He didn’t want to go into foster care almost as much as he didn’t want to go home but he did not have the energy to run from his hospital bed. His external scars were not as bad as his emotional scars, but both were clearly visible on his face when he slumped out of the social workers car and made his way tentatively to our front door. A friendly smile, some kind words, a choice of hot food began to bridge the gap. Then an hour of X-box therapy and a check of football scores and some eye contact was made. A few hours later the newest member of our family cracked a joke while we were buying a toothbrush in Sainsburys. A few days later there was a sparkle in his eye, a wicked sense of humour in full flow and the healing process was beginning. I’d travel the earth and pay good money for an opportunity to impact someone’s life like this, but this happened in our home with all expenses covered by social services.
This little boy’s story is tragically not unusual. He is one of 72000 children currently in the foster care system in England and Wales. You might consider him a starfish kid. I must admit I am sick of starfish. You know the story. The one with the boy walking along the beach at low tide who sees the thousands of stranded starfish left behind by the retreating tide. So he turns these helpless creatures into living ninja throw stars and sends them back to the sea to live for another day. A stranger comes up to him and says why bother, there are thousands of starfish you’ll never make a difference. To which the boy replies, “it makes a difference to this one” and throws the starfish back into the sea. This overused story has had its day. Because today, according to author Scott Todd the boy would have had a smart phone on him and he would have taken a picture of the beach and shared it with his friends on Facebook, twitter or Pinterest and collectively they could have saved them all. I am writing to you because together we can save them all.
Every 22 minutes a child enters the care system in the UK and most of those children will move into a foster family and, if they can’t return home, possibly an adoptive family. There are more children in the care system in the UK than there has ever been before 70% of whom have been neglected or abused. There is a chronic shortage of foster carers, and there is currently an all time record number of children waiting on the national adoption register. It’s time to end the waiting and we can do it together. These numbers sound overwhelming but look at it another way: there are 4000 children waiting for adoption today, there are 7000 more foster carers needed. Of churches like yours and mine there’s about 15000 in the UK. That means if each church had just one family that were encouraged to foster or adopt and were practically supported by the church into the future we could make a serious impact on the current need. I want to give you 5 reasons why we can and why we must step up to meet this need.
1. The Church has a track record
When we act together we make a huge impact. For example: Do you know who provides half of the parent and toddler support groups in the UK. Is it Surestart? No, it’s the church actually. Do you know who provide the biggest network of debt counselling across the UK with 190 drop-in centres? Helping over 19 141 individuals last year alone? Is it Martin “Money Saving Expert” Lewis? No it’s the church actually. Who is it that donated 72 million hours of volunteer work to social initiatives last year estimating a contribution of 1.5 billion pounds a year? Was it the National Trust? No, it was the church actually. Do you know who will feed 100 000 hungry people this year in the UK is it the Redcross, no it’s the church actually! Do you know who brought hospitals, schools, universities and democracy into our country? Was it the Vikings? No, it was the church actually! Who invented Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Queen’s Park Rangers, Southampton, and Tottenham Hotspur Football clubs, was it the Football association? No, it was the church actually! When the doctors, the police and the social workers move out of an area and go and live somewhere else who is that moves in? Is it Richard Dawkins and Militant Atheists? No, it’s the church actually! Do you know who could provide loving homes for life for children waiting for adoption?
2. The Church has the resources
I have been so impressed by the foster carers and adoptive parents I have met. Most of them have no Christian faith, no knowledge of the power of the Holy Spirit, no house group to offer practical support, no pastor to call on for advice, no access to youth leaders to input into the kids they care for, no prayer partners, no Mum’s bible study group to give them a week of meals on wheels, when the children first arrive, no circle of parents to pass on spare clothes, scooters, cots, no youth group offering baby sitting help. Our local church has given all of those things to us. I heard of one family in Hertfordshire who adopted two siblings from really difficult background and right from the beginning their church leaders came to see them and said “we are going to do whatever you need us to do to help your family raise these children.” One the boys had a particular set of extreme behavioral challenges that meant there is a special team at church who volunteer just to look out for his needs on a Sunday morning. There’s been a few spilt drinks, a broken musical instrument or two – but this family know they have the backing and support of their church no-matter-what. By God’s grace he has showered so many blessings on us as Christians. We have been blessed so that we can be a blessing. Let’s bless the poorest, most vulnerable children in our country.
3. The Church has the opportunity
I meet so many people that tell me that they thought that Christians can’t foster and adopt because of new laws or because of a bias against Christians in the social care system. Let me tell you categorically there are no laws that bar Christians from fostering and adopting children. There are no guidelines that prevent Christians from being accepted for fostering and adopting. I have spoken personally to the head of the British Association of Fostering and Adoption, to the Fostering Network, even to a Prime Minister all of whom assured me that he wanted to work with the church on this issue. Now are there Christians who have had a difficult time with social services? Yes. Will you be asked searching questions? Yes. Will they be interested in your views on other faiths, homosexuality, smacking? Yes. Will orthodox answers to those questions bar you from adopting or fostering? Possibly. It depends on: the tone, manner and how you answer these questions. It also depends on the social worker you get. Not every Christian will be accepted and not every Christian turned down will be turned down due to their faith. Nationally I am finding an open door as I speak to social workers, local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies. There is a desperate need, and this has a way of opening the door to people who are willing to step up and do the difficult jobs.
4. The church carries God’s reputation to the nation
The view from outside the church is often that Christians are narrow-minded, homophobic, holier-than-thou hypocrites who aren’t really interested in getting their hands dirty and don’t want guilt-by-association with people in need. I have met many Christians who are morally outraged about the numbers of abortions in the UK but who are not willing to lift a finger to help the brave often young, often single mums that are willing to keep their babies or to offer to make adoption a viable option for those mum’s that aren’t able to care for their babies. I have met morally outraged Christians who are angry that homosexual people can adopt and foster but who aren’t willing to step up themselves to do it or help others that are doing it. Is the press really loaded against us Christians that they have succeeded in demonizing us, or have we helped them along by being most visible in campaigns that appear to reinforce those perceptions? It is not too late to shatter these misconceptions. Organisations like Christians Against Poverty, Street Pastors, and foodbank are making a huge impact on the ground and helping people’s experience of the church to be an experience of the sacrificial grace and compassion of God in action. What better living parable for God’s unconditional love that adopted us sinners into his family than if the church collectively fostered and adopted the waiting children. We do this not on the condition that they become Christians, or even with the expectation that many of them will. By responding to the crisis in our country for children at risk we embody the unconditional love God has for his world, and emulate Jesus – the one who was not afraid to touch the lepers or bless the children. God’s reputation is at stake. God is very quick to identify himself in the Bible as a Father to the Fatherless a defender of widows and orphans. I would love the church in the UK to be known by these same qualities.
5. The church has a mandate
I remember listening into the news in 1991 when the horrors of Rwandan genocide were being reported. In just a hundred days a million civilians were slaughtered. I felt angry and shocked that neighbours could suddenly turn against each other and use machetes to butcher one another to death. But I was also shocked that 2000 United Nations Peace Keepers were stationed there, armed with machine guns and armoured personnel carriers stood by and watched while the tragedy unraveled before their eyes. They had no mandate and so they took no action. They stood by as thousands were slaughtered. We do not have to wait for a mandate, God has said very clearly over 40 times in the scriptures that care for vulnerable children is high on his priorities. The Bible uses the language of “Orphan” or “Fatherless” in our day this translates very clearly to children needing foster care or adoptive placements. Take a look at very famous example from the book of James:
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 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.
I don’t want my service to God to be worthless. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to be one of those UN peace keepers today. Living with the memories of what they saw and what they were not permitted to do. Their weapons and uniforms were worthless. James is going to go on and explain that our words are powerful and they have a profound impact on those around us. We need to be careful about loose words, words spoken in anger or cynical cutting remarks. But I think we need to be careful of empty words. In 1 John 3:18 we are warned “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Sadly, I have met many Christians who are full of talk. Their tongues are quick to condemn – quick to write off single parent families, quick to have a go about abortion or why gay people should not be allowed to marry, or to foster or adopt children, or about the evils of abortion. These passages warn us about empty worthless religion – that’s just about words. The kind of religion God is looking for involves compassionate action. It means getting involved with assisting widows and orphans. My heart goes out to those helpless and hapless UN peacekeepers. Their combat training. Their presence in the country worthless. They didn’t keep the peace, their mission failed. Our mission as Christians is clear – we walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We live to please God. God makes it very clear to us what he wants from us. The care of the vulnerable is faultless service to God. We have all the resources we need, we have the mandate we need. Just imagine the impact we could have.
Questions we all need to ask
- How would I know if God is calling me to be a foster carer or an adoptive parent?
- How might things in our church need to change so we are even more welcoming to looked after children and more supportive to their carers?
- How does knowing that God adopted you into his family change the way you think about vulnerable children in the UK?