Orphan Care Journey: Calling Revisited

Brandon Stiver

By Brandon Stiver. Learn more about Brandon here and get help to transform your orphanage here. This blog post is the last in a four-part series. Read Part One here; read Part Two here; read Part Three here.

As I boarded a flight from Seattle to Salt Lake City, I sat down next to a young man wearing a pressed suit and a name tag: “Elder Kyler.” We don’t get too many LDS neighbors in the Seattle area, but given that I was headed to Utah, it made sense. I quickly learned that Kyler was 19 years old. And that he was chatty.

In truth, I’m normally keen to talk at length with people on planes. This time around, though, I’d been hoping to get some writing done for this very blog series. I prayed silently and concluded that perhaps it was God’s providence I was sitting next to Kyler. We ended up talking from takeoff to wheels down. As you might imagine, like a lot of 19-year-old Mormon boys, Kyler was headed to Utah for his missionary training. We talked about everything that came into our minds. I learned his theory about how Israelites during the time of the Babylonian exile traveled by boat across the Pacific to the present-day United States. I shared with him about my podcast, my own experience as a missionary in Africa, and my ongoing interest in global issues. We talked about our substantial differences in theology (he used the word “dispensation” in ways that were foreign to me), and he even told me the percentage of Mormons in the Greater Seattle area (there aren’t many!). We had a great conversation.

A really intimate thing Kyler shared with me was about how God had gotten a hold on his life a year or two ago and given him a calling, which is why he is now preparing to be a missionary in Eastern Australia. I concluded from our conversation that Kyler is a humble, passionate, and dedicated young man who is surrendering himself to something he truly believes in. 

But what if the mission wasn’t the right one? 

What if the calling was somehow pointing in the wrong direction?

These were the same questions I wrestled with after I left my work at the orphanage. I had been that passionate and dedicated young missionary myself. I had surrendered myself to something I felt God had called me to. My work to support vulnerable children through service at the children’s home was an honest-to-goodness expression of my faith in action. But then I found out that the foundation of what I had given myself to was faulty.

So what then?

I distinctly remembering talking about this with a friend who was also working in Tanzania as a missionary, and she said something that was exactly the reframe I needed: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” I had been viewing my calling as a point in time, a goal to be achieved. I had said that working at an orphanage was both my calling and my dream job. Then I achieved it at the age of 23. Cue the halo; I’m done. 

But that’s not how calling is really meant to be. It is a journey, and it’s fundamentally a journey of discipleship. In Swahili, “disciple” and “student” are the same word, “mwanafunzi.” We’re supposed to be learning; we’re supposed to be growing. Part of that journey is learning that some of what we thought was correct actually wasn’t. Sometimes we learn that what we thought was good is actually causing harm. When we learn these things, it requires courage and another layer of surrender to actually make the changes God is leading us towards.

This learning is not separate from the calling; the calling is to learn and then do what is right. I firmly believe that it was God directing me during that church service on Father’s Day in 2007. Do the words “Go run an orphanage in Africa” still make sense 17 years later? Yes and no. They don’t make sense, in that I’ve learned kids don’t belong in orphanages and we need people who will run programs that strengthen families rather than separate families. But the words do make sense, in that God was calling me to join Him on a journey, and He used words that would get my feet moving. I thank God for that calling.

I’m not the only one to receive a calling. I’m also not the only one to work at an orphanage and then realize there’s a better way to help vulnerable children. There is a whole movement of organizations transitioning to family care. I’ve seen a multi-site orphanage in Thailand transition to family care by resettling Burmese immigrant children into safe foster families and then providing early education for the children and economic development for the mothers. I’ve seen a children’s home for HIV+ children in Uganda transition to family care and then establish a health clinic to help the entire community overcome the effects of HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen an orphanage in Haiti transition to family care and then turn around and start helping other Haitian orphanages do the same, even in the midst of terrible unrest in the country. This is possible. And God is calling us to this. 

Whatever the future of global orphan care is going to look like, it’s going to require all of us to learn and to boldly take action. The prophet Isaiah summed it up well:

Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
Plead the case of the widow.

Our passions and our default settings will not naturally produce what is right. We have to learn to do right. When we see that things are out of place and outside of God’s design, we have to seek justice. When we recognize that children who have been living separated from their families are being exploited for other people’s monetary or emotional gain, we have to defend the oppressed. When we take up the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow, we do that as one case, advocating for the family as a whole.

I have had so many opportunities to serve and advocate on behalf of orphans over the last 17 years. So many times, I’ve said the wrong thing or done the wrong thing in my attempts to serve and advocate. Each and every time I’ve messed up or gotten something wrong, God has let me try again. For years, I had a fundamentally flawed view of orphan care, and maybe in 17 years I’ll be saying the same thing about myself now. But there is one thing that I know: God sets the lonely in families, and I want to join him in that work. 

I hope you do too. 

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