table, conversation flows, and families bond.
But traditionally, eating together has not been encouraged in India. Men and children were fed first. Women could only sit down to eat once the men and children were finished. In millions of impoverished homes, this practice had an unintended consequence—malnutrition among women, as at times there was no food left for the women to eat. Now, however, national campaigns are urging women to sit down at the table and eat with their families rather than after them. And the results have been encouraging.
Having grown up in a joint family, I have memories of my father encouraging me, my sister, and my mother to have a meal together with the rest of the family; whereas, our other relatives were horrified by this idea and accused my father of breaking Indian customs. When we moved into a home with only our immediate family, we felt that we could finally exercise our God-given freedoms around the dinner table. Christians sometimes feel bound by the culture of the land rather than relishing the spirit of freedom that God has given us—including the freedom to eat together as men and women, children of God that are equally loved.
Indians honor their guests, as they believe in Atithi Devo Bhava, which means ‘the guest is god-like.’ With this belief in mind, they serve guests first, and after the guests are done eating, the hosts have a meal. Additionally, Indian culture highly encourages sharing food with others. If you are dining at an Indian restaurant with a friend and both of you order different dishes, it is customary to share your dish with the other person. This reminds me about the love than can be shared by children of God.
The Indian table—with all its beautiful elements—can be a heartbreaking place for an orphaned child. Often, relatives or neighbors of an orphaned child—a child desperately in need of love and care—reject him, keeping him away from the family. Within Indian culture, an orphan is believed to be cursed, and people fear that the curse will pass from the child on to the rest of the household and the relatives. This debilitating fear of being cursed not only keeps orphaned children from being loved and cared for, but it keeps those children from enjoying a seat at the table.
Thus, we partake in a sacred rebellion when we, as caregivers, relatives, pastors, and church staff, make room for every child at the table, sharing in a meal together. When you see women and girls, orphaned boys, and old men sharing in the same food at the same table, you catch a glimpse of the family of God and the all-encompassing love of God that is greater than any perceived curse. At Bethel Gospel Church, we know just how powerful, holy, and important these meals are, and we are grateful to share them together as children of God.
We encourage all the children, the caregivers, and the pastor’s family to have meals together, as we want the children to realize that they are welcomed by God into the family. They need to get a glimpse of God’s love through the family they have in Bethel Gospel Church.
I have a lot of memories filled with mouth-watering foods and beverages. Pumpkin takes me back to a dining room table where my family gathered for Thanksgiving, finishing off the experience by eating pumpkin pie. Sweet tea always makes me think of my grandfather and the huge glasses of sweet tea that he had in his refrigerator—tea so sweet that my teeth would ache from the sweetness. Those memories now make my heart ache, longing to still have him here with me.
However, I’ve realized that travel—especially international travel—changes the way I see the world around me, including the food I eat and the beverages I drink.
While in Haiti, a bowl of soup was placed in front of me: beef bones, beef shank, carrots, potatoes, onions, and- what is this orange thing that tastes so good? It’s pumpkin? Surprised, I considered the stark contrast between the sugary dessert I associated with pumpkin and the savory dish in front of me.
Little did I know that soup joumou, ‘pumpkin soup,’ could have such a fascinating story to tell.
Throughout the week leading up to this particular meal, we had ordered lunch with each church’s worship team. Seven dollars per person was exchanged for a styrofoam to-go box filled with rice, beans, chicken, plantains, and pikliz, ‘a condiment in Haitian cuisine of pickled cabbage, carrots, and peppers.’ We had eaten this traditional Haitian food each day for lunch, and no one had complaints. It was delicious!
After a week packed full of worship and delicious food, we were wrapping up our second to last day. Our team had been visiting one of our lively church partners in Haiti, and this day had been overflowing with fun and joy. As we were preparing to leave, the pastor said, “You must come back tomorrow! I’m hosting a group of pastors from all over the city. This time, we will feed you.” One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned while traveling on mission trips—or as I like to call them: “trips to visit friends”—that you give the most dignity to those you visit when you are able to accept their hospitality. These friends of mine were not searching for a handout; rather, they were craving relationship and eager to offer hospitality.
The following day, we gathered in a small concrete room, side by side with our Haitian brothers and sisters, devouring this savory soup joumou. Even the pickiest eaters in our group ate every bite and went back for seconds. I was walking back to my seat after filling my bowl for the second time, when I was stopped by one of the Haitian women who had prepared the meal. She thanked me for eating the soup they had prepared. Through hospitality, her delight was overflowing, and our bellies were full.
Later that day, as our team turned on to the bumpy road to our guesthouse, I began talking with one of my Haitian friends—someone who hadn’t attended the meal with us—about our day. As I told him about the soup the church had prepared for us, a look of amazement lit up his face. He began to share with me about years prior when people of color were not free in Haiti. In their enslavement, they were restricted from eating pumpkin. On the day of independence, people of color immediately went to the markets to purchase pumpkins. Since gaining their freedom in 1804, this soup has been made as a historical tribute to Haitian independence. It is rarely made on any other day of the year. It was a humbling moment to realize the significance of this soup that had been shared with us.
When it comes to tea, the people that I met in Iraq during one of my “trips to visit friends” transformed my perspective. I’ve had the privilege of traveling twice to the beautiful land of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq—experiences that remain some of the most breathtaking and transformative times of my life. Aasrya is a form of hot tea served in Iraq. Translated, it means, ‘mini afternoon,’ as the experience of enjoying tea with family or friends frequently becomes an event, a time marked by its own existence rather than limited by the hands on the clock.
The memory of my first visit to a refugee family’s home in Iraq is forever etched in my mind, as there, I was served rather than serving. A young lady entered the room where the women gathered. She carried an iron tray that had small, clear glasses of hot tea on small, clear saucers, with a tiny spoon for each cup. The spoon—I soon learned—is necessary, since all of the sugary goodness is sitting on the bottom and must be stirred to make the tea sweet. I am no stranger to sweet tea. I am, after all, from the great state of Texas, and we know how to do sweet tea. But I’d never had tea served to me like this. The whole experience—the warmth, the tiny glass dishes, the company—was quite comforting. The taste of the tea made me feel like I was home, the sugar and caffeine made my brain feel stimulated, and those who served us carried with them an authentic joy.
One of the last times I gathered with others for aasrya was perhaps the most memorable experience I have had while consuming tea. This was during my second visit to Kurdistan. We gathered in the home of the community leader of the Shabak Kurds, those who had taken refuge in one of our micro-camps after fleeing Mosul just two hours ahead of ISIS. As we sat sipping our tea, tears streamed down his face while he told Billy how much he loved him. The Shabak Kurds were preparing to return to Mosul, and he wept with love for his friend and brother, Billy, who had walked beside him during some of the hardest years of their lives.
Now, when pumpkin comes to mind, I still recall those sweet memories of eating pie at Thanksgiving, but I also think about sharing soup joumou—a meal with a vast and revolutionary meaning—with my Haitian family. When I consider sweet tea, I still picture glasses lined up in my grandfather’s refrigerator, but I am also reminded of the tears of my friend in Iraq and the love that was built around their hot tea hospitality. As I consider these memories now, I wonder if this is why Jesus asks us to remember him when we partake of the bread and the cup. Food shared with those that we love has the ability to take us back to those places where we have experienced fellowship and found nourishment for our bodies together around a table. In Christ, we have the fellowship of his suffering, and this we remember as we partake in his body and his blood, finding nourishment for our souls together at his table. This is the fellowship of the King. Until that day when we all dine together at his table, may our fellowship with each other be something in which he can delight.
“What’s it like in the US?” she says with eager eyes and a smile on her face.
She sets the fried plantains in front of me, and my mouth immediately begins to water. Fixated on the food, I forget about the unanswered question hanging in the air between us.
Realizing the food she has spent hours cooking is already captivating me, she laughs and says, “Did you hear me?”
She wants to know what meals are like in the US, and she is curious about the value Americans place on meals and eating in general. When traveling internationally, I have often found that a cultural phenomenon will be explained to me, and then the person will ask about the difference between my culture and theirs. But I don’t know what to tell her.
My mind starts racing with images of families gathered around Thanksgiving tables piled high with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I think about fathers swinging through fast food drive-through windows in minivans overflowing with cleats, soccer balls, and backpacks. I picture kitchens filled with mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and every type of dessert imaginable on every baking sheet, pie plate, and casserole dish in the house.
The food we eat and the way we consume it is often dictated by a cornucopia of circumstances—season of life, cultural and ethnic tradition, and geographic location. And in the melting pot of the US, those circumstances are vastly and beautifully different. I realize that I cannot speak for others, but I can share my own experiences with her. I invite her to take a stroll down memory lane with me.
As a child, I did not crave nutritional value, but rather warmth, familiarity, and some good old fashioned carbohydrates: my dad’s Saturday morning pancakes that were bigger and fluffier than everyone else’s, warm grilled cheese sandwiches that you had to patiently allow to cool long enough to not burn your tongue—a true exercise in self-restraint, and burritos that were soft on the inside and perfectly crunchy on the corners. These were some of my treasured, simple favorites.
As I begin to describe these different foods to her, I’m reminded of other foods that carry far more vivid memories, and I realize that the food we eat is only partially about the food. What makes food memorable, and even delicious, is often the people with which we consume that food.
I take her back to a West Virginia fall when the leaves are transformed with hues of red, yellow, and orange, and I’m just waking up from a nap. I walk down the hallway of my childhood home to see my grandmother and my mom stirring bowls of cookie dough—the scent of mouth-watering chocolate already wafting through the air. Photo albums are spread across the living room floor, where they had previously been reliving their memories. This place lives on in my mind—this place where my mother and my grandmother stand entrenched between photo albums and sheets of newspaper covered by tiny cookies. With one bite of a warm, chocolate, no-bake cookie, I’m a sleep-eyed eight-year-old child again.
Where I ate meals varied, particularly dependant on season of life. I can recall seasons when sweet moments gathered around food were frequent and precious, as well as seasons when we shoved food quickly into our faces before rushing to the next activity or event. Some seasons were spent at the dinner table with all four of us—my mom, my dad, my sister, and I—gathered around, eating food and discussing that day’s events. In busier seasons, particularly in the height of sports, play practices, and other school activities, food would be passed from the driver’s seat to the backseat—fries, roast beef sandwiches, milkshakes, or burgers.
I remember food being a way that people loved each other. Whether ushering in a new life or saying goodbye to one, friends, family, and members of our church would show up with honey-glazed ham, a casserole, or a crockpot of soup. And that’s how I learned that “I care about you,” can taste like a home-cooked meal.
While I’ve been reminiscing about the food of my childhood, I realize I haven’t told her about what food means to me today. I explain to her that my husband and I recently moved to a location in West Virginia that is more rural than the community in which I was raised. In the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, bluegrass music nights at local churches welcome both local residents and guests. Summer afternoons and evenings are spent playing in creeks and rivers, and hospitality and good food are tightly linked.
Within a month of moving, our neighbor greeted us with homemade blackberry jam—carefully made from blackberries she had picked herself. The language of hospitality here is wrapped up in both sustenance and a love for the earth. You don’t leave someone’s house hungry. Here, people garden tomatoes, peppers, corn, and greens. They forage for blackberries, raspberries, mushrooms, and ramps. They hunt wildlife and raise livestock. And when you’re invited into these homes or welcomed to the neighborhood, you reap the benefits in jars of jam, homemade pasta sauce, and honey.
In the midst of all my talking, I realize I haven’t yet eaten the food placed in front of me. I pick up a fried plantain and take a bite, grateful that it isn’t cold yet. The salty, fried, mildly sweet taste is just one of my favorite parts of Haiti. I could be served fried plantains anywhere, but in my mind, I will always be right here in this room with her, telling stories about our childhood, laughing about the day’s events, and sharing stories of our hopes and dreams.
As I reach for another plantain, I look at her and say, “Thank you for making this incredible food. It’s delicious.”
Her face illuminates with pride, as she says, with a hint of nostalgia, “I cook the way my mama taught me.”
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.
—1 Peter 4:8-9 (ESV)
As you may know, Guatemala, according to The World Factbook, a CIA resource, “is a predominantly poor country that struggles in several areas of health and development, including infant, child, and maternal mortality, malnutrition, literacy, and contraceptive awareness and use.”
Guatemalans, myself included, are not surprised by this information, and much of these challenging facts are apparent to people who visit the country, too. Despite the seemingly insurmountable statistics, I want you to know that Guatemala is still a country comprised of friendly people who are welcoming to strangers. As you travel throughout the country, you will encounter people who will gladly lend you a hand, help you maneuver out of a tight parking spot, or even temporarily stop traffic for you. The words, “Buen Provecho,” meaning ‘May this meal set well with you,’ or “Buenas Tardes,” meaning ‘Good afternoon,’ will greet you as you enter a restaurant.
If you visit someone’s home, you will most likely be welcomed in with warm hospitality, regardless of your social class. Drinks and food will be offered to you. In Guatemala, we rarely visit with people quickly; instead, we take our time to relationally engage with one another, placing a high value on quality time. Thus, if you go to someone’s home, make yourself comfortable and plan to sip your coffee slowly.
Guatemala is deeply hospitable. If you ever travel to Guatemala to visit us, we will welcome you into our churches, our homes, and any other social gathering on our calendars; however, we will also ask you to share a few words with us. Yes, we will put you on the spot, but we hope that you will relax, tell us about yourself, and give us the opportunity to get to know you better. We desire to include you—to have you laugh with us, cry with us, and pray with us. As a relational culture, we will be deeply impacted by these experiences with you, and we will treasure them in our hearts.
What does hospitality mean to you in your culture? Perhaps, when you think of hospitality, you envision others serving you. We often think of ourselves as the recipient. But when was the last time you offered someone else hospitality, whether in the form of a greeting in your neighborhood or church or by welcoming people into your home?
I encourage you to make time in your busy schedule to invite someone into your home, offering him some encouragement. Remember just how important relationships are to each of us. You don’t have to wait for someone to invite you to their home first. Choose today to notice the people around you, engage with them, and intentionally love others through your hospitality.
One of the dominant memories I have of childhood is our family dining room table. In and of itself, it was an unremarkable piece of furniture: dull, brown oval of oak perched on a nicked and scarred pedestal. Usually, it was home to six chairs, but when necessary, it could be pulled out, leaves added, and another half dozen seats slid into place at the drop of a hat or a knock at the door.
I grew up in a family of six: four boys, a mother, a father. Our house on Barrett Street was smack dab in the middle of our block, flanked on either side by a few dozen other middle-class families whose homes were filled with children. And if there was a magnetic north of our neighborhood, it was that dining room table. Every day, kids tumbled down the street like ball bearings on a playground slide—a bouquet of hungry faces—some new, some familiar, bellied up in anticipation of my mom’s perfect grilled cheeses with tomato soup, succulent frog-eye salads, and sinful monster cookies.
They came in droves, all the way from 17th Street in the east to 15th Street in the west. This phenomenon was not limited to when we were young, geographically shackled by our elementary-sized legs and feet. Half a dozen of my friends and I made the trek across town nearly every day throughout high school to devour a stack of sandwiches, chips, and cookies as big as our collective heads.
I didn’t realize it then, but there was more to that table than wood, glue, and a few bolts. The huddling around fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, and thinly-sliced meats and strong cheeses was not merely animal instinct: eat or be eaten. It was a sacred rite, a gathering of spirits, and an act of worship in one of the most holy temples: the home. Our family believed in the priesthood of all believers, and my mother took her role seriously.
And she was in good company: Scripture is stuffed with priest-chefs.
When Abram, sitting expectantly at the door of his tent, is met with emissaries from the Lord, his good and appropriate response is to offer them a meal: bread, curds, milk, and lamb. We feed our pets, but like Abram, for the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we prapare meals.
Isaac, on his deathbed, requested of his firstborn son, Esau, “Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die” (Ex. 27:4). Perhaps, Esau had been busy feeding his wives, taking them the venison he had once given his father. Perhaps, Isaac felt neglected, forgotten, and disrespected. And the remedy was a meal.
Years later, we learn of Joseph. Amid famine ravaging most of the known world, Joseph spreads a feast before his brothers—the very same brothers who had beaten him, sold him, and left him for dead. But, in the words of Matthew Henry, “They drank and were merry; their cares and fears were now over, and they ate their bread with joy, concluding they were now upon good terms with the man, the lord of the land.”
We would be remiss to forget the most famous of all meals begun in an upper room amid tragedy, suffering, and betrayal, its final course climaxing in glory at the marriage feast of the Lamb, where our true selves—the bride clothed in white—will be revealed, and we will share in the Great Table without end, filled with every goodness by the Great Chef himself.
The oaken table in the dining room of the middle house on Barrett Street is only a shadow of that Great Table, but that does not make it any less sacred or authentic. In fact, therein lies its holiness.
In the New Testament, the name Emmanuel means ‘God with us.’ God desires to be with us—to be in relationship with us. Out of his desire for relationship, we understand the human craving for it, and in this, we see the very nature of God reflected. We recognize God’s longing for relationship throughout the course of the Bible, including in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, when he says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” He could have concluded with, “I will come in,” but in saying, “and eat with that person, and they with me,” we see his desire for relationship with us. Therefore, sitting around a table has more value than mere food consumption.
Ethiopian interactions frequently take place at the table. Ethiopians dine together, share three rounds of coffee, and invite friends and neighbors over for dinner on holidays. In Ethiopia, it is unnecessary to set a time and day to host someone in your home. If a guest visits your house, you provide them with food and a hot cup of coffee. This form of hospitality is a customary practice in every Ethiopian home.
Our eating traditions are rooted not only in culture, but in Scripture, as we are “distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.” Hospitality is highly valued throughout Ethiopia—whether it’s directed at family or a stranger. Ethiopians often feel like stewards of their homes. Thus, they serve others within their homes without reservation, holding fast to the Ethiopian saying, “A house is owned by God.” Thus, the opportunity to be hospitable is both culturally significant and deeply spiritual.
At dinner time, a big, traditional plate that can serve more than five people is placed in front of those seated at the table. Injera (Ethiopian bread) and wet (stew) is presented on the plate, and everyone eats from the same plate. People offer each other gursha, ‘a handful of injera and wet served directly from one person’s hand to another person’s mouth.’ This demonstrates both affection towards the person receiving the food, as well as concern for the person’s well-being and sustenance. Though some places throughout Ethiopia have moved towards individual place settings, the traditional shared plate remains customary in most places throughout Ethiopia.
As I consider the World Orphans staff members, Journey Trip participants, and Church Partnership trip participants that have sat in my home and shared meals with me throughout the years, I am grateful. I like to serve my guests traditional, spicy Ethiopian meals, and I cannot refrain from smiling when someone’s first experience of injera with hot sauce burns her mouth and makes her eyes water. The willingness of guests to eat my food without hesitation or complaint brings me immense amounts of joy.
Once I’ve served a meal to my guests, I serve them coffee. When serving coffee in Ethiopia, the beans must always be freshly roasted. It is precious to me when my guests help with roasting or serving the coffee. Their participation in the coffee ceremony is not only a manifestation of our love for one another and unity in Christ, but it shows me that they feel comfortable and welcome in my home.
Following coffee, I enjoy playing a game like UNO with my family and friends. The house fills with laughter and joy-filled screaming. I have many wonderful memories of these fun-filled hours with the people that mean so much to me. Throughout the course of the time together, whether during dinner, coffee, or the post-coffee game time, important conversations unfold—conversations that would not have taken place otherwise.
Through my work with World Orphans, I have been granted the privilege of hosting many people in my home. Former World Orphans staff member, Phyllis LaBranche, came to my home frequently when she lived in Ethiopia, and she always ate whatever I prepared. Her desire to eat whatever I prepared rather than requesting a special meal made her feel more like a sister to me. I frequently ate at Phyllis’ home, too, where I enjoyed whatever meal she had prepared.
The Ethiopian table—and mine specifically—affords me the opportunity to serve others, and this is a blessing for me and my home. I expectantly look forward to the international guests that I will be privileged to host, feed, and drink coffee with in my home.
An estimated four million people now work remotely in the US. World Orphans is part of that growing statistic, with a decentralized ministry model, staff throughout the US, and team members across the globe. We have experienced many advantages of decentralization: lower overhead costs, access to a larger geographic area with minimal travel, and personal connections with local churches across the country. Decentralization provides many opportunities that are critically valuable to what we do. But being decentralized can make it very challenging to maintain community with peers. And the incredible resources accessible to us—such as Skype, phone calls, and FaceTime—still have their limitations.
Each year, with community building in mind, our team gathers for a staff retreat. These few days are not for strategic planning sessions or vision-casting meetings, though those have their place. Instead, the focus is on both interpersonal connection and each individual’s emotional and spiritual health. This time is set aside specifically for our team to connect with each other and more deeply with Christ.
This year, our retreat was in Estes Park, Colorado, the first week of October, and the theme we rallied around was “Table to Table.”
We began our time together around a table, laughing, sharing stories, and enjoying good food together. Nothing was programmed or scripted, and there was no room for tension or stress. We found ourselves reconnecting in the most relational way possible: over a meal. Sharing a meal together offers a special kind of magic.
After our meal, we worshiped, lifting our voices together in praise to Jesus, and launching ourselves into our two-and-a-half-day journey to our destination: his table. We concluded our retreat by sharing the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament that the church has historically celebrated together. As our bodies are nourished physically when we eat from our tables, we are also nourished spiritually when we eat the bread and drink from the cup at the Father’s table. As a staff, we always look forward to this time together.
Throughout the retreat, we were intentional about connecting with God through reading the Bible and spending time in reflective solitude. We also enjoyed connecting with each other through play and adventure—board games, hiking, and some friendly competition.
We began at the table over a meal, and we concluded the retreat in celebration together at the Lord’s table.
During my years with World Orphans, I have had the privilege of traveling to over 25 countries, and I have been nourished in endless ways, having sat around the table with friends—new and old—in many different cultures. I have watched the table become a safe place to grieve, an invitation into friendship, and an unfettered celebration.
We hope you enjoy this issue of World Orphans Insight, where we’ve offered our experiences of coming to the table—from Kurdistan to India, from the US to Guatemala, and from Ethiopia to Haiti. Indeed, there is something sacred about coming to the table together in friendship and in Christ.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
Whether an international project or a US-based project, we have all watched this situations unfold, and some of us have been a part of it. We have witnessed well-meaning, compassionate people walk into a community, assess what they believe the shortcomings and struggles of that community are, and then we have watched those people create a plan to address the shortcomings and struggles. And we have watched difficulties unfold through this. Some of these efforts do more harm than good, unintentionally rob locals of their dignity, and ultimately, these well-intentioned people have frequently been unable to complete the projects they once believed were infinitely important. At World Orphans, we have learned hard lessons, and we have grown from those experiences with the help of our local teams.
US Church Partnership Trip team members with a Guatemalan pastor
Is there another way? Is it possible to do good, care for the vulnerable, and empower a community in a healthy, productive way? Is it possible to honor the dignity of people while simultaneously equipping them to find work, teaching them to save money, or helping them learn about properly caring for a child?
And it starts with letting someone else take center stage. It starts with a listening ear, a spirit of humility, and a willingness to learn. It starts with local leadership—the pastors of the local churches, the matriarchs of the villages, the highly esteemed elders. The value of investing in local leaders cannot be overstated.
1) They know the local culture.
No amount of research can equate to the knowledge a local person has about the vast amount of idiosyncrasies within their own community. Traditions that may be considered perfectly acceptable and normal within a Western culture may be deeply offensive within another culture, and sometimes a Google search doesn’t quickly explain this. For instance, if you traveled to India, you would never eat food with your left hand, as this is considered unclean. This is a simple example, but a handful of offensive actions can keep an outsider from building relationships. By choosing to come alongside a local leader rather than trying to supersede that leader’s authority, you demonstrate a humility and a willingness to learn about the community. Additionally, you are suddenly equipped with a wealth of knowledge about the culture.
2) They know the people.
I think that it is really important to rely on local leaders because we know the people, we know how things are going here. If someone makes a decision from abroad without taking our advice or listening to us it could destroy the foundation of what we are doing here.
— Nihad, Local Leader in Iraq
Local leaders know what the local people eat. They know the beliefs they carry. They are aware of the customs and traditions. Certainly, a local leader will not know every intimate detail about every single person within their community. People are intricately woven by their location, circumstances, and upbringing. However, a local leader will carry a wide array of knowledge about both the struggles and triumphs people in their area may be facing, as they too have perhaps faced those same struggles and triumphs.
3) They understand what is needed in their local community, and they can recognize possible programmatic challenges.
World Orphans Haiti Team
Domestic Church Partnership Director Lindsay Allen shares the following:
This usually looks like very different expectations of timelines. For example, I may ask our international staff to meet with a pastor to discuss an upcoming team's itinerary. What seems like a simple, quick task to me, might not be so simple. What I don't anticipate when I give a deadline of one week to complete the task is that the church might not be accessible due to violent protests or gang activity blocking the roads, or if it rains, it might be too muddy to drive to the church, or the bridge to the church may be collapsed, or the pastor doesn't have any more "minutes" on his phone so he can't be reached, or any number of things! We are used to instant access to people through text messaging, phone calls, and even safe roads to travel. Local leadership can help set more reasonable expectations of when and how something can actually be done.
Also, we Americans tend to have a very specific idea of a family/home structure—one or two parents plus children. But in most developing nations, the people in a home can be very fluid. Sometimes grandparents are there. Cousins, aunts, and even non-relatives might live there for a time. The number of people in a home can change year to year or month to month. So when we approach ministry as caring for a family, sometimes it's even difficult to know who exactly that means! Our local leaders, who regularly visit homes and build relationships with families, are able to help us gather information on individual needs.
4) They are known and trusted in the community.
Local, established leaders have spent time pouring into their communities. They have attended birthday parties and weddings. They have visited the sick and grieved with those who have lost loved ones. Consider your own friendships for a moment. Who is in your inner circle? Who do you confide in the most? Which friends do you call when you feel like everything is crumbling before your eyes? The person who held the door for you at the grocery store yesterday probably didn’t come to mind. The person who unexpectedly paid for your food in the drive-through line didn’t suddenly pop in your head either, did he? Though you undoubtedly appreciated those acts of service, the people that know you—those that have invested in you and have taken time to build your trust—are the people that you reach out to when you need a friend. Likewise, in communities around the world, mothers have best friends in the community that they can contact when parenting or running a small business is hard. Fathers have friends in the community that they can contact when they need an extra hand on a project or when they suddenly face unemployment and need work. The local leaders we partner with are the friends that show up for others in their community.
5) They have a pre-existing investment in the community, and it is likely that they will continue being invested for the long term.
By supporting local leaders that have already invested in their local community, it’s possible to help those leaders capitalize on the investment they have already made rather than trying to create a new program without the support of local leadership.
World Orphans Middle East Director Billy Ray shares the following:
Middle East Director Billy Ray and Iraq Project Manager Hersh Bradosty
We have had the fortunate experience of being led by the Kurdish people here in Iraq, and they have brought about all the success that we have had up to this date. God forbid we ever turn from that philosophy and bow to pressures from the outside to focus on this or that or to do this or that. World Orphans champions local solutions and local leaders. World Orphans is the organization that places their trust where it matters the most—in the local people.
Authority is granted, nay earned, by those who take the most risk. So, how could we subject ourselves to be led by those who take no risk at all, have no compulsion to understand local laws and customs, and hardly venture beyond the shores of America? [ . . . ] Trusting local leadership is the only way to get it right.
Supporting local leadership is not only wise. It’s a far better investment than attempting to create new leaders from scratch.
6) They are able to network and partner with other local leaders.
Local leaders—unsurprisingly—know other local leaders. And as you pour into one leader, you ultimately end up pouring into other leaders, creating a ripple effect. Empowerment never stops with the first person being empowered, but it inevitably is passed from one person to another. Perhaps this is never more powerfully witnessed than watching leaders from local communities work together to care for those around them. At World Orphans, we have watched our international team members endlessly pour into, cheer on, and rally around the local pastors that are caring for vulnerable families in the community. And as those pastors are supported, families begin empowering other families, sharing the knowledge they have learned about savings, small business ownership, or taking care of their children.
Ethiopia Program Director Belginesh Tena with an Ethiopian child
7) This approach helps create financial integrity.
Working in partnership with local leadership creates a system of checks and balances that allows for financial visibility and creates accountability between the local leadership and the external organization. By allowing multiple partners to have knowledge of how the funds are received and how they will be used, no one person is left to manage funding—a situation that can be compromising. World Orphans is dedicated to using finances with integrity. As part of this dedication, World Orphans works with US church partners, international church partners, board members, and international team members to ensure money is being used to its full potential.
8) This approach is Biblical.
Throughout the Bible, we repeatedly see examples of local leaders being poured into with intentionality. Perhaps the most notable example was Jesus pouring into the twelve disciples. Could Jesus have accomplished his work otherwise? Certainly. But, Jesus cared about people. He valued relationships, and he saw that infinite worth in celebrating what the disciples could offer to the ministry. Likewise, as the early church grew, we watched small churches pop up as Paul traveled, investing in leaders as he went.
Unlike Jesus, we cannot do the work we seek to do without our local leaders. They are vital to our efforts, as we seek to care for the orphaned and vulnerable. Without local leaders, World Orphans would not be the ministry it is today.
In an open air church sanctuary in Haiti, she walks over to me with a twinkle in her eye, seemingly holding in giggles. Taking both of my hands in hers, she positions each of her hands directly underneath mine. Before I know what she is doing, she swiftly pulls one hand from underneath mine, and gently smacks the top of my hand while erupting in a deep belly laugh. I begin laughing too, surprised by the quiet girl with braids in her hair. Though we cannot speak each other’s language, we spend the next five minutes taking turns trying to catch each other off guard with a swift movement of the hand. Her friends start to push her aside, eager to prove their own skills in the game, and the laughter starts to spread from one child to the next.
A tiny, dead-end road leads to a Guatemalan church with a dirt parking lot and a fence that runs the length of the property. The parking lot serves a multitude of functions, including that of a playground. In 2016, a team from Crossing Church visited this Guatemalan church, Iglesia Evangelica Central Monte Alto, and the church parking lot quickly began to serve its purpose as a playground. Adults and children alike participated in a lively game of freeze tag that included some less-than-perfect dance moves, a lot of chaos, and endless laughter. Adults with important, dignified professions bolted through a crowd of Guatemalan children while screaming with delight. A tired Guatemalan pastor ran as fast as his legs could carry him in order to stay in the game, a smile across his face through the whole sprint.
In a wide open field in Kenya, frisbees whirl through the air, and volleyballs echo like the beat of a drum. Mixed with the sound of joy-filled children screaming and adults—both from the US and Kenya—laughing, the noise sounds like a strange song that we’ve all heard, but whose title we can’t quite recall. It’s one of those songs that we can’t remember the name of, but we remember how it makes us feel. It’s the song that makes us feel warm and gives us a sense of belonging. The team members from these two churches—Fountain of Hope of Kenya and River Oaks Community Church of Tennessee—interact like family members that have known each other for the duration of each person’s life. Their partnership has lasted for more than eight years, and yet, on this particular occasion, the bond grows stronger than ever. Members of the Kenyan church say it is the time to play and the freedom to laugh that makes such a difference.
Sometimes it’s a wide open field, a muddy, well-loved ball, or a room waiting to be filled with joy. The invitation to play comes in a variety of forms and mediums, and it is important. The Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2006–2007) noted that “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” And we recognize that play is not only developmentally crucial to children, but it is crucial for adults as well.
What is it about playing? Why do we need it? The laughter that inevitably results is important, as it increases blood flow and oxygenation, aiding in the release of stress-reducing endorphins. Additionally, laughter is proven to decrease depression, boost immunity, and aid in the reduction of pain. But what happens prior to that eruption of laughter during play is crucial.
In order to laugh and play, we must let go, willing to be vulnerable and not fear looking silly. We have to stop fretting about the language barrier, worrying about how slow we actually run, and fixating on our complete inability to throw a frisbee. Good relationships, regardless of country of origin or language, are grounded in a healthy dose of silliness and play because it’s in those moments that we can truly be ourselves.
We can’t laugh until our sides hurt if we’re worried about how we look or how we’re being perceived the whole time. Laughter—the kind that demands you catch your breath afterwards—is both sacred and vital to the relationships represented throughout World Orphans. Over the years, we’ve found the ability to laugh, the freedom to play, and the willingness to be vulnerable are all invitations into deeper relationship with those we serve and those we serve alongside.
So put this magazine down. Grab a stack of cards, a ball and glove, or find yourself a wide open field. Have your spouse, your child, or your friend join you, and for a moment, just be there with that person. Don’t think about your to-do list and don’t fear the silliness. Just spend time with that person in that moment, and maybe allow yourself the space to laugh. You will find your mind, body, and soul will be glad you did.
In January, a concerned friend forwarded me a travel advisory from the US Secretary of State that shared the following warning:
“Guatemala, Level 3: Reconsider travel to Guatemala due to crime. Violent crime, such as sexual assault, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking is widespread, particularly in the border regions. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
I was not gripped by fear or shocked by the words on the screen in front of me. I was not surprised to read this about the country in which my family and I choose to reside. Unfortunately, this is a well-known reality for the children, youth, and families we serve in Guatemala City.
The city streets of Guatemala—with few green spaces and most of those infested with negative influences—are not a welcoming place for childhood play. Growing up in Guatemala can be a dangerous and lonely experience, leading to high dropout rates, drug addictions, gang involvement, criminal behavior, unwanted pregnancies, and many other issues. My heart breaks as I recognize the contrast between what God desires for our world and the reality of what is. As much as it grieves me, how much more devastated must our Heavenly Father be when he bears witness to sexual assaults, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder? In John 10:10, Jesus said, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Thus, in the face of these daunting obstacles, we lean into God’s vision of abundance and his desire to redeem and restore all creation to the Creator, and we hear ever more loudly the call to care for vulnerable children and families. Our objective is to provide wholistic care that helps these families spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. One of the platforms through which we do this work is by providing opportunities to play sports.
Friday afternoons are early dismissal days and a highlight for many young people in La Verbena, our partnership school run by AMG. These afternoons are often filled with outdoor play like soccer and baseball. Although far less common than soccer, baseball provides the unique opportunity for Guatemalan youth to learn something new. Along with my son, Emmet, and daughter, Arianna, I have had the opportunity to teach America’s favorite pastime—baseball—to a handful of struggling Guatemalan youth. Equipped with a few bats, balls, and gloves, we began to teach them about the sport, equipment usage, and some rules of the game. Although we may never produce a Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth, we have seen much fruit come from teaching and playing baseball together.
Oftentimes the best part about baseball, though, is how it makes the children laugh. On one occasion, I was pitching a bucket of balls to Pedro. It was a slow start, but I was hopeful that Pedro would see some progress that day. I saw many swings and many misses. I would throw the pitch, hoping that each one might be his shining moment, but he’d swing at the air. Though he tried his hardest, he could not hit a single ball. And then something marvelous happened. He didn’t hit the ball, but he erupted in laughter—a laughter so contagious that it spread, and with each pitch, our sides began to grow sore, and the laughter only escalated further. He eventually hit the ball that day, but I don’t remember much about it because the laughter was seemingly the most important part. For children like Pedro, playing baseball helps them be children again, restoring them to innocence and leading them to laughter.
Sometimes, though, children discover abilities they didn’t know they possessed. David’s life has not been an easy one. Growing up without a father and with a negligent mother has contributed to behavioral issues, difficulty learning in a classroom setting, and significant challenges in developing deep, healthy relationships. As I began to teach David baseball, his talents and ease with coordination became evident. While other children struggled with the basics of hitting and throwing after several practices, David saw success with very little effort. As his ability to handle a baseball has developed, so has his confidence and his ability to build friendships. David is now one of my son’s dear friends. He has a long road of healing and growth ahead of him; however, simply learning baseball has been transformational in David’s life.
Perhaps the most significant impact of baseball in Guatemala has been the ability to build trust with the young people during our time spent together. The majority of these children come from broken families with no role models. As simple as it sounds, the time spent throwing and batting provides opportunities to encourage these young men and women when encouragement is desperately lacking in the majority of their lives. Their faces light up as we use these opportunities to speak words of truth, hope, and life.
I will never forget the day we gave each of them a jersey bearing their last name on the back. The joy was palpable as the children paraded around with a sense of pride and belonging. Suddenly, it was clear. They were part of something much bigger than themselves. And that is what we all crave, is it not? We long to have a place where we belong. Through the simple act of playing baseball, I have watched children find their confidence and be given some sense of belonging.