A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families…
Some of our most precious memories serving in Japan come from the time we spent at a “Gakuen” in Chiba, where we have spent 3 summers serving. I put the word “Gakuen” in quotes because it doesn’t quite translate literally to English. In English, gakuen translates to “campus”, as in a school campus. But the “Gakuen” I refer to is not a school at all, but a home for some very special children.
The “Gakuen” I refer to is best described as a government operated home for children who have been separated from their parents, willfully or unwillfully. In America, it’s easy to understand the “unwillful” reference, which generally applies to parents who are deemed unfit for parenthood as a result of addictions, abuse, neglect, etc. However, in Japan, parents can voluntarily turn their children over to government care for a variety of reasons including financial hardship or just finding parenting a particular child too difficult. (Note: I am the first to admit I do not know the full details of how children can be turned over to government care either in Japan or in the US, so feel free to correct me if I make a mistake).
At this particular “Gakuen”, 200-300 children from toddlers to teenagers live together in a group of “houses”. Each house has 40-50 children separated into two groups, each cared for by a single volunteer who lives onsite and acts as a parental figure. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize this situation is less than ideal for children. Despite the fact that nearly every adult we have met working at such a facility cares deeply and passionately about children, there is no way one adult caring for 20-25 emotionally fragile children will be able to do an adequate job with all of them. The environment is ripe for bullying and other abuses among the children.
Last summer, we spent a every afternoon for a week at the Gakuen. We brought games, sports equipment and crafts to do with the children. On the first day, very few showed up, except for those rounded up by the house leaders and made to come out and meet us. But each day, more and more children would come to see us out of curiosity and end up staying and playing with our team members. On our final day, dozens of kids waved and ran after our van as we pulled out of their parking lot. There were tears, for sure, but mostly in our own eyes as we remembered what a wonderful week we had getting to know these children just a little while.
The last thing we wanted to do was to make friends with children and then disappear for a year without a trace. Fortunately, one family who attend a local church committed to returning to the Gakuen every week to visit and play with the kids. They had kids of their own, so building friendships with some of the kids was natural and easy. Some of the older kids even rode their bikes to the family’s house to play with kids or get help with their schoolwork.
Did our visit make a huge difference? Yes it did, but not so much in the lives of the children we met, but in our own lives. Since that time, the plight of these children have weighed on our hearts. As I have done research on the Child Welfare system of Japan, the things I have found have been disturbing. The way the system is set up, the government facilities become more like a prison to the children staying there rather than a home.
I must stress that I am in no way criticizing the staff who work at such facilities. As I mentioned, the staff we have met are all people who have hearts of compassion toward the children they serve. And though I am necessarily critical of the system that is doing more harm to these children than good, I am also not simply saying the system has to be changed. Waiting for the system to change can take years, even decades, and meanwhile, the damage to children and society continues.
What has to change is the heart of the Japanese church toward these children. If the church viewed the children with the same eyes as our Heavenly Father, who considers them His own children, we would be more involved in filling the gaps where the government system is lacking. America is not lacking for programs reaching out to children who are at-risk. Programs like Big Brothers / Big Sisters, that give children an adult mentor and friend. Even something as simple as visiting a facility to spend time with the kids, teach them a craft, help with schoolwork, play a game would make a huge difference in the lives of these children, many of which go days or weeks without quality interaction with an adult.
Getting involved in the lives of these children is costly. It costs time. It can costs money. The emotional cost is the largest, as you bear the weight of these children’s worlds on your shoulders. But when we look at the Bible and see how many times God reminds us to serve justice and mercy to orphans (hint: around 40 times), it isn’t hard to understand how important an issue this should be to us as Christians.
We will discuss this issue in more depth in future postings including why the majority of children living in such a system cannot be adopted, the challenges of reforming they Child Welfare system and specific things the Japanese church can do for “the least of these” living in the Child Welfare system.
Note: If you’re wondering why there are no photos in this post, for safety and security reasons, pictures of the children living in the home we visited are not allowed to be posted on the Internet. Personally, I would love for you to see pictures of these kids, for the simple reason that they look just like any other children in Japan who need the love of Jesus in their lives.