Embracing the Orphans and Outcasts Among Us

by Renee Zitzloff

a lecture given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon's Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002

Although the dictionary defines orphan as "a child whose parents are dead," I think of an orphan as anyone who either doesn't have a family or someone to take care of him as a mother or father would. Many children have living parents who have been abandoned by them.

Lately I've come to realize that the word "orphan" can be used interchangeably with "outcast." Outcast is a person excluded from a society or system. This certainly describes many orphaned children. For this reason I use these words interchangeably. Even though many orphans, or outcasts, have living parents or family, they have been left on their own, whether children or adults, and they come in many different shapes, sizes, ages, and races.

What I have learned about orphans and outcasts is partly thanks to experiences at an orphanage in Guatemala I've twice visited in the last 18 months. This small haven is in the worst part of Guatemala City, an area of bars, drug dealing and prostitution.

In the midst of this squalor is the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage, refuge at any given time to between 125 and 150 children. It was established by three intrepid Orthodox nuns.

Though I have been involved in pro-life activities for many years, I can say that I have never visited a place where the sacredness of human life shines forth more than this home for brown-eyed waifs in Guatemala.

Partly due to a long-running civil war, Guatemala is an impoverished country with many families in disarray. The "least of these," the children, are the ones that suffer most. In Guatemala City alone it is estimated that there are 10,000 children on the streets. Sometimes they approach cars to sell sticks of gum or other items. (Any money you give them will be taken away by someone who is using them.) At the Hogar orphanage there are children under seven who have been used as prostitutes. I have been with the nuns when street children have approached our car. The nuns always ask if they would like to come to the orphanage to live, but they must be careful “ the authorities have told them if they take children to the orphanage, they can be charged with kidnaping. Nonetheless they do it from time to time.

Most of the children have been physically or sexually abused. Many have functioned as parents for their alcoholic parents or as parents to younger siblings. Some of the stories are terrifying.

The Hogar is run by three dauntless nuns who grew up in Catholic families but found their way to the Orthodox Church. Mother Ivonne and Mother Ines are native Guatemalan, and Mother Maria is from the Philippines. Their community is the only presence of Orthodoxy in that country.

The nuns intended not to found an orphanage but to live prayerfully in a quiet monastery on a hill with an orchard overlooking a lake. In fact they have such a monastery, but most of the time the nuns are not there. Instead is serves as a place of retreat which they use in turns.

In the guise of the government of Guatemala, Christ came knocking at the monastery door, asking Mother Ines to start an orphanage for a lot of dirty, noisy, most unprayerful little urchins. The nuns gave up their plans for a peaceful life of social withdrawal to experience instead God's alternative plan: caring for homeless children. Like Mary, they said yes to something that couldn't have been further from their plans.

The first children they cared for came from another orphanage and fortunately they came with some staff, nannies and cooks. They went to a building that the nuns were not completely done preparing. But, as Mother Ines said, "Once we saw the children, we couldn't say no."

What an experience it is to walk into the orphanage. The children know nothing about you, yet immediately they call you "mama" or "papa." They immediately love you. You don't deserve this love, but it's given all the same, and what a gift it is. The moment you sit down, at least one of the children will try to snuggle into your lap. You will hear the murmur of Spanish lapping around you like the an ocean tide. If you are like me you won't understand ninety percent of it, but you quickly discover that there are many ways to communicate that have nothing to do with words.

In The Ascetic of Love, a book about Mother Gavrilia of Greece, a nun who spent many years caring for lepers in India, it was helpful to learn her discovery that even when she didn't know a local dialects, God had given her five languages: the languages of touch, laughter, song, love, and prayer. I took heart in knowing that I speak these five languages as well.

At the Hogar, volunteers like myself are told to choose one toddler and be with that child all week, attempting to form a bond and establish a level of intimacy. This is problematic for both you and the child, because you are going to leave the orphanage soon, but it is beneficial for the child, because it keeps his or her heart from becoming hard. Though all these children are loved, and most seem very attached both to their nannies and the nuns, they don't get as much individual attention or affection as they need.

My eyes happened to fall on a little girl with downcast eyes who looked unhappy. Then she glanced up, saw me, and smiled one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. I was hooked. That was how Yasuri and I became a pair. By the end of the week we would be a quartet, because Yasuri has two older sisters. By the time we left, I was not only attached to two-year-old Yasuri, but also to her sisters, Ancy, about 3, and Madai about 8.

In some cases families or single mothers that cannot take care of their children will bring them to the nuns, but often the children are just abandoned. Many were living on the streets and scavenging for food. Sometimes someone will call the police and report that children are living in a shack by themselves. It's up to the orphanage to search for any family that is willing and/or capable of taking care of the children. This takes about a year. If no family is found or turns up, Mother Ines will inform the court and the judge will issue abandonment papers. It is at this point that the children are available to be adopted. Few of these children stay in Guatemala. Families in the U.S. adopt most of them.

I am currently helping edit a book of stories of parents who have adopted children from the Hogar. These are love stories, and almost every one of them has one or two events that seem miraculous. I remember one mother saying that she felt that these children are there especially for Orthodox people to adopt. She said, "We are the ones these children are waiting for. Who else has this responsibility?" I agree with her. This is an Orthodox orphanage, and the children are all baptized Orthodox Christians by visiting Orthodox priests (as they have no resident priest). Most of the children participate in daily Orthodox services. They are not forced to go to church, yet most of them choose to be there even though the services are long.

One of my favorite memories was seeing several of the youngest children go down into prostrations, then not get up. They fell asleep, remaining on the floor in a permanent prostration. Although Mother Ines will allow adoptions of children to non-Orthodox Christian homes, she feels that once a child has begun to worship in the Orthodox way, that should not be taken away.

The toddler I had picked was Yasuri. The first couple of days when I was playing with Yasuri, another little girl would come over to Yasuri, hold her hand and kiss her. I soon discovered this was Ancy, Yasuri's older sister. Ancy was a wild little thing with most of her baby teeth rotted out. (Many times mothers will give their children bottles of sugar water to keep them quiet and fill their stomachs when there is no food.)

One evening we had a singing time. As I was sitting there, a little girl about eight wiggled her way into my arms, and wanted me to hold her as we were singing. This was Madai. We became friends that evening. The next day I learned Madai is the older sister of Yasuri and Ancy. God had brought us all together.

By the end of our week, each of the visiting volunteers was firmly attached to at least one child. If we could have, we would have brought them home with us. Before leaving I expressed my attachment to Madai, Yasuri and Ancy to Mother Ines and asked if I could be their godmother when they were baptized. Two weeks after we left, a priest came for Pascha and my three little girls were baptized. I was not able to be there, but soon afterwards I received a letter telling me that I had become the godmother to the three by proxy. She then told me that they had each been given the name of a myrrh bearer: Mary, Salome and Joanna. What the nuns did not know at the time of the baptism is that my patron saint is the other myrrh bearer, Mary Magdalene!

My most recent visit to the orphanage was this past February. It was a hard week emotionally. I spent almost every waking moment with my three goddaughters and we became even more attached to each other. Yasuri was sick that week. Ancy, skipping her pre-school classes, wanted to be with me every moment. She would weep if we had to be separated for any reason. One day Madai, the eldest, asked me what my favorite color was. I said pink. The next day, every article of clothing she had on was pink! My husband and I and our children are praying about adopting these three little sisters, but they do not have abandonment papers yet, and there other hurdles in our way.

Here are some of the things I have learned when it comes to embracing those who need our help.

Be ready to change your plans for God's plans. This is a hallmark of the Christian life, isn't it? Control is a big issue for most of us. We feel that if we can be in control we can minimize pain, discomfort, and inconvenience for ourselves. I think we also believe that the more control we have in the present, the more control we have of the future. I think of the example of Mother Gavrilla of Greece who made it a practice that whenever anyone made a request of her, she would say yes, then wait to see if it was God's will by what happened next. Sounds crazy? Perhaps we cannot say yes to every request for help, yet if we want to see God working in this world, sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zones. Sometimes I think we should allow God to give us more than we can handle, so we can see how he handles things.

We needn't be perfectly prepared to reach out to others. When the orphans needed to be moved, Mother Ines's building complex was not ready. She took them anyway, because of their great need. The nuns would have liked to have everything perfectly ship shape, with millions in the bank to assure future expenses. If the nuns had waited to be ready, probably the orphanage would never have opened. When we are ministering to orphans and the outcast, sometimes it's best to think small. We don't need homes with a separate bedroom for each person in the family to adopt a child. We don't need to have a feast prepared to invite a homeless or elderly person to eat with us. A simple sandwich will do if that is all we have.

Don't be afraid to fail. I recall Mother Ines telling us the story of a girl at the orphanage who had become a prostitute at a young age. She was one of the leading troublemakers in the orphanage. When a couple asked Mother Ines for permission to adopt her. Mother Ines said yes, but only if they fully understood her background and its continuing impact on her. She wrote them a letter and told them all about this girl, leaving no details out. The couple replied that they still wanted to adopt the girl. They said to Mother Ines, "We are willing to risk failure." What courage!

Allow outcasts to be themselves. In one of the stories for the book I'm editing, an adoptive mother confesses how she created in her mind what the personality of the little girl they were adopting would be like and made an entire wardrobe for the little child she imagined. Guess what? The little girl turned out to bed quite different! She didn't like the clothes and wouldn't wear them. They had to be given away. Perhaps this mother was in part adopting a child to help meet her own needs. We all have mixed motives when ministering to others. We have to understand what our real motivation is. Orphans and outcasts are themselves, not our fantasies. We must respect that.

Be prepared to become attached and emotionally involved. When working with needy people, attachments easily form. Children do things that tug on your heartstrings. The day we left, I spent as much time as possible with the three sisters. Ancy was to have her ears checked, and I asked permission to go in with her. During the week, I had tried to impress my name upon Ancy and Yasuri, because I was planning to write them. I knew Madai was old enough to remember me, but with Ancy and Yasuri I played a game of pointing to them saying their name, then pointing to me and saying my name. We did this over and over again, "Yasuri-Renee, Ancy-Renee," etc. When Ancy was having her ears checked, one of the nuns pointed to me and asked Ancy who I was. Without missing a beat, Ancy replied, "Mama." I think my heart stopped.

Do not underestimate how much a seemingly small gesture may mean. I wonder why we sometimes have such a hard time getting into our heads how important small acts of kindness can be. Concentrating on what seems large and important, we may miss many life-saving opportunities. The children of the orphanage remind me of this. These children do not want money and possessions. They want someone to hold them. They want a kind word, someone to sing them a song or blow bubbles with them. They want someone to tuck them in at night. They want to feel loved and valued. They want to give love.

Don't be afraid to seem foolish. Paul reminds us that "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong. God has chosen what is low and despised, God has chosen the things that are not, that He might reduce to nothing the things that are." (I Cor 1:27-28 )

Orphans and outcasts fall into this category. They are weak. Often they are powerless. Sometimes they have no homes. Some outcasts are the butt of our jokes and we don't want to get near them. We think we are better than they are “ or we are afraid. Think of gay people. Think of people in prison, think of people who are not white, who have different religions and cultures than we do. Think of immigrants, legal or illegal. Think of mentally challenged and so called "handicapped" people. Think of the dirty alcoholic bum lying in the gutter. Think of Christ.

Often when there is tragedy or people are suffering, these questions will be asked: "Where is God? Why does he allow this to happen? Why doesn't he take care of this problem?" I wonder; where are the human beings? Where are the Christians? Where are those who will take orphans off the streets and give them homes? Where are we when there are pregnant, unwed mothers that need care and attention so they can give their babies life? Where are we when it is the middle of January and there are homeless families living under bridges and the food shelves are barely being stocked because the Christmas season is over? I think the answer to the question of, "Where is God when it hurts?" is that he is present in the world through you and me.

Recently I was asked, "What face of God should the Orthodox Church show to this country?" I said we should show the face of the crucified Christ. Once again, I quote from Paul “ Christ "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. . . . He took the form of a slave and emptied himself, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross." (Phil 2:6-8) Christ shared our human reality so that we could share in God's reality. He became a slave to us by bearing our burdens. St. Paul exhorts us to have this same attitude.

The glory of Christ never shone more than when he hung on the cross, lifted up for our healing and salvation just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness for healing and salvation of the Israelites. Are we Christians willing to be this face of Jesus Christ to the world? Are we willing to become slaves by bearing the burdens of all? Are we willing to share the reality of outcasts, orphans, and even our enemies so that they can share in our reality of being heirs with Christ in all things?

Each of us alone cannot do this. With Christ in our midst, together we can acquire the mind of Christ and become the body of Christ. We can be the face of Christ by joining him in his slavery. For it was for this suffering world that Christ gave his sacred gift of life.

Renee Zitzloff is a free-lance writer and educator as well as mother of six. She is an ardent member of the OPF and belongs to St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis.