Saturday, December 10, 2016

In the life of a child: Shocked by shame

This past week I had the privilege of facilitating a role-play workshop called "Life in Limbo"; an excellent tool that we have used to train up over 300 people in Guatemala over the past 12 months. This was my 10th time facilitating, and each time I learn so much about human nature, specifically about human emotion. I have seen grown men and women throw themselves on the floor, hide under tables, weep inconsolably, run out of the room and burst into uncontrollable laughter. Yesterday I had 30 psychologists and social workers who work in children's courts throughout Guatemala and gained even more insight into the complexity of human response to uncomfortable or stressful situations. A particular social worker assumed the role of a 4 year-old child and while she intended to respond as such, the behaviour of this woman was unlike anything I have ever seen even in the most hyperactive and defiant child. As I tried to instruct and lead her through the steps of the activity she burst out in laughter, disrupting the entire group while drawing all of the attention to herself. My shame antennae shot up and I was unsure how to handle her. We are taught simple techniques to manage this kind of behaviour, but this woman's outcry was unlike anything I had ever seen. At one point, while she was blindfolded and I could not get her to stop yelling, her supervisor had to come in and assist me to calm her down and get her to comply to my instructions. She confusedly ripped her blindfold off and dashed for the front doors.

What was she thinking? How could this social worker be so confused by her own emotions 10 minutes into acting as a child? Of course, I wanted to slap her, make intimidating eye contact and say something along the lines of "who do you think you are?" Her shame response ignited an intense shame response of my own. Her inability to save face and control herself provoked me. There was something about her deep emotional experience that made me so uncomfortable that as I reached into my personal repertoire of emotional responses I wasn't quite sure which one to use. As I reflect upon this experience, I am confronted with the fact that a grown, professional woman was so undone by 10 minutes of simulating a traumatic experience that our kids live daily. For our kids they aren't exercises; there is no underlying educational strategy of empathy development or resilience training. It is real life for them. And they have no idea how to respond. They wish they could strip off their blindfold and run out of the room, yet they are condemned to paralyzing uncertainty and unpredictable emotional outbursts. 

After a 10 minute break, the social worker was able to gain some composure, reintegrate into the activity and even ended up commenting that it was a truly "impacting" experience to have simulated being separated from her biological mother. Impacting alright. This experience has led me to 2 sobering conclusions. The first is that children being stripped from their parents is probably the hardest thing on earth. Even in death, there is closure and finality, but in this horrendous child protective dance, our kids literally live in limbo. The second conclusion is that emotional responses in others will always provoke emotions in ourselves. Sometimes we can pretend we are too mature and have it all together, but hiding those emotions is like allowing water to pool behind a wall that will eventually crack and come crumbling down. True emotional maturity isn't so much about not being affected by others' emotions, but being aware of how they affect us. It's about learning to effectively deal with our emotional responses in an appropriate fashion. Our closest encounters with raw emotions should affect us. We should weep at Lazarus' tomb even though we know that new life and revival is literally moments away. I don't want to be scared of those emotions because frankly, our kids don't have a choice. I have a choice to be an adult that is truly present, available and full of hope that life is moments away. Someone that is not necessarily unmoved, but can respond in love and be present when the reflex is to run and hide. Looking at this wholeheartedness, Jesus is truly the best example we have. He is sensitive, strong, available. He is humble and powerful. He is present. He was aware of Himself and available for others. Our kids need Jesus. Our kids need us to be like Jesus. For this is the only hope they may have. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Beating Shame

Few times have I felt more uncomfortable sitting in a court room surrounded by an angry judge, apathetic psychologist, bored lawyer, distracted court official and a defeated biological mom. This is the fourth court date where the mom has come to be reminded of her shortcomings and judged by her lifestyle and the neglect her two little girls have suffered. Throughout the hearing, the judge repeatedly referred to the mom'in a condescending way and as this broken lady sought to maintain some of her dignity, he would glance over at me with a face marked by one word: SHAME. Of course, prostitution is never a source of joy for the women that are slaves to it, but being in that room with a thick stench of oppression and bondage made me realize that there are deeper levels of despair and guilt that I have never experienced personally. As the woman walked out of the court room I remained seated as I chatted with the psychologist seated next to me. It was incredible how mechanical the transition was for these people to immediately divorce the destitution manifested in this woman and seamlessly transition into casual conversation about Hanna and Sophia's eating habits and current sleep schedule. I forced the words out of my mouth and managed to smile at the judge as she joked with me, but on the inside I felt like my spirit had just drunk a pint of battery acid.

Walking down to get the girls from the nursery, I ran into the mom who looked up at me asking when she could come out to visit her girls. I wanted to wrap my arms around her and say "Your heavenly Father loves you and is so proud of who you are" but I honestly don't have that kind of courage yet.

There is so much power in shame. It has the power to intrinsically defeat people and keep them prisoner in unending cycles of sin and death. It is something that may be evident or very well hidden yet will always be recognized by its fruit. For weeks after, I kept referring back to that mental image of the mom's eyes and trying to think about the depth and texture of her emotions. What kind of battles was she fighting? Whatever the battle, she was definitely fighting it alone.

Then, one day last week I walked quickly to my office without noticing who was sitting in the office adjacent to my own, where one of our psychologists works. Coordinating our family reunification program, this psychologist had called this same bio mom to a meeting and later have a chance to visit her girls. As I walked by a second time I got a quick glimpse of this bio mom's eyes. She was sitting opposite our psychologist with a smirk on her face while they talked, but the look had completely changed. Instead of manifest shame, there was something different. I am not saying there was a complete metamorphosis in this woman's life, but there was now an obvious glimmer of hope. There was a willingness to take a chance and be brave. As I sunk into my office chair comparing these two scenes in my head: one of a demeaning court room experience and the other of a loving interaction with a kind psychologist, I came to the conclusion that shame is beaten by love. The judge may have wanted to make this woman react, wake up and change, but that kind of pointing fingers usually only aggravates the situation. Shame is oppressed by the presence of love. Of course, this mom has made some great decisions lately with a new job, but the essence of shame is slowly losing its grip on her because she is opening her heart to being loved for who she is.

When I think about the sources of shame in my own life I now think back to these two scenes and remember that sincere love beats shame. It's the kind of love that isn't based on what we deserve, or how we are behaving, but just acceptance as we are. That is exactly what the gospel is. Reaching us not when we have attained a level of exemplary conduct but when we allow God to embrace us exactly where and how we are.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

To be KNOWN: The power in the bent

Reading through the Amplified Version of the Bible, I stumbled upon a verse that I have "known" for years, but never really assimilated until now. 

In Proverbs 22:6 it says "Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it." As parents, we have all heard and clung to the part that says that if we are faithful in training up our children in the right way we can have some kind of guarantee that one day, God will bring them back to that path. Working in orphan ministry, we obviously want to grab on to this promise but we often equate the training aspect to sitting our kids in church services and group devotions. I feel like the heart of this verse is much deeper and more complex. As Christians, we would say that our number one priority for the children we care for is for them to find healing from their past, restoration in every area of their lives and come into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, yet this can't happen by massive branding initiatives where we seek to make them all "Christians" without even knowing who they really are. 

As I get calls to intervene in cases of difficult behaviour, emotional outbursts, tantrums and regressions, I can't help but believe that the key lies in the bent. It's in this unique gift. Do I really believe that God has given these terribly behaved children a divinely ordained gift in this world and a special bent? Do I know what that looks like? The only way that I have ever seen adults effectively intervene in the lives of children that come from hard places is to establish a connection with them; taking them to a place of trust and vulnerability and satisfying their biggest need: the need to be known. 

The Bible repeatedly mentions God commanding us to act on behalf of the orphan and to bring about justice, but I am not sure we really know what that means. Will God call us to do something that is not in His heart to do Himself? To me, this means that in God's design of their lives, he cannot be unjust. He cannot inadequately equip or unjustly mark an orphan only to place them in our clumsy hands to simply be topics of meetings and case studies in trauma text books. His divine plan for their lives is that justice would be done, and that they would receive what Christ fully paid for. We are God's plan "A" to see this happen. The cross has me thinking so far beyond simple steps to healing and rehearsed prayers for salvation: God saw us as orphans and has taken it upon himself to train us in the way we should go based on our own unique gift and bent. The plan of salvation is personal and specific and this adoption into his family is exactly the way he wanted things to happen. I am beginning to believe this more and more for myself and it changes the way I look at these kids. They have everything they need; not in programs, sponsors and schedules but in God their father who sees them for you they really are. 

If we seek to follow Ephesians 5 and be those imitators of God, we need to get to know the people we care for. We have to believe that every child has their own God-given bent or gifting that makes them who they are. It is out of this place of knowing them that we truly understand that Jesus is the perfect fit. This encourages me to be intentional, to be present and to always remember that no two kids are the same and we can't train them up based on our good intentions and faulty expectations. We have to know them just like their Heavenly Father knows them. We have to know them well so that we may love them well. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Dear short-term missionary

Dear short-term missionary,

God bless you. I am so glad that you have made the decision to get out of your comfort zone and go serve God in a tangible way. Over the past 13 years, I have seen a lot of missionaries come and go and I want to share with you what I think you should know.

1. Be humble. God once said that He opposes the proud and if God isn't on your side then you should just stay home. If you come into a ministry setting thinking you have more to offer than you have to learn, it may be nicer for everyone if you just send the cost of your flight as a donation. I have met short-term missionaries with attitudes and postures so humble and kind that they truly impact the lives of the children and staff in a way that doesn't depend on the eloquence or coherence of their lingo. I think our best example is Jesus himself who came to model humility as a servant and who, in turn, has become the most influential and powerful leader to ever walk the face of the earth. If you seek to positively influence the people you are going to serve, you will have to begin with an attitude of humility.
2. Learn all you can. Springing from that humility, you should consider trying to learn everything that you can. Some of the people who have blessed me the most are those who have asked me really good questions that obviously stem from an attitude of wanting to learn. When a long-term missionary answers your superficial question for the 22nd time that month, you have to think of it as them serving you. What if you were to shift the tables and ask them good questions that would actually serve them? A few months ago, a short-term missionary sat down with me and asked me on a scale of 1 to 10 how well I take care of myself and my family. Then she asked me exactly what I did to take care of myself. It made me think and also made me feel like my experience on the field mattered. I was blessed by that. Thanks short-termer.
3. Connect with and support someone that is doing what you would want to do. Connection is key. But think of how you truly connect with someone. You have to take into account the past two points. It is really hard to connect with someone who has nothing to learn and considers themselves better than you. If you want to connect with the kids, get down to their level (See number 6). If you want to connect with the adults, find something you have in common and ask them meaningful questions. It would be awesome if you were to follow up with them too. Even if they aren't able to respond very often, send them a quick message saying you are thinking of them once you get home.
4. Don't make promises. One of the biggest bad missionaries booboos is to make promises to the staff and kids. During your week on the field you are most likely going to be on a philanthropic high, super sensitized by the daunting needs you are witnessing firsthand. It is awesome you want to meet needs but don't make promises you may not be able to keep. Don't offer to take staff members to McDonalds, much less to the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. You don't know how many Guatemalans I have met that are still waiting for their well-meaning American sponsors to follow through on something that may never even be possible. Unless you literally get online and finance what you are promising, don't tell anyone about it. Jesus encourages us to go even further and do the opposite of making promises. We should not even let our own limbs know what the others ones are doing...Please don't make promises to anyone. Go back home and evaluate what you are offering. Pray about it and if you still feel peace, then do it.
5. Be watchful. Not so you can judge, but so that you can pray. I love people who are intrigued by Guatemalans. Not so much those who are obviously and dramatically inconvenienced by them or even those who fall so head-over-heels in love with them that they are wanting to move down by next week. Take your time. Take things in. Be observant and respectful and I know that you will not only bless others, but you will learn more than could ever be possible by talking without ceasing.
6. Play as much as you can. One of the best things you can do that transcends language and most cultural barriers is just to play. If you are coming to Guatemala, please think of what Football means to us down here. We don't know who the Patriots or the Seahawks are. I have loved seeing people coming down to meet a soccer ball for the first time, getting in the game with the kids and playing their hearts out. Even though you may feel frustrated because you can't get your giant Timberland work boots to connect with the ball, just try your best. If you think the kids are making fun of you, they most likely are. But just keep playing. You may not learn to dominate the ball like they do, but you will have won a place in their hearts and I guarantee they won't forget who you are for that. When I have taken our youth on local mission's trips I tell them to at least take the first step and play with the kids. It's a great place to start.
7. Remember that once you leave North America, you are no longer in North America. It's really hard in someways. I still get the shakes from Dr.Pepper withdrawal, but it gets easier, I promise. Don't expect things from the people here that they can't give you. They did not decide to invade your culture so please be respectful. Try to limit your disagreeing gestures and comments and choose to love. It will be better for all of us. God has created such incredible beauty and richness in cultural diversity, however few are wise enough to see past their own inconveniences to truly appreciate it.

You are going to have the most amazing time. I know it. But just keep these things in mind. God does not need you to go on this trip, but I think He really wants you to. It may be more about what God is doing in your heart than what he will do through your team and that's okay. We are so glad to have you.

David McCormick

Thursday, January 21, 2016

5 Inherent Losses in Orphan Care: A Bio Mom's Perspective

The moment a child is taken from their mom for whatever reason, this bio mom begins fighting a battle for the custody of her children; a fight marked with struggles and losses. Our focus is to holistically respond to the children, a priority which I believe to be correct, but I wanted to share these 5 recurring losses that I have witnessed in bio moms over the past few years. We received some kids last week who do not really manifest a strong attachment to their bio mom and were sent to us due to parental negligence, but when I get a call from this bio mom a few days later, I could already identify the stage of loss she is in as she  has been swept into a battle that will cost her much more than this lost time with her children. It is important for me to remember that God's ideal for these children is to remain with their own families, and in the absence of a safe and nurturing family, a substitute should be available where kids can still grow up with a healthy attachment to a mature, committed and loving adult. So, based on those interactions I have with bio moms that call me almost every single day, I have concocted this short list of 5 losses that most bio moms* experience in some degree or form.

1. Loss of Control: In every interaction I have with bio moms whose children are under our protective care, I am holding all the keys. I have the power to simply ignore a phone call when a bio mom is calling me at 10:30 pm for the tenth time that day or to be short and tough with her spouting out information as if she were talking to a call center regarding her cell phone plan. In the early stages of the custody battle, the bio mom slowly starts realizing that she has completely lost control of the situation. She begins to sense her own sense of culpability and responds in one of two ways based on a variety of factors: she either lashes out like a cat thrown into water, or accepts defeat; demoralized and surrendered before the battle has been fought. She has lost her most prized possession in the world (even if she didn't treat them like that) and there is absolutely nothing she can do right now to change that. For the bio mom, things are truly out of control.
2. Loss of Security: We all have a sense of security that stems from the relationships in our lives, primarily with those that we interact with on a daily basis. Throw a child in a situation with people he or she does not know and interact with on a daily basis and they lose their sense of security. Throw a mom's children into an orphanage, and the last thing she is going to feel is secure. The enemy of security in this sense isn't necessarily danger; it is fear. When I speak to bio moms who are wondering when visitor's day is (information I have already given them 3 times in the past 24 hours....) or just wondering if their child is okay, I now recognize that they are losing a sense of security in their own lives. Now, they worry about the wellbeing of their children more than ever before. Again, this loss is often manifested in anger which gets us orphanage people pretty riled up. I often think, "What do you mean "make sure you take care of my kid." If you would have taken care of your kid in the first place, they wouldn't have to be here with me!" Lack of security means zero control over emotions and unbridled anger is bound to make some enemies. I hope that those of us on this side of the equation that work with the kids and interact with those mamas can choose the higher path and respond in love even when we encounter the most angry manifestations of this loss. I spoke with a mom recently who was weeping on the other end of the line, begging me to help her get her kids back. I assured her that it was not my goal to keep her kids and I wanted to empower her to offer her kids the kind of life they deserve. As her voice broke, she just said "thank you". I know that there were a lot more tears after I hung up. Though there are moments of hope, the sense of security in her life is steadily fading away.
3. Loss of blessing: I believe that children are a blessing from God and should be highly esteemed (Psalm 127:3). When a mom loses her kids because she couldn't protect them, she is losing out on one of the most important God-given blessings in her life. Her situation begins to choke the spiritual life out of her as she is not fulfilling her maternal duties and cannot physically comfort, protect, attend to or even speak with the little creatures she once held in her womb. I have spoken with moms who suffer great losses during the time their children are in protective care. They often have a hard time finding work, leaving that abusive boyfriend and thriving in any area of life. Without intentional help from a third party, the loss of blessing in their lives hovers over them like a dense cloud. As a father, one of the most important ways I receive blessing from God is through my kids (both biological and spiritual). Separation of mom and kids changes things in the spiritual realm and both ends are going to feel its affects. A loss of blessing is a slow and painful spiritual atrophy of the heart of a mother.
4. Loss of Worth/Purpose: One of the latter stages of loss is when the mom has accepted the situation with her kids and it begins to settle in that her most important function in this life is on standby for an indefinite amount of time. She begins to express her feelings that without her kids, she doesn't have the same sense of worth before the eyes of her other family members, before her neighbors, and before an entire society. She feels like she has lost her worth before God. When I have visited some birth moms in their homes and listened to their stories, there is often a strong sense of mediocrity that emerges from a lack of purpose and worth in life. A mom without kids like a cloud without rain. A mom is meant to protect and nurture her babies and as her nest is emptied before its due time, the mom slowly loses her sense of purpose and worth in life.
5. Loss of Identity: I believe the most traumatizing loss that a bio mom will experience when her children are taken away is the gradual loss of her own identity. I got a call this evening from a mom who has been separated from her child for six months. She calls me quite often, but she is slowly starting to fade. She was crying this time and just wanted to know that her baby was okay. She saw him recently and knows he is doing great, but she needed the sense of assurance that we were taking care of her baby TODAY. Her very identity as a mother is slowly being eaten away and fears and doubts have made their home in her broken heart. I spoke with another mom recently who has not had custody of her kids for about ten years and her overall sense of identity as a mom has nearly vanished. She desires the best for  her kids but recognizes her own shortcomings in not being the best option for them even as the embark on adulthood. Her identity as that protector and provider is gone. A situation that for years has silenced this mom has effectively stolen her identity and left her alone in her small, solitary world. She is allowed to visit, but even her kids have come to see her as "some family member"and not as the mother that she is.

I share this list, not to justify abuse or neglect of the precious children caught in the crossfire. Those who know me, know that I spend a lot of time and energy fighting for the rights of these kids and for others whose abuse can be prevented. I believe that in the redemptive being of Christ, bio mamas can find the restoration of these losses. I believe that God longs to heal their wounds, rectiy their horrible habits and reestablish their broken families. I also see that, sadly, for some families it is too late, and the best thing for the kids is not to be with their mom. The kids now have the chance to break the generational sting that one day threw them in an institution and, with hollisic help and support, may become the amazing and whole individuals, spouses and parents they were made to be. I know that God can reach these kids and we tell them everyday. I know that God can also reach these moms, but who's telling them? Who on earth wants to show love to a mom who has made such horrible mistakes? Do we really believe that God's grace is strong enough to reach them? If we collectively do, then who is telling them about it? It used to be one of the worst parts of my job for me. My cell phone number is THE number that the courts give to moms. I have been yelled and cursed at, accused of horrible things, woken up at all hours and have been chewed out in various languages and dialects. But I am learning that God's grace is extended to them through me. For some reason, God chooses us as ambassadors; his representatives to impart blessing, to offer guidance and healing, to be that flow of fresh water in a dry and parched wasteland. I want to bank on grace in the lives of these bio mamas and even when everything is going against them, I want to let them know that Jesus' love is the only thing can make them whole and completely restore all that what was lost.

*If anyone is wondering why I exclusively refer to moms and not dads, it is because over the past 7 years, I cannot think of a single example of working with a concerned bio dad.