When I was a single man, people would ask how many children I wanted and I would say “twelve.” I later discovered that there was another member of our local church who would give the same response when asked how many children she wanted. People who knew us surmised that there was no explanation for this except that David and Caroline must be meant for each other. They were right.
Almost 20 years later, Caroline and I are neck-deep in orphan ministry in South Africa, especially in our project for abandoned babies in Johannesburg. Almost any day of the week, Caroline may burst into my office with the triumphant news… “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” or “We have twins!” And I lean back in my chair and shout our favorite line from Gone With the Wind, “the happiest days are the days babies come!” And another orphan child is welcomed into Baby Haven.
We love what we do. We wouldn’t do anything else. When we take care of abandoned and orphaned children, whether it is at our Baby Haven, on the streets of Joburg or in other church homes where we serve, we feel the exuberance of people who are doing what they were made to do. And we know that God is pleased with us for doing it. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (NIV James 1:27).” Life really doesn’t get any better than this.
How did we start a haven? In 2003, we saw the worsening Aids orphans’ statistics as a cry to battle. We loved children, we had previously started children’s home in Kenya, and we had just moved to a nation with one of the highest AIDS orphan populations in the world. As local church pastors we had become convinced one of the litmus tests for relevancy in our generation would be whether we had played our part in the Aids orphan crisis, one of the greatest challenges of our times. We were (and are) part of a church movement that understood the key to changing the world: our influence on the young people of today. Twenty million of those young people were about to appear on the world’s doorstep without father or mother: children of the Aids crisis. They were all healthy children, they were just the ones left behind.
The Haven Idea
We understood that many responses would be needed in this crisis. Millions must adopt, and my wife and I knew that we wanted to be among them. Fostering, church outreaches and one-on-one mentoring could be done by many more. Finally, projects would be needed to raise children in a group home environment. Whether these homes kept children as a temporary solution for children on their way to adoption or whether they were the permanent placement, thousands of shelters would be needed. We wanted to provide a place where children would be safe from hunger, from the elements, from exploitation, from danger, from fear. But most importantly, we wanted the aids orphans to know that they were not less or “cursed” for being orphaned (as we sometimes, incredibly, heard argued), but that they had a special place in the heart of God, who had said, “I am the Father of the fatherless.” This then was our idea of a Haven: a place where children would be loved and nurtured by people who extend the level of care, concern and compassion that Christ would want for His children, and where every caregiver is a minister of God’s love.
We surveyed the war zone of children’s needs in our province. The government had a child welfare system in place, but it did not take long to learn that it was hopelessly inadequate and that the majority of children in need were uncared for. And we understood that millions of children were still coming. We would wake in the night and wrestle with what we were to do for those children. We studied the challenges to starting a haven in our area. I found in Africa what I learned when I worked as a social worker in the United States many years before: there were few clear-cut answers. We were told that current regulations made it nearly impossible to start a home. For a season, we felt paralyzed by that information. In the end, we decided not to disregard the information but not to be overly influenced by it. If children were in need in our area then we would have to find answers to the obstacles as they arose. Eventually we learned that while regulations slowed our progress, they were often put into place as a buffer to people who lacked organization and excellence and were not the barriers they seemed to be at first. We discovered that when we confronted officials and bureaucracy with sincere intentions and with respect for the community and with love for children… walls came down. We found good-hearted people who love children came to our aid. Favour came at the right moment. We assisted in the orphan project of another church where we gained invaluable knowledge into the rules, regulations and expectations of local authorities. We struggled with the question of whether it was better to throw our assistance behind the projects of others or whether we should start our own projects. The answer came easily in the numbers. There were millions coming. Every home would be needed. Every bed would be filled. The more the better. And we knew that our church had been faithful in opportunities to serve the orphan projects of others in the past. This meant that we were on the path to receive our own thing.
The Right Parents
We had a plan for a home with a hired staff but at some point we knew that WE had to start the haven. We had seen that some of the worst homes for children were church-owned but had no mother and father in place; merely a Staff.* This was the traditional orphanage; it provided food and shelter and sometimes education but not unconditional love. Often it seemed our small home would be a drop in the ocean in supplying children’s needs. But for all the mothers and fathers and staff who would be needed by the millions coming, we prayed and reminded ourselves: He who called Himself the “Father of the Fatherless” was not unaware of the numbers. He had a plan. We noticed the singular emphasis that has been placed on fathering and mothering in literature and popular culture and especially in Christian churches in the last 40 years. We realized that a bumper crop of mothers and fathers were already coming forward. We were confident that He had already put it in the hearts and minds of thousands of men and women that their gift and call was to serve the children of the Aids orphan crisis. Some of you reading this are among them.
The Right People
We needed many things to start a haven, but some of the most significant relational questions were answered when we started. As Christians we were committed to serve and obey God and honor our savior Jesus Christ and to be instructed by Scripture. We were committed to serve for a lifetime as a married couple. But we needed more. We knew we would need wisdom, counsel, friendship with like-minded people and those who would stick with us through thick and thin. We were fortunate. We had those kinds of relationships in our twenty-plus year relationship with our spiritual family, the Every Nation family of churches and its members. We often said we didn’t need the whole village to care for these children; we just needed the whole church.
The Right Place
We did not start with resources to pay for this project, so we used what we had. We had an under-utilized guest area in our home. What started as an economic necessity proved to be a crucial component of the haven idea. A mother and father make a home; children live in the home with their parents. We are convinced that a Mom and Dad in a family home bring security and healing to the orphan’s heart. If there are other children, as in our home, they also bring healing and love to the new ones. Knowing what we needed from our local church community, we quickly learned that we lived too far away from the church. There is a temptation in urban areas to move ministries to the suburbs and outer rural areas. Land is cheaper, food is often cheaper and labour is very cheap. But in doing so, we sacrificed our most valuable resource: the members who would love, nurture and stand by the children as they grow up. Two and a half years ago, we sold our big lovely home outside the city for a ranch-style house with a huge flat a third of the distance away.
When we started our Haven we had two rooms and a bathroom in our house to devote to it. Babies needed less room; they do not need to run. And our house was not “child-friendly” to small children. Numerous sets of stairs connected the various parts of the house. Babies tend to stay in one place. For us, a BABY Haven was the answer. ** We thought in advance about the children we would minister to in our haven. We prayed for them specifically. We found new meaning in the Scripture, 1Corinthians 12:18 “God sets every member in a body as pleases him.” We knew some of them were already in crisis and some of them were about to be… and some were not even born yet. But we prayed for them all. In the intimacy of prayer with God we remained committed to them when other life issues tempted us to put the haven idea aside. Each time I held a new baby in Baby Haven, I said to myself, “So YOU were the one we were praying for! Welcome! We have been talking to God about you for a long time and it is good to finally meet you!” We had a dream that we would care for the ones no one wanted… the true orphan without parents, extended family, community or support of any kind. We have had many of them. Some of them came to Baby Haven because we begged social workers to get them out of hospital and into our home. We are deeply touched that the ones without any background information are given our family name on their birth certificates and we are usually asked to name them. We have had a Joy Webb, a Joshua Webb, a Gracie Webb, and others. When we put out the call for babies, the first child offered to us was a seven-year-old girl. She was the only child over two we have ever taken. Her name, AYANDA, means “One of many.” She still lives with us today as our 6th child. Mother Theresa once talked about the first person she had picked-up and helped on the streets of Calcutta. “Maybe if I had not picked up that one person dying on the street, I would not have picked up the thousands.” Our daughter Ayanda’s name is a constant reminder to us that there are many more waiting for our home, our love, our place of safety. We have touched only briefly on some of the first issues to be resolved in starting a haven. There are many more. Most urgent is how to find adoptive parents for your children and how to find funding. Our hope is that in this brief story you will you will consider how to be part of a haven. Some of you are called to support BABY HAVEN or our coming project, CHILD HAVEN. Some of you are meant to volunteer at such a project. Some of you are meant to start a haven of your own. Know that we are praying for you as you seek to be part of the answer! Thank you for taking time to hear our story.
Statistic Sources: Children and Young People in a World of Aids, UNAIDS 2001) UNAIDS/WHO AIDS Epidemic Update: December 2006, UNAIDS 2007
* Thoughts on opening a haven: A haven requires one or two mature people, preferably a man and woman (and preferably a husband and wife), but that is dependent on the age and sex of children in the home. If the children are small, two mothers may operate the home if other significant males are involved. The mother and father you want over your project would not think of doing anything else; they came because of a conviction that they want to serve children and love them into adulthood. It is worth waiting for the right people. Without these people in place your haven will not serve the deepest needs of the children; will not bear long-term fruit in their lives.
**We are often asked for direction on knowing who to serve when opening a haven. If you are living in an area hard-hit by the Aids orphan crisis, you may not know which children to serve first. Consider the people resources of your project. Who are you gifted to work with? Babies? Small children? Teenagers? We recommend you start by choosing children of one age group, either 1) children under three, 2) children ages three to ten, 3) children ages ten to thirteen, 4) young people fourteen and above, or 5) the orphaned children of one family. If you are choosing groups (3) or (4), I urge you to make your haven a single-sex facility. In our area, it is estimated that 90% of orphan children have become sexually active by age 12, whether by abuse, exploitation or simple lack of role models in their decimated family unit. In all cases, plan ahead. If a child you are caring for is not reunited with extended family and adoption is not possible or likely, where will the child go when they leave your care? Ideally, you will be ready to start the next haven for children of that age group and gender and they will remain in your care.