A thousand thoughts ran through my mind as I held the child. It wasn’t because it was my first time holding a child. It wasn’t even my first time holding my child. In fact by this point my wife and I had seven children, and this wasn’t even one of them. But this is precisely why my mind was racing. I wasn’t the father. But neither was anybody else.
The mother was a fifteen-year-old orphan. It’s hard to know the complete story, but somewhere between AIDS and abandonment, the girl and her five half-sisters ended up living in a one-room hut being raised by their grandmother. In this all-female kraal (small collective of huts), income is scarce and yet rent for the ramshackle property comes due like clockwork, not to mention the seven (now eight) hungry bellies to feed. So I suppose it shouldn’t have shocked us when she informed us she was pregnant. I had often noticed the men in the beer hall across the street casting lingering glances in the girls’ direction. Perhaps it wasn’t our white faces that caught their interest on those days, but whether or not we might be interfering with their “entertainment.”
Nine Months Later
Nine months later, a baby was born. Through the entire pregnancy (and to this day) the mother would (or could) not identify the father. The baby is albino, which even in an ideal setting means a hard life in African culture. But add to this the fact that the child will now be raised by these extremely vulnerable women in an all-female kraal across the street from the same beer hall, as well as the fact that (surprise!) it’s a girl. And what you have is a perfect storm for misery.
As I stood there holding this beautiful baby in my arms, all I could think about was my four daughters and how as a father I would move heaven and earth to keep them safe, healthy, and happy. I have worked multiple jobs and extra shifts to make sure they had plenty to eat. I have researched schools and programs to ensure they receive adequate education. I have invested heavily in their spiritual instruction and development and have at least something of a plan for how their lives will play out, at least as long as they are in my home.
But who would toil tirelessly to fill this girl’s belly? Who would stand at the gate for her to ward off predators (both literal and figurative)? Who would move heaven and earth to ensure she had the best future possible? Who would someday meet her at the rear of a building and walk her down an aisle?
While the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa is by no means a new phenomenon, what struck me most in this convergence of issues was an echo of that original question, “Adam, where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Where is the husband? Where is the father? Where is the protector, provider, and leader that God ordained for this household?
After all, it was his absence (or perhaps better, abdication) that allowed the serpent of old to enter the garden and prey on his wife in the first place. And ever since that day, that same serpent has been slithering his way through households and families seeking whom he may devour, steal, kill, and destroy. And wherever he has found a gate unguarded by Adam, vulnerable women and children have been scattered in the aftermath. As a result, the image of the Father who gives good gifts (Matthew 7:11) is distorted in the world.
In saying this, I do not by any means intend to suggest that women are incompetent or incapable of leadership, provision, or spiritual oversight. In fact, I would love to write more about how extremely capable in these areas we have observed African women to be. But the Bible is clear that God’s design for the family is rooted in the complementary relationship between the headship of a husband and the suitable help of his wife. And in the myriad of instances in which we see this structure absent or distorted, both in the biblical text and history, we invariably see the accompanying carnage that results.
Our full-time job for the past year in Africa has been language and culture learning. Yet we have only scratched the surface of this culture. We have much to learn and readily admit there are many instances in which we are guilty of “imposing” our western mindset on Africans. But standing outside the hut that day with this precious baby in my arms, I realized that a biblical view of the family is not one of those instances.
As believers, we cannot and must not excuse a culture of adultery, abuse, and absentee fatherhood whether it is found in the hills of Kentucky or on the plains of Africa. We must be those who stand up in every culture for the vulnerable and speak out in every context for the voiceless. We must be those who advocate for the wisdom of Christ, even when the wisdom of the age, which is foolishness to God, seems totally pervasive.
I learned that day that a huge part of advocating for the vulnerable and the “least of these” means making disciples, particularly of men. God certainly wants Christians to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). That is undeniably true. But how much more does He desire that there would never be widows and orphans in the first place? How much more does He desire that young men in every culture would be trained up with a view toward responsibility, sacrificial love of one wife, and leadership of a family? How much more does He desire young women to be raised by fathers who protect and preserve them for their husbands, alongside of whom they can fruitfully co-labor for the good of their family and the mission of Christ?
If we learn anything from the New Testament, it is that this vision of the family is only possible through the power of the gospel. It is only possible with men who are filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit to put off the age-old Adamic nature, and to put on Christ. That’s why ultimately the best care we can provide for widows and orphans is the faithful verbal proclamation of the good news in hopes that men are transformed and conformed into the image of the One who does not, like our forefather Adam, respond to the question “Where are you?” with mere excuses and abdication. Instead He takes responsibility for His bride by laying down His life for her, being raised on the third day, and ascending to the presence of His Father with the words, “Behold, I and the children God has given me” (Hebrews 2:13).