By Sara Kelm
In 1997, Tom Davis rushed into a Russian orphanage bearing life-changing news for a little girl named Anya. He was in the country on a missions trip with high schoolers, and he and his wife had waded through the adoption process. By the grace of God, it was finally finished, and he was about to surprise Anya with the news. Davis expected to overflow with joy, but instead, something happened that broke his heart.
Flinging open the doors, he saw all 100 children who lived in the orphanage lining the hall. They had heard rumors of the adoption, and they came to see the man who represented the very thing they all desired: the chance for a family. Suddenly, two little girls rushed out of the crowd and each grabbed one of his legs, “like it was their favorite stuffed animal,” Davis recalls. They cried, “Papa, Papa!” They knew he was taking someone to be his child, and they risked humiliation in front of their peers for the chance for him to hear his name – “Papa” – in the hope he would take them, too.
‘Look at Scripture and see that caring for the widow and the orphan is a measure of the reality where we live out our faith.’
That moment was a significant landmark on Davis’s journey to discover the heart of God. Throughout his education and pastoral ministry, he read the Bible verses about God caring for the widow and orphan. In Russia, he found those very people so close to God’s heart were without any support, resources or hope. There are 150 million orphans in the world today, and that breaks Davis’s heart.
As the CEO of Children’s HopeChest, Davis partners orphanages around the world with Christian communities in the United States. Churches, universities or other communities of faith are paired with a site in one of nine different countries: Russia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Swaziland, South Africa, Moldova, India, Guatemala or Haiti. Davis stresses that the communities think of the orphanage overseas as an additional campus to the church, filled with kids who are God’s little boys and girls. For this reason, Children’s HopeChest requires a minimum three-year commitment, with the sponsoring organization making a detailed development plan and planning annual trips to the orphanage.
Children’s HopeChest began in Russia shortly after the fall of communism, when the country was in crisis. Aid flooded in, but the nonprofits that emerged did not stay for the long haul. Ten years later, only 10 percent of the nonprofits remained in the country. Children’s HopeChest remains, fighting sex trafficking by giving young people a safe community in which to gain important educational skills and a purpose.
Recently, Children’s HopeChest entered another country in crisis: Haiti. Davis returned from a visit to there shortly before we spoke, and his descriptions are sobering – kids walking around naked because they cannot afford clothing, trash piled on the streets, children sleeping in the gutters and town squares. “Those hurt the most are the ones at the bottom of society,” Davis said. It is “total chaos,” and he sees little physical evidence of the millions of dollars donated to Haitian relief only a year ago.
Davis gives a voice to these children through his work at Children’s HopeChest, but also through his writing. He has written five books, two of which are fiction. “Nonfiction is about facts and figures and statistics and how-to’s and what Scripture says, and that is valuable, but fiction puts flesh and blood on statistics,” he says. A person can then experience the pain of an orphan, seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels. The reader feels a different sort of compassion, one that hopefully results in action.
So, what can we do? Davis stresses the importance of people giving their voice and impacting their circles of influence. Davis affirms that everyone has a circle of influence, a group of people to tell the stories to and help spread the word. He also suggests going to these countries and seeing what is happening firsthand. And if you can’t do that, simply pray. “Orphans don’t have any sort of covering, physically – in the form of a family – or spiritually,” Davis says. “No one’s praying for them.” He urges people to get involved, find out children’s names, and pray for them fervently.
Davis believes we as Christians have a specific and unequivocal mandate to serve the poor and orphans. It’s not just another addition to the church’s to-do list. “Biblically, for the church this is at the heart of God and what every Christ follower is to do,” he says. “Look at Scripture and see that caring for the widow and the orphan is a measure of the reality where we live out our faith. If they’re forgotten, God is forgotten, and if they’re remembered, God is too.”
Davis is in the inaugural cohort of the Leadership and Global Perspectives track of the Doctor of Ministry program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a program made possible by an M. J. Murdock grant. Now in its second semester, cohort members do all of their classwork online through social media platforms, meeting each semester for a nine-day face-to-face advance somewhere in the world. This semester, they will be in Kenya and Ethiopia, where Davis will be able to show his classmates what one of the orphanages of Children’s HopeChest looks like. According to Davis, the program takes the learning “out of the classroom and into the field to see what God’s doing in communities and among the poor.” For more information, see dmin.georgefox.edu.