When a church adopts an orphan (Nov. 2016)

A conservative estimate is that, by traditional definitions, we have over 200 orphans amongst our churches (and probably over 1000 at-risk children). What can we do about this?  How are our churches responding?
I was invited to visit the church in Langi last Sunday because of this very issue.  I was asked to help an orphan in the church, but as it turns out, not in a way that I expected.

Instead, I was invited to help pay a brideprice for a 23 year old man.

Pictured with me is Sylvester.  When Sylvester’s mother passed away five years ago, following his father’s earlier death, he and his two young siblings were left behind.  With a lot of hard work, and help from the community, Sylvester has been able to raise his younger siblings to this date.

If we think about this situation through western lenses, we would commend this community for how they, together with the older brother, have helped these two young orphans. And we would want to continue to help these orphans. After all, who is more worthy of our compassion—or as the biblical writer James would remind us (echoing dozens of other biblical passages), what purer religion is there than caring for widows and orphans?  Let’s talk about how to help the younger kids, we might say.

It might seem like the church misled me—pulled a classic bait-and-switch.  But not as they see it. When we remove our western lenses, we realize that society here is much closer to the near-eastern culture from which we have received these scriptures; in the eyes of people here in Sukumaland, Sylvester is STILL an orphan.

Why?  Because here, Sylvester is not defined by his individual identity.   Rather, he is primarily defined by his relationship to others; it is through his family that he can derive his identity, his rights, and his responsibilities.  In Sukumaland, (just as in the scripture, by the way), the terms “Orphan” and “Fatherless” are not restricted to children. Likewise, the response to orphans is not limited to basic physical provision, but also includes social protection and restoration.

And this is where the brideprice comes in.  Simply put, a brideprice here is the formal linking of two families; it is like a social cement that keeps basic life in order.  Opposite of a dowry, the family of the bride receive compensation (traditionally several cows, though currently often substituted with money) as they release their daughter—and subsequent children—to a new family. And this new extended family is bound to protect, provide for, and to never abandon the wife and her children.

This system of brideprice—beautiful in spite of its inherent problems—is under great stress as modern values conflict with the traditional. In fact, all social systems have been weakened here. In generations past, Sylvester and his siblings would have been absorbed into the deceased father’s clan.  These days, for many complex and intertwined reasons, intra-family adoption is far less functional. Some say a major cause of this is the erosion of the social bonds created through marriage customs; i.e., many people aren’t paying their brideprices anymore.

Why is this broader social issue such an important issue for the church at Langi, though?  Practically, a wife would be a huge help for Sylvester, as the overwhelming household responsibilities of village life could be shared, and the younger children could receive better care.  But beyond this, the church is taking the role that Sylvester’s father would traditionally assume.  They are volunteering to take social responsibility, and according to customary law here, even some legal responsibility for this new family. They will be the mediators of marital issues. As the church stands in the place of the father’s family, they will be expected to be the first to contribute when subsequent children need school fees, medical care, or if there is any shortage of food in their household.   By paying this brideprice, they are restoring Sylvester to the fullness of identity that he lost when his parents died.

In other words, they are not merely helping Sylvester.  They are adopting him.

I wish I could take some credit for this beautiful act of love.  I was happy to contribute to this cause, and even happier that my contribution was dwarfed by the members of Sylvester’s faith community.  I can’t even take credit for discipling this group of believers, as I have largely worked in different districts than this one (though my teammates should be proud of the work they have done in Langi). But I am pretty confident none of us taught them to show love in this way.

Perhaps it wasn’t something they were taught at all, but instead, (if I can borrow some of the words from Romans 8) it was something they received—the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom they—and we—ALL can cry, ‘Abba! Father!’.

–by Kevin Linderman