The Heart of an Orphan

Updated June 24, 2023

Ever felt daunted by the sheer needs of the children in whatever room you are standing in?  Ever lost patience with a difficult child, meanwhile chiding yourself knowing he has suffered at home so much? Ever needed to explain to a child that a bully doesn’t need to be feared or judged, but prayed for and empathized with? Ever wanted to tell a volunteer that their small efforts stand on top of others and altogether God is weaving a compelling story of his love? 

I first remember hearing this particular analogy when I was in the third grade and some girl was being mean on the bus (to everyone, but I came home and told my mom it was just to me.) I want you to imagine Lori’s heart as a piece of paper, she began. After we talked, I felt better. The image of falling paper burned in my mind.

Fifteen plus years later, I later would recall that moment sitting on my mom’s counter, the comfort I found in her wisdom. This time I was surrounded by eighth graders. They had responded to my call and had traveled to another country where I was living and serving orphans. I had only been there at that point for a month and had invested most of that time in a pair of 11-year-old twin girls. The girls lived in an orphanage with a hundred other children and I knew we needed a lot more than just my husband and I had to offer. Where do we start?? I called everyone I knew, every school, church and family member, begging them to come visit us for a week and serve the children alongside of us. I never imagined my first volunteers would be age thirteen.

What can I tell them about this mission? How can I let them know there are hurting children who need our concern, attention, love, prayers? Really, Jesus, thirteen year olds?

I wait.

A memory floats to the surface. Lori on the bus, my mother… yes!

I grab a piece of paper and begin.

“Imagine with me that this piece of paper represents the heart of the orphans you will meet this week. Every one of them has been abandoned or abused, there is no exception. For some, they don’t remember the day they were dropped off, they just slowly grew up with the realization that they lived differently then the other children in the village, school, or on TV. For others however, they do remember the moment they were left, and usually it starts with a lie, they are told they are going to a fair, or a carnival, so they skip off the bus or jump out of the taxi and run towards the other children. It’s the only way to physically move a nine year old. No kid would get on the bus, if he knew he was going to an orphanage. Then sometime later on that night, it hits them where they are.

“If you are the oldest child, you feel suddenly responsible and wonder from that moment on, how your little brother or sister is eating or sleeping, or doing in school. A weight not designed to be carried by a child has been placed on his shoulders. I was talking to a group of girls the other day who were sharing their ‘first day’ memories. Some of them can go back to as early as two years old, and know what they were wearing that day, who first picked them up, what they ate. The impact of that first hit is so strong, they’ll never forget it. “

“Whenever that initial moment of abuse or abandonment happens, it’s like ripping a heart in half (and I rip the paper.)”  It is a bit dramatic and all eyes are on me.

“Then, after that first rip, more start coming.” I continue.

“You are the orphan kid in school (another rip)

“You aren’t invited to someone’s birthday party (another rip)

“You don’t feel good, and there isn’t anyone who cares (rip)

“It’s your birthday and no one remembers (rip)

“It’s visitation day and no one comes to visit you (rip)

“It’s visitation day and someone comes to visit you and you are confused again when they walk away (rip)

“You don’t play sports in school, or go to school plays, because there isn’t anyone to pay the fees, or cheer you on, or pick you up (rip).”

“Sometimes the sub sequential rips happen from other children or workers within the home.

“Other times it comes from children at school who don’t want to sit with you (rip), or it comes on a holiday (rip),

“Other rips come from punishments they receive that they didn’t deserve (rip),

“Or from words that replay in their minds that were carelessly spoken (rip).

“Some times it comes from other adults that sense they are easy prey and come back to hurt what is already considered damaged goods (rip)…

“With each rip the heart gets smaller and smaller and harder and harder, so it’s no wonder that when I told that girl ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’, she gave me a look that said, ‘Great plan. I don’t want anything to do with a God who had this in mind.’

Looking at the confetti of paper now strewn around the room, I look up and confess, “I wonder most days, ‘What can we do now?’ How can we possibly get started?”

My voice thick with emotion now, “I don’t have the answer, but I do know it will take more than me to do it.”

I look up and find their eyes, “Thanks for just showing up.”

When you look at the children gathered in your church, or your home, or your school, they come with their own kinds of rips. They hear messages about themselves, rooted in lies from sources all around. Then they walk into your presence and you have two choices.  Favor the healthy, or get messy with the sick.

That means picking up the confetti pieces strewn all over the floor of their hearts and start making deposits. Remember their name one week to the next (deposit.) Sit with them, give them a responsibility, praise their work, their memory, their singing voice, their shoes (deposit, deposit, deposit, etc…) Smile, listen, pray.

Eventually, what I can testify to, is that the child, no matter how broken, will eventually look at you and ask, “Who are you? And why do you care so much???” 

In that moment, you have the opportunity to say, “I have been sent to you from God. He loves you, and wants you to know that more than anything else.”

Depositing into the hearts of broken children gives the gospel grit. And that gritty gospel has been saving lost sheep like you and I for a long time.

About Author

Beth Guckenberger is the Co-Executive Director of Back2Back Ministries and founder of the Reckless Faith Movement. Beth and Todd have a large family they’ve formed through biological, foster, and adoptive children. She is an author and speaker, sharing her experience as a mother, a missionary, and a student of God’s Word.