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This excerpt from The Mother & Child Project originally appeared here.

When I watch mourners in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and many other countries walk down the road behind the wooden casket of a mother and child held high on the shoulders of men in the village, I am reminded again, This is not a cause. This is an emergency. 

Pregnant women all over the developing world ask two tragic questions: “Am I going to die?” and “Who will take care of my children?”

How can women be asking these questions when they are young and full of life?

There is a compassionate mandate for mothers to live and for children to survive—and thrive—in the arms of their mother. One can judge the morality of a country by the way it cares for its women and children. If there ever was something worth fighting for, keeping mothers and babies alive and together tops them all. But—

The statistics of maternal and infant death are gut-wrenching, vivid, and real. One in thirty-nine women in sub-Saharan Africa are dying during pregnancy or childbirth. There is a moral mandate to provide accurate information and the resources necessary for life while honoring a woman and family’s cultural and faith values. Through no fault of their own, 222 million women have limited ability to influence the timing or spacing of their pregnancies, leaving these women and their children vulnerable.

When a woman’s cries and wailings are heard, the numbers stop being just statistics and become the stories of real people. Numbers are numbing. As one Rwandan woman told me, “Numbers are statistics. Numbers are statistics with the tears wiped off.”

But there is hope, and the answer is to keep mothers alive by equipping them to have pregnancies timed and spaced in ways that promote health, including prenatal care, a skilled attendant at birth, and a host of other supportive interventions, so that the mothers and fathers can care for their children. Because every child deserves a family.

But how?

The keys to information and transformation lie in a frequently overlooked source. For families to receive what they need, they can go to the church, which becomes an outpost not just for spiritual health, but for physical health as well.

Recently, I was working in Rwanda alongside Juliette, a health volunteer who trains church members to, in turn, become trainers volunteering in their communities. Although from different parts of the globe, Juliette and I both are part of the PEACE Plan movement, an initiative of Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California, where Pastor Rick Warren has launched 20,000 ordinary members of the church to travel globally. To do this, he has empowered and linked churches in 197 countries. Using a train-the-trainer approach, the PEACE Plan has equipped more than 500,000 ordinary people in church pews—or wooden benches—at the most grassroots levels to identify, prioritize, and act on problems in their own communities through the local churches.

Juliette, along with another trainer, simply walks to seven homes—some of them up to an hour away—to talk to women about pregnancy, about the value of timing and spacing pregnancy, directing them to tools that are in keeping with their Christian faith.

When Juliette ducks through the piece of fabric that hangs at the front door of each home she visits, she is comfortable and credible. Armed with a teaching plan and genuine compassion for her neighbors, she listens and teaches basic hygiene principles, HIV prevention, and healthy pregnancy.

Volunteering four hours a week, Juliette has reduced the maternal mortality rate in her neighborhood. She is an expert, even though her formal education ended before the fifth grade. Early on, Juliette taught me about dying mothers, dying babies, and the indescribable pain of both. I always listen when she speaks. She proves that when the church is involved, information is accessible to the local community. The church is indispensable in terms of access to health care training and in terms of reliability and accuracy of message.

Juliette had my attention when she said, “Maybe one of the reasons we don’t name our babies for one month after birth is that we’re not sure they will survive.” Juliette spoke stoically, as if her storehouse of tears had been emptied at the graves of too many. I swallowed hard. She continued to teach from a well-crafted lesson plan that was both accurate and personal.

“Our bodies are tired and weak. Today we will be talking about pregnancy and how to get healthy before getting pregnant and how to make sure our bodies are ready so that our babies can survive.” The lesson plan was clear, and fifty trainers—both women and their husbands—had come to hear it.

“There are medicines and methods to help you. We must be more intentional in preparing our bodies for our babies, for their sake and for ours. I am a Christian, and I use pills to help me. There is nothing wrong with using techniques or tools. I’m not interfering with God’s will if I take medicine. When there is information and resources for timing and spacing of pregnancies and I withhold it because I am afraid of offending others, I am telling people they can die.”

Then Juliette taught the class a biblical principle that is empowering and life-changing. She spoke about stewardship. “Every gift we have comes from God. God also gave me ways to be pregnant. He gave me eggs, and I’m responsible for them.”

The idea of stewardship—of being accountable to God for the gifts he has given me and seeing scientific knowledge as a gift he has given to influence my life practices—is not new. All truth is God’s truth.

This is the type of training that equips lay people to deliver the message in churches all over the world. At least two things stand in the way of helping women and children survive and thrive through healthy timing and spacing of children, yet there is a solution that is underused and fully available everywhere. Every woman and family needs this: Accurate knowledge and resources that honor a woman and family’s cultural and biblical values, and a distribution channel that is accessible and trusted to deliver the information and resources.

One of the reasons women do not have what they need is that they can’t access it. I have seen villages where there is no post office, school, or hospital, but there is a church. And this is the hope. Churches can provide accurate information closest to the people who need it.

Alongside the suffering, there are churches filled with people who are willing and able to make a difference. There is a group of people in the faith community who can tackle any problem at a grassroots level. Mobilizing ordinary members in churches everywhere to train others brings information, tools, and hope. Referrals are made to tertiary settings when the challenges are complex. For timing and spacing of pregnancies, church-based grassroots education and interventions launch an idea to scale-up possibilities. Life and mind-set change rarely happens in a government office, but it can happen in a church.

The church is the greatest untapped source of information and hope in the twenty-first century. And today 4,800 Rwandan trainers teaching church-based classes and making home visits in Rwanda provide proof that the church is the distribution giant ready to serve.

Churches are located in communities where women and children are needlessly dying. Churches are a trusted source of information. Churches are accessible, available, and influential in communities. It’s time to look to the church for help in solving the problems of maternal and child health.

 

Elizabeth Styffe, RN, MN, PHN, is the Director for HIV&AIDS and Orphan Care Initiatives at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. She and her husband have seven children, including three adopted from Rwanda.

For more information on how you can get involved, email orphans@saddleback.com or call 949-609-8555.

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Last Wednesday Pastor Rick Warren testified during a hearing of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs along with US Ambassador for AIDS Deborah Birx, head of the Global Fund Dr. Mark Dybul, and Sir Elton John. During the panel, which focused on global health, Pastor Rick shared with the Senators the impact that has been made through the PEACE Plan when local churches are leveraged as key stakeholders in global health and community development.

“In much of the world, the church is the only sector outside of the capital,” he told the Subcommittee. “Even if we have all of the meds for TB, AIDS, HIV, Malaria, and all the other diseases, the issue of distribution will not be solved unless we involve the local churches . . . If we’re going to absolutely eradicate these diseases, we’ve got to do a combination of the faith sector, the public, and the private sector.”

Pastor Rick outlined a new approach needed as we move forward on foreign assistance: “First we must form a new perspective on foreign assistance. Second we must forget a new partnership in distribution, and third, we must fund a new priority in the budget.”

He also highlighted the fact that contrary to popular belief, foreign aid is less than 1% of the US federal budget. Such aid, he argued, is an incredibly efficient investment, as money spent saving lives all over the world creates friends that become important allies rather than potential enemies in the era of global terrorism.

“Medicine cost less than tanks. And the resources that we budget from humanitarian relief programs can really save us from spending far far more to send soldiers when resentment boils over. It’s strategically smart for America’s security and safety, to help people who are in pain,” he told those assembled.

Watch the full panel below:

For more information on how you and your church can become involved, please email orphans@saddleback.com or call 949-609-8555.

There are so many exciting ways to get connect to serving in the Orphan Care Initiative. Check out the events and teams below for ways that you can take your next daring faith step to serve orphans and vulnerable children locally or globally!

Daring Faith Expo - Serve at the Orphan Care Booth!

On the weekend of May 16/17, each Saddleback campus will have the opportunity to learn how to join the Orphan Care Initiative during the Daring Faith Expo at every service - and we need your smiling face to help people get connected! If you are interested in serving at the Orphan Care booth for just 30 minutes after any service(s), let us know and we will get you all the information you need!

Thinking About Adoption or Foster Care?

Have you considered adopting or fostering, but aren't sure how to get started? Every first Wednesday of the month from 6:30-8:30pm in MO2, families from our church who have adopted and fostered share helpful overviews and answer your questions in a no-pressure environment. If that time doesn't work for you, we'd still love to talk to you. Free to call or meet with us for more information on fostering and adopting!

Orangewood Play Group

You can brighten the day of a child living in Orangewood group home, OC's temporary shelter for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. The first group will be visiting the evening of May 22nd. This is a great opportunity for those looking to care for vulnerable children right here in Orange County. Email orphans@saddleback.com for more information.

Rwanda: Empty orphanages and strengthen churches on a PEACE trip

Orphan Care PEACE trips train local churches in promoting adoption, assisting newly adoptive families, and training lay social workers within churches. We'll train you in everything you need to know, and help you or your family make a difference in ways you've always dreamed! Let us know when you would like to go, and we will get you connected to a trip leader. To join an upcoming trip email orphans@saddleback.com.

Mentor a child in the foster care system

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) mentor children in the foster system and act as their voice in the legal system. With a commitment of 2 hours twice a month, you can help represent the best interests of a child and support them on their journey to a lasting family of their own. If you would like to learn more about becoming a CASA in Orange County, please visit their website http://www.casaoc.org/advocate/ to RSVP to the next info session, or email orphans@saddleback.com for more information.

Join a local or global action team!

You can serve in ways too numerous to name, but here's a sample: Serve orphans and vulnerable children in our neighborhoods, help teach local churches in orphan care, or come alongside adoptive or foster families. Serve in sponsorship, social media, website development, writing, hospitality/event hosts, or advocacy. There's a place for you!

Adoptive and Foster Family Support Group

This season's Adoptive and Foster Family Support Group meets on Tuesdays from 11am to 1pm in room 409/411 on the Lake Forest Saddleback Church campus. The support group will be studying from the DVD curriculum The Connection written by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Elizabeth Styffe. Unfortunately, no childcare is available. Please RSVP by email to orphans@saddleback.com.

Interested? Just let us know and we will find the exact spot for you, your family or your small group. We'll help get you connected and provide any necessary training.

Have questions? Need more information? Connect with us by email (orphans@saddleback.com) or phone (949-609-8555)! We can't wait to serve with you soon!

18-year-old Holly has been in Orange County foster care since 1998.  She was removed from her home after allegations against her mother for failure to protect, serious emotional damage, sexual abuse, and living in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. Reunifying with her mom was ruled out many years ago due to Mom’s drug use and reckless parenting. Holly had sporadic monitored phone calls and visits with her mom and has come to the realization that it will never be a healthy and nurturing relationship. Holly’s CASA, Joann, recognized that although Holly is 18 and had agreed to stay in the system until she finished high school, she was lacking the strong and positive family bonds she needed to help her succeed post-emancipation.  Joann spoke to Holly to see if she had interest in a search being conducted for her biological father, whom she had never met before.  Holly agreed to CASA Family Connections doing a search, but was a little doubtful there would be any success.  Holly knew very little about her father and was only able to contribute his first name, Michael, and the past descriptions from her mother of her father being a “bad” and “mean” man.

CASA Family Connections immediately got to work on searching for Holly’s paternal family.  After reviewing her file it seemed like it may be a lost cause.  Social Services had tried numerous times in the past to get in touch with Michael.  According to records, contact was made once before and it looked as though he had no interest in establishing a relationship with his daughter.

After finding a date-of-birth for Michael things began to snowball and an updated address and telephone number were found within a couple days.  Upon phone contact, Michael stated he had been waiting and praying for this moment for a very long time.  He had become a Reverend and was now married with two young children living a healthy and positive life in Iowa.  Immediately Michael was very anxious to be given the opportunity to speak with his long lost daughter.  When asked about previous efforts by Social Services to contact him – he stated he was only told there was a possibility of Holly returning home to her mother, a woman whom Michael had briefly dated and who suffered from psychotic episodes that Michael could not be a part of.  Michael admitted that he had made a mistake and should have fought harder to protect the well being of his daughter.

Holly entered the CASA office again, less than two weeks since her initial meeting with Family Connections and exclaimed to her CASA Case Supervisor, “Did you hear? They found my Dad!”.  Holly was clearly very nervous, but with the support of her CASA she was able to muster up the courage to begin a new chapter in her life.  That day Holly was able to speak to her father for the first time in her life!

Holly was given the opportunity to ask her father anything she wished – which she took full advantage of.  Questions ranged from the blunt and serious, “Why did you leave me?” “Why didn’t you ever look for me?” to the seemingly trivial “What kind of music do you listen to?” “Do you have any animals?”.  In a beautiful moment, Holly discovered that like her, her father likes to write songs and sing – so they sang to one another songs they had each written lyrics to.

CASA Family Connections was able to fly out Dad and her Step-Mom a few weeks later and you would have never imagined that they had never been a part of one another’s lives for Holly’s whole existence. Holly’s Father and Step-Mom enjoyed a great weekend together where they were able to connect and learn about one another, as well as do some fun activities like bowling, going to the beach and the aquarium, as well as meeting some of her teacher’s at school and kids and staff members at Holly’s group home.

It wasn’t too long after the visit that Holly decided she wanted to go to Iowa herself and see what it would possibly be like to live with her newly found Dad. CASA Family Connections planned a trip for Holly to fly out during her spring break in March of 2012 and spend a week there. Again, it was a beautiful weekend, where Holly was able to meet her Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, her two younger half-siblings, as well as numerous members of their congregation who were extremely excited to meet her. Holly later told us that she felt very much at home – for the first time in her life.

Holly and her Social Worker decided a week after she had come back from the trip that she would like to move to Iowa and live with her family once she finished high school and emancipated. Her father, Michael, was absolutely thrilled that she had made this decision. Holly graduated in June and again CASA Family Connections was able to fly her father and stepmother out to be part of the celebrations in Orange County. Best of all – Holly was able to fly home with them, back to Iowa, two days later!

Holly has since got a job in Iowa and enrolled to begin taking classes at a technical school in Iowa. Holly is excited to be spending her first Thanksgiving and Christmas with her new family and her new home!

 

Ordinary volunteers from CASA-OC Family Connections made it possible for Holly to find her family – through things as simple as searching on Facebook. You can make a lasting impact in a child’s life as well and help move them closer to a permanent family by joining the CASA program. Learn more here, or attend the next information session on May 2nd.

 

Questions? Email us at orphans@saddleback.com

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Ariana Crary plays soccer, works hard in school, and goes to church with her family. She is an average thirteen-year-old girl, and this past summer she chose to go with her family to Rwanda to serve on an Orphan Care PEACE trip.

During her time in Rwanda, Ariana learned about the plight of vulnerable kids her age who live half way around the world from her, and she learned that her life can have a global impact.

“It was very moving,” she says. “When we went to the Genocide museum and it made me realize what these survivors really went through and how so many kids were orphaned Then the first orphanage we visited was for special needs kids. I couldn’t imagine living there, but the kids were delighted to see us and play with us.”

Ariana and her family experienced stories of lives changed first-hand, going on home visits to families that had recently adopted children from the orphanage.

“In the home visit that I went to, a girl was reunited with her uncle. I was inspired by the way she described the differences between living in an orphanage and a family.”

Over the course of the trip, the Crary family saw their family grow closer as their lives changed together.

“Going to Rwanda has changed my life,” says Ariana. “Through my trip to Africa, I became exposed to the harshness of reality people have to deal with. It inspires me to help. I think this trip’s experiences and its impact will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Her mother, Brenda, states “One of the most fulfilling parts of the trip for me was to see my kids step up and into their role to serve others, no matter what it took. It was by far the best family trip I have ever been on with my children. It brought us closer as a family and we’ll forever have the memories of Rwanda.”

If you and your family are interested in an Orphan Care PEACE trip to Rwanda, contact us at orphans@saddleback.com or call the Orphan Care line at 949-609-8555 for more information.

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