Monday, May 29, 2017

Short term missions and orphanages- there's a problem here

Part of the biggest struggles we have with two of our children comes as a result of institutionalization and well-meaning strangers.  These strangers were mostly there as “missionaries.”  They were there on short term mission projects, set on “investing” in a day or week of the life of an orphan.  Set on seeing children’s faces light up with joy at the candies they bring.  Snuggling children in a way that parents and close family do.  Strangers coming into these children’s lives for just a short time, hugging them close against their bodies and  encouraging the children to give indiscriminate affection over the course of a few days only to disappear one day and never look back.  

Your pictures and your memories aren’t what the mission trip is supposed to be about.

Please, if you’re considering mission trips either as a leader, a student, or someone with influence on how these short term trips are done, PLEASE consider the long term effects of indiscriminate affection and what it does to children who have been repeatedly hurt, abandoned, and whose brains are forming in a way that they will not form bonds with familiar people.  Please don’t hug and kiss on children you don’t know, and whose future you don’t have in mind.  Please don’t dismiss the ‘rules’ of their environment and allow chaos to break out in the ‘name’ of a week of spiritual breakthroughs for yourself.

If you need to feel good about helping orphans, consider that their buildings need to be painted, their playground updated, their toys refreshed or replaced.  You can bring music and dance the day away or bring Bible lessons to teach, but where YOU need to hug and kiss on them and hold them and show them affection because YOU believe that YOU are the only one that is bringing the name of Jesus to them and in order for YOU to do this, YOU must show them affection, THEY are not going to benefit from it.  No, they’re actually being destroyed.  

Teaching an institutionalized child in an orphanage that strangers are the ones who give affection, even in the “name of Jesus” is debilitating for them while they grow up.  They learn that those they opened up to left, just like every other important person in their lives that landed them in an orphanage to start with.  They may even associate your desertion with the desertion of the Jesus and God you wanted to teach them about.

Instead of fulfilling your need to love on orphans by being physical with them, show them love by appropriate interaction of a friend or even stranger.  High 5’s, side hugs, sitting face out on your lap, reading them stories, singing songs and dancing holding hands.

When you show appropriate social boundaries to children in an orphanage, you might be saving them from heartbreak and you may be making their ‘connections’ between intimacy and social boundaries grow in a way that will make their actual BRAIN CONNECTIONS form in a healthy way.  Where they don’t feel your leaving as a loss, but as a stranger that came through their lives as they really should.  A stranger that told them about a Father God and his Son named Jesus.  That’s what we want them to remember…
The fine print...*This is not talking about long term missions or local missionaries, and another way to help orphans without causing some of these issues is to support those who live by the orphanages and are bringing the Gospel into the orphanages on a regular basis and have relationships with the children! **The result of brain connections being made in a way that doesn't allow a person to form strong bonds with familiar people are two conditions which used to both together be called Reactive Attachment Disorder. Now they've split the condition into two types and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder is what we see with our institutionalized children. You can read more about them in very easy-to-understand language here:


  1. Excellent message. I have been aware of this problem for years and am more than happy to share it with my contacts. Thanks for putting it so simply! I know the one Baby House where one of your little ones is from, stopped allowing short term mission trips for this very reason and when I visit I am there as a consultant for the children with special needs, and work with the staff, not the children.

  2. Thank you Meredith for sharing. As an Occupational therapist I have traveled all over the world on short and long term missions. My goals are directed to help the workers understand sensory and developmental needs of the children. I will interact with the children minimally as needed in order to develop a therapy plan. The local missionaries have followed through with the plans and many of the children are out on their own or placed with a family. I will turn to Zimbabwe next year to follow up with hydrocephalic and CP children in a remote area. Please help the orphans, but as Meredith stated, use discretion!!