We gather together, those of us who long to be change-agents for the orphaned and the vulnerable. In conference rooms and concert halls and homes graffitied with lovely phrases about grace and love, we rally with those joined at the heart whose passions mirror ours. We march in time with the banner of our cause held high. And the world watches as we talk about cause and effect and how we must change both. We use big words. Bold words.
Always words. It always comes back to the words.
The words we use as gauze.
The words we use as guillotines.
My friend Melissa has a tattoo on her arm. It says, “Words create. Words destroy. I choose light.” I wish those words could be tattooed on everyone. Especially those who use their words to fight for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Her tattoo haunts me every time I leave the comfort of those deep conversations about orphan care and return to the reality of ravines in Guatemala or HIV homes in India. It cuts to the core of what I believe we really desire, those of us who long for things to be made right. And it’s a reminder of where I think we get it wrong.
We mean so well, we really do. We want more than anything for every child to feel known and valued and loved. And there are moments we get it right, when we stand in unity and cry out for justice. But something happens. Every year, the words we use to defend the cause seem to change ever so slightly – yet just enough to cause all who hear them to raise their voices like swords in assent or defiance. Those of us who rally for the cause of vulnerable children find ourselves in the midst of a battle – but we fight the wrong enemy.
Because we fight each other. Over words.
Maybe it’s only a Western thing, this war of words. Though I’ve heard leaders in other lands sit at breakfast tables and naively discuss which vulnerable children deserve greater support, I’ve not yet found the battle raging in other countries with those who are truly muddied with the hard labor of care, and I pray it never finds them. Years ago, the fight was about what defined a family. We filled the world with words about adopting every orphan – when we knew it was impossible because so few orphans are truly without ties, and we secretly wondered if those children would really be safe in our homes because our homes are broken too. Before that we warred over what defined an orphan, and we came up with all sorts of categories to tip the scales in the favor of whatever battle we wanted to win – when we knew that the real issue wasn’t about a category at all but about children removed from homes and robbed of family and stripped of community and raped of dignity, a number so overwhelming it sucked the air out of our lungs and brought us to our knees. And we continue to argue about words like “residential care” and “foster care” and whether or not the word “orphan” is even appropriate to use because it might be shaming to a child’s esteem. We continue to look with raised eyebrows at orphanages and say any other option must be better – when we know that for every titillating story that supports our claims we can find ten other stories that might make folks think all forms of care have their place, even those we don’t fully understand.
And all the while, the children wait.
And now there are new fights, arguments about the “what” and the “who.” We pit the two words against each other like a poorly planned back alley grudge match. For years, the question has been raised, “What is in the best interest of the child?” when it comes to the care provided those who place their hope in someone – anyone – who might show a little kindness. We’ve argued about the scope of that care, demonizing the spaces we aren’t comfortable traversing and using our words to attack the people who see things differently than we do. And now, the attack is on the word “what” itself. We strip the words of kinship and value by saying it’s not about the “what” but rather about “who is in the best interest of the child.”
But here’s the reality. The two words go hand-in-glove. There is no “what” without a “who.” The two are inseparable if our goal is to truly care for those who are abused, neglected, rejected. We slice each other apart with semantics rather than remember our cause and our calling. We keeping finding more and more words to assuage the pain of the reality that haunts the core of who we are – that for every answer there are ten more questions, and for every repair there’s another crack, and the battle won’t end until the brokenness of this world finds its final restoration.
And tried and true words are spoken to us in the midst of the war. Words I’ve heard spoken in India, in Guatemala, in Uganda, in Jamaica. Words I pray to hear in the West.
Love – no matter the cost. Love – no matter the circumstances. Love – no matter the outcome. Please – love.
And all the while, the children wait.
They wait on us to provide the “what.” They wait on us to be the “who.” They wait on us to stop fighting each other and fight for them. They wait for us to simply do right. They wait for us to choose light.
I pray they don’t have to wait forever.
Will you join me in praying for the children? And in praying for those charged with their care? Will you join me in praying for us, that we’ll be unafraid to join those who are doing the hard labor, even if it means we lay down our definitions?