How can the church respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation of the world?

An in-depth report of what was discussed and dreamt about at the 2024 World Without Orphans (WWO) forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “The church has the capacity to lead the effort in reducing vulnerability and ending orphanhood”.

Vlady Raichinov

Chiang Mai (Thailand) · 12 MARCH 2024 · 16:13 CET

A plenary session of the Global Forum organised by World Without Orphans in Chiang Mai, Thailand, between February 29 and March 3, 2024. / Photo: Vlady Raichinov.,
A plenary session of the Global Forum organised by World Without Orphans in Chiang Mai, Thailand, between February 29 and March 3, 2024. / Photo: Vlady Raichinov.

World Without Orphans (WWO), held its Global Forum in Chiang Mai (Thailand) from February 29 to March 3, 2024. “Together from Crisis to Hope” wass the topic of the conference and a text from Hebrews 6 the motto: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain”.

But what is WWO? A global movement committed to mobilising the Christian church to respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation. This affiliate member of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) calls and equips national leaders to collaborate in solving their country’s problem with people in underprivileged situation, specifically with a focus on orphans. The vision of all WWO groups in the world is to see children thriving, families strong, and churches engaged.

The forum in Chiang Mai was the third of its kind. In 2016, the first WWO Global Forum brought together 450 people from sixty countries, and the second one in 2019 had 500 participants from seventy countries. The convention is designed for national and local leaders, NGO and ministry professionals, millennial influencers, experts involved in family strengthening, government officials, journalists, and orphan care practitioners.

Key leaders from groups such as Transform World, 4/14 Window, the WEA, the Lausanne Movement, the Pentecostal World Fellowship, Global Children’s Forum, Viva Network and others, partnered to help organise this gathering.

The WWO movement has grown in the past eight years from active initiatives in less than ten countries to 49 active national movements, and an additional 53 countries with active partner organisations.


An European-born movement

As a movement, World Without Orphans was first launched in Ukraine in 2010, as local committed Christians shared a dream to seek solutions to the orphan crisis in their nation. Following the first gathering in 2016, a group of likeminded Christian leaders from across Europe began to meet to explore how to nurture the same vision across the continent.

By that time, various types of Christian ministries were already addressing problems with orphaned children – and the situation with institutional care was improving significantly in many countries. However, many of the foster care and adoption systems were experiencing a period of wearing out, marked by lack of motivation among institutional caregivers; insufficient funding; almost no coordination and exchange of resources; deficiency of quality training as well as personal emotional and spiritual support for the workers involved in the process; disorientation and fatigue among adoptive families and foster parents.

These processes coincided with other crises like the huge waves of refugees entering Europe – which led to a large number of unaccompanied minors. As a result, a much deeper problem was lurking under the governmental measures.

The vision for WWO Europe was driven forward by Ukraine, Romania and UK, where strong and pioneering movements already existed. The necessity for a Europe-wide initiative was recognised and verbalised. As a result, a facilitation team was formed in July 2017. A year later, Richard Procter joined as leading coordinator, and he was instrumental for fast-tracking the initiative. A lot more cooperation and coordination was injected in the process. A number of emerging national movements were supported, and much more effective work was encouraged in many countries.

In 2019, WWO Europe was officially registered as a non-profit organisation. The team organised a number of seminars between 2021 and 2023 on issues such as “Seeing the Unseen Children”, “Hidden Homes, Hidden Harms”, “Hidden in Plain Sight”, “Helping Children Heal through Play”, “Working Together to Keep Our Children Safe”, and “Caring for Children with Disabilities”.

In March 2023, WWO Europe organized a significant consultation in Sofia, Bulgaria. Its main theme was, “Journeying Together: A Family for Every Child”. The event was supported by partners like European Freedom Network, Orphan’s Promise, Refugee Highway Partnership, Christian Alliance for Orphans, Thirty One Eight, and others. Through presentations and discussion, 224 people from 29 nations shared experience and practical tools. They were united by the vision of “a world where every child is cared for in a safe and loving family, knows their heavenly Father, and reaches their God-given potential”.


Crises piling up

Since the previous forum held in October 2019, the world has seen unprecedented and massive crises: a global epidemics, an escalation of wars, a surge of heavy earthquakes, substantial floods and other ecological changes.

But there are other imposing crises that also engulf our world: social stratification, political delamination, migrant movements, opioid dependencies, broken families. All of this is impacting economy, employment, migration processes – but most of all it leaves millions of children exposed to various kinds of stress and hurt.

How can the church respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation of the world?

Greg Hawell and Menchit Wong anchored the plenary sessions of the 2024 WWO cofnerence. / Photo: Vlady Raichinov

A broad understanding of who is an orphan

A welcoming letter to the participants was signed by Karmen Friesen (WWO principal coordinator), Susan Hillis (WWO strategy lead) and Lubomir Hlavacka (WWO global coordinator for ambassadors and teams). They underlined that during the past twenty years, the number of forcibly displaced people has grown more than six times: from 16 million to 110 million. More than 43 million of them are orphans – having lost one or both parents due to opioids, diseases, wars, natural disasters, or other causes.

Even though WWO has the word “orphans” in its title, this term is used in a broader sense. In a special document released at the Global Forum, the organisers specify that the movement is committed to serving “each child who is a social orphan (has living parents unable to care for him/her), such as most of those living in orphanages or institutions; each child who has orphan status, as one or both parents is dead; each child with an orphan spirit, such as those suffering from hopelessness and loneliness, which is common for those who have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, bullying, or exploitation (both online and face-to-face).”


An opening celebration

The WWO Global Forum opened the first night on a unique leap-year day (February 29th), welcoming more than 500 participants from 63 countries round the world. The event was hosted in Chiang Mai’s Empress Convention Center, located in Thailand’s second largest city. The conference’s worship times were led by a Northlands Church music team. All plenary sessions were anchored by Menchit Wong and Greg Haswell.

As a learning community, the forum participants committed from the very beginning that they would be willing to learn from others, to contribute for the discussions, to put in action what was learned and to be ready to hold one another accountable on all of this.

Menchit Wong, co-vice chair of the International Board of the Lausanne Movement, said that she was seeing a room full of victory stories. “This is truly possible when we are led by the One who can genuinely sustain Spirit-led collaboration”, Wong added. The first plenary session featured 11 speakers and was entitled “An evening of celebration”.

The assembly was reminded that WWO is built on five cornerstones. Firstly, the church has the capacity and is commissioned to lead the effort in strengthening families, reducing vulnerability, and ending orphanhood. Secondly, this cannot be accomplished without the development of the family – the best environment for a child to grow and thrive. Thirdly, the child is the focus, each of whom has inherent value and the right to reach their God-given potential. Fourthly, it is through a movement that broadscale collaboration across key spheres will lead to the transformation of communities. And finally, God is in the center of all the movement does. “He welcomed us all, He has adopted us into His family, and He is the Father to the fatherless. He calls us to seek justice and care for the most vulnerable”.

How can the church respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation of the world?

The WWO conference in Thailand included times of prayer and intercession. / Photo: Vlady Raichinov

5 million living in orphanages

WWO executive team coordinator Karmen Friesen announced that, according to current estimations, about 5 million children around the world live in orphanages, even though they have some family. Officially, they are known as “social orphans”. About 150 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents, which makes them “legal orphans”.

Besides those two groups, however, “a staggering number of one billion children globally experience serious physical, sexual or emotional abuse every year”, Frielsen added. This means that today one of every two children in the world are in a significantly vulnerable situation.

Research shows that children best develop and thrive in safe, stable, and nurturing families, with the greatest opportunity to reach their full potential. The church worldwide is uniquely positioned to advance collaboration across government, business, faiths, and other spheres of influence towards the vision of a world without orphaned and vulnerable children.

Friesen then shared some relevant observations from the Book of Zechariah. In chapter 1, God calls His people to turn back to Him. In chapter 2, He shows them the value of community, and in chapters 3-4, he appoints key leaders: Joshua the high priest, and Zerubbabel who would lead “not by might, but by My Spirit” and who would rest in God’s call. In chapter 7, God reveals how much He desires justice and mercy, and in vv. 4-5 of chapter 8 we are given a beautiful picture of how many generations live together. This is the end result of community transformation, Friesen concluded, and then asked: “What is your part in your nation towards its community transformation? What does it look like for us to fully trust God and His promise? In His amazing grace, God uses people just like us”.


A reconciliation ministry looking towards eternity

The keynote speakers for the night were Sara Vargas (director of Pontes de Amor) and Paulo Borges (theologian and civil engineer, Sal da Terra Mission coordinator). After reading Isaiah 40:3-5, John 15:13, they went on to differentiate several important terms in relation to World Without Orphans vision. “We are called to reconciliation ministry”, Vargas said. “But how can we do that if we do not have a safe attachment with our Father? We have been adopted, and our spirit is anchored in eternity”.

Burges encouraged the global leaders that a “world without orphans” is not something to expect, but a promise to believe. Based on John 14:18, we focus our eyes on the eternity, rather than the future. “Jesus is not the path to the future”, Burges said, “He is the way to the eternal Father”.

A world without orphans is the value of the eternity, and values need to be grounded there. In addition, Christians should build an instinct of perspective, rather than expectancy. Christian life is a different point of view to the world, not just an anticipation of a future development. And also, as spiritual workers among vulnerable children, there is a need to build a culture instead of just making strategies.

Sara Vargas went on to accentuate the need for more focused prayers. “Orphan Sunday is the knob that opens the door for the church to get involved with orphans”, she said. “It is in the Bible to pray for the orphaned children. So, bring Orphan Sunday to your country. When we pray, we bring awareness and we find out that we are part of the answer to our prayers”.

How can the church respond to the needs of vulnerable children in every nation of the world?

Marcos Vergara and Susan Hillis, at the 2024 WWO Global Forum. / Photo: Vlady Raichinov

Maher Abu Lail and Nisreen Hawatmeh, leaders of Sanadak program in the country of Jordan, encouraged the forum participants with Isaiah 48:16. They shared the story of their ministry which was built on three steps of faith: the presence of Jesus (Rom. 13:14); the armor of God (Eph. 6:11); and the love of God (Col. 3:14).

After this, the floor was taken by Dmytro and Tanya Bereza, who serve as technology lead of WWO and financial manager of Hope Groups. They were both among the founding members of World Without Orphans. Crises are happening and will be happening, they said in their testimony of hope. During those times, there is a need to remember that terrible events like wars or disasters impact children. As adults, we need to take care of ourselves in order to remain calm and help our children navigate through difficulties. “The crisis may be very real, but we do have hope”, Dmytro assured the forum participants.


“We are all God’s children, children are indispensable”

The next keynote speaker was Alexandru Ilie, executive director of Romania Without Orphans Alliance (ARFO). Ilie is also a member of WWO initiative Accelerate, traveling around the world to help national leaders develop their own “without orphans” movements. He shared his personal “from crisis to hope” story. During the past fifteen years ago, Alex and his wife adopted seven children – the youngest one with severe medical issues. “Oftentimes, people think we are spiritual people”, Alexandru said. “But it’s about an extraordinary God using ordinary people”.

Ilie then went on to describe three different types of crises people go through. The first one is the tendency to categorise people – a weakness he defined as “othering”. This dilemma is epitomised in the Good Samaritan parable which pushes us to ask how to love our neighbor if we treat people as less human, less important. The second crisis is looking down on weak people. But Christians need to remember that weaker parts of the body are indispensable, according to Scripture. They are not less important. “When we love the weak, it is for the glory of God”. The third crisis is treating sick or weak people with the attitude: ‘You are like this because of some sin’. According to John 9, God allows suffering in order to display His glory and love.

“We are all God’s children, and we should care for children because this is God’s vision. This is a work we cannot accomplish alone. Our children are indispensable. They are good for our souls as well, they bring hope to our souls”.

In his closing talk entitled “Writing our own psalm”, pastor Greg Haswell opened the Book of Psalms, and assured the attendants that everyone of us is called to write poems to the Lord. Based on the psalmists’ experience, there are three steps that facilitate our prayers: ascribing greatness to God; describing our own dire situation; and prescribing in petition what we long for. He quoted examples from Psalms 29, 31 and 83.

This is the first of three articles summarising the World Without Orphans 2024 Global Gathering in Thailand.

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