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Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa

August 15, 2012

Disclaimer: I am reading and reviewing books for Speakeasy

Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa by John Donnelly is a journalist’s look at the disconnected and sometimes isolated work of American churches and individuals through the story of one man. Donnelly’s research needs to be read by those interested in issues of international adoption, funding projects overseas, particularly orphanages, but also any work that is generated and lead apart from local leadership.

Donnelly focuses on one man who wants to start an orphanage in Malawi, but is abruptly stopped when Malawi’s Chief Child Protection Officer refuses him permission. He says, “We do not want orphanages here. What I want you to do is build a community-based project. I want you to reach out to the surrounding community. I want you to educate the local people and help the local people find the resources they need to take care of these kids.”

It is interesting, is it not, that America closed the last of its orphanages decades ago, believing that kids faired better in homes, with families. How many stories have we all heard about international orphanages severely neglecting the children, some out of malintent, some due to shortage of staff? Donnelly’s research suggests African leadership recognizes the same thing and wants to empower community members, grandmothers, widows, and families, to take in the orphans.

Several interviews of orphans who have graduated from orphanage/schools further suggest that while they were given an education, food, and lived comfortably, they entered society insecure and unaware of their own culture. One young man said, “Even our own coffee ceremony, I didn’t know anything about it.” One wonders if in the absence of mothers and grandmothers modeling culture in everyday activities, the children grow up lacking basic social intellect.

I found myself wanting more of Donnelly’s strength: reporting. He is a much better journalist than he is a biographer. I was far less interested in his protagonist, David Nixon, than I was in the very important message he was surfacing. He grazed over his attendance at the Global Conference on AIDS hosted by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church where he heard only one woman pushing back on the overwhelming support of starting orphanages. She is the founder of Firelight Foundation and said “she found the best way to help kids in Africa is to listen to what the communities wanted. And most communities, she said, wanted to keep children in the communities- not put them in orphanages or send them overseas for adoption.”

Through the lens of my community development degree, I am in complete agreement with many of the opinions of Donnelly’s interviewees. However, as a friend to many who are adopting internationally or supporting orphanage work, I am conflicted. Dare I suggest an alternative view to the commonly held American Christian view that the answer to James 1:27 (true religion is this, to care for the orphan and widow) necessitates building orphanages? Does it not make sense that we should be funneling more resources into building sustainable family units in those countries ravaged by AIDS and burdened with an increasing number of orphans?

I suggest reading Donnelly’s book if you or your church is involved in any kind of community development and/or orphan care internationally. It is so important to consider the ramifications of our good intentions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2012 3:29 am

    Mmmmm…. Thanks for bringing these considerations to the table. These questions have never even crossed my mind.

    • Beth Bruno permalink
      August 16, 2012 3:40 am

      Challenging, isn’t it?

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