Please don’t pet the orphans

When the idea for this post came to me, I fought it. “Oh, no. I’m not touching that,” I shuddered. You see, while I don’t mind tipping a few sacred cows, there are some that guarantee such a backlash, such a visceral response that frankly, I don’t think it’s worth it to wade into the fray.

But the truth is, I have a dog in this fight. And somebody, somewhere has to stand up and say it:

Please don’t pet the orphans.

Please. Please. Stop. Just…stop.

Please don't pet the orphans

A multi-million dollar industry exists in the Christian community that has turned children’s homes/orphanages/day schools/feeding centers around the world into petting zoos. And it’s doing damage that I fear will echo into eternity.

The scenarios are countless. A high school youth group boards a plane to South America to staff a camp for underprivileged kids. A family signs on for a charter trip to rock babies at an HIV center in an African nation. A single college student spends three months touring parts of Asia, painting murals of Bible stories and blowing up Instagram with his adorable selfies as he goes.

In each instance, there is a brief, intense mountain-top experience for the traveller—something that stokes the fire of their faith and gives their desire to be the hands and feet of Jesus a great big old shot in the arm. And while their passion is usually short-lived (most folks maintain their new-found commitment to simpler living and a Jesus-focused lifestyle for less than three months, according to the folks who track these things), the memories stretch on, giving that person a greater sense of empathy, slightly increasing their likelihood of contributing to full-time missionaries, and reminding them that “first-world problems” means a heck of a lot more than a slow internet connection or having to be a one car family for the week your car is in the shop.

These are the benefits Christians are after when they agree to mail out a hundred support letters for their kid in the spring, hitting up friends and relatives for the cash to send Johnny on a trip to Port-au-Prince with 50 of his best buddies and a handful of church youth leaders. These are the things families are counting on when they shell out thousands of dollars for plane tickets to Mexico, where they’ll be bunking up for the night in sleeping bags on the floor of a church that’s little more than a mud hut.

What gets lost in the midst of this rush to “be a missionary” is something so vital that honestly, I can’t believe we, the church, have managed to justify it for so long. It’s the folks we’re serving. 

Specifically, the children. Because I’ll be honest, they take the hardest hit in this whole game.

I can’t believe I even have to say this, but showing up for two weeks and being super sweet and generous in the name of Jesus often does more harm than good. Yes, the kids light up when they see you. Yes, they beg for attention. Yes, they latch on to your teenage daughter and want to be her shadow, or they beg your son for one more game of hoops. They get excited when you roll out the candy treasure hunt at the end of the week of VBS. They delight in the chance to sit on your lap. And then you have an emotional, tearful goodbye, close up shop, and evaporate into thin air.

What’s left behind are children with attachment issues. Children with no concept of permanence. Children who think Jesus is the name you shout to get access to carnival games. Children who learn to cozy up to the rich, to play coy, and to rely on others to provide for their needs or, worse yet, define their beliefs.

Can I be honest? It’s a nightmare. I have seen it in action both in person and through others—long-term missionaries who struggle to plant real, lasting seeds in communities sometimes precisely because of a steady influx of well-meaninged brothers and sisters who want a working vacation for Jesus where they dig a well, hand out candy bars and toothbrushes to kids, and go home feeling like they’ve done their bit.

Short-term teams rarely have long-term impacts of the positive sort on the children they reach. Instead, kids who grow up in children’s homes that host multiple, rotating groups of do-gooders each year often end up with the kind of entitlement and manipulation issues that wouldn’t look too out of place here in the U.S. Sure, they’re not angling to get a new iPod, but they do know how to say the right things to score your son’s ball cap or that necklace your daughter has been wearing all week. They learn to use people to further their own interests, and to make fast, shallow friendships with no intention of actually connecting; kind of like being in the constant blush of a new relationship  and never having to deal with the part where iron starts to sharpen iron, or amends need to be made after wrongs. Couple this with the regularly reinforced message that yes, child, you are the least of these!, and not only is a victim mentality cultivated, but a sense of eternal dependence as well.  This is the stuff of absolute nightmares for attachment therapists—not that these kids will ever have the benefit of a session with one—as well as for future spouses and children. Ask a parent struggling with RAD to outline their journey, and be prepared to have your heart break.

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, children who have been treated like exhibits at a Christian petting zoo also know that if they hang around long enough, another round of Jesus people will show up and feed them, entertain them, and give them gifts. Christianity is reduced to puppet shows and crafts, to dental exam stations and lollipops. Sure, their prized possession may be a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament handed to them by a volunteer with a smile the size of Texas, but they have no faith in the Savior whose story is told in its pages. He might be their favorite superhero, but He has no skin when the rich Americans aren’t in town.

Finally, the petting zoo approach dooms kids to a lifetime of orphan status. Since this kind of missionary outreach usually does frighteningly little to train, encourage, or build up the local church or mobilize national believers, a cycle is born wherein the orphanage indeed becomes dependent on outsiders…even when a strong body exists that could be supporting the home, or even adopting some of the children. This element of short-term missions is perhaps the most insidious of all, as it cuts the legs off the faith of entire communities.

A pretty high cost for a two week jaunt to host a kids’ camp, isn’t it?

So, please, don’t pet the orphans. Find other ways to spread the Gospel this summer, but skip the selfies and instant bestie-status with groups of children you’ll never see again.

For more info to help you make informed choices on short-term opportunities, check out related articles on these sites:

The Gospel Coalition
Relevant Magazine
Got Questions?
Baylor Short-term missions

Please don't pet the orphans

2 thoughts on “Please don’t pet the orphans

  1. There has to be a middle ground in there somewhere. I think it’s a great article and definitely a point worth making. But I wouldn’t like to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think what’s required is a no-nonsense direct long-term missionary or local to manage groups like that.

    Day one: Welcome, God bless you, This is why you’re here. Leave the candy in the bag because you’re going to dig, sweat, hurt and maybe bleed a little. It’s not about you. At the end you will know what it’s like to be the hands and feet of Christ.

    I’ve been on a medical mission to Africa a few years ago and we worked 13 hours a day in a clinic serving 3000 people in four days. Then to the hotel to sleep. Had a few high schoolers with us that triaged. Even one assisting on tooth extractions. No selfies there but they Jesus felt it in their bones.

    It’s about management.

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