East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 2001, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Reaching Out to Street Children

Phyllis Kilbourn

Rainbows of Hope has the privilege of working in 16 countries across Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. We work with abused and battered children with deep psychological traumas. This, of course, includes children who are living on the streets. We praise the Lord that we are able to reach out and touch these children. I think this is one of the most exciting developments in missions today.

The Liberian Civil War
I worked in Liberia for 20 years. During the Liberian Civil War, which began in 1989, I saw tremendous abuse of children for the first time in my life. I saw children as young as five taken into the army, trained to fight, shoot, and kill. I saw schoolgirls who had watched their mothers violently raped and hacked to death, who were in turn raped and left to bear the children of their attackers. As I saw this horrific treatment of children, God's blessed gifts, my heart was very burdened.

My original vision was to return to Liberia to start Rainbows of Hope, but I could not get back in the country. As a result, the Lord began to broaden my understanding of what was going on with children around the world. The Lord has taken me to 35 countries to examine what is being done to help street children. Many are AIDS orphans and most are forced into child labor or are sexually exploited. They serve as a visible and unattractive reminder of the failure of society to care for and protect its most vulnerable members.

As never before, God is giving us an opportunity as a church to respond to the needs of children. I think of how God has said through the psalmist that children have been given to us as His best gift. So how have we allowed them to be exploited for the lust and greed of criminals? This is exactly what has happened. Society has failed, officials have failed, but the church cannot fail. In the summer of 2000 a United Nations representative came to our project in Zambia as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was sweeping the nation. His conclusion was that only the church could give a meaningful response to the plight of HIV/AIDS children. So we are hearing this even from secular groups, recognizing the role of the church in ministry to our children.

Loving-Kindness is Bread with Jam
I think of Mother Theresa who said, "Children are hungry not only for bread but for understanding and love. They're naked not only of clothing but of human dignity that has been stolen from them." To think of street children as good for nothing is the greatest injustice of all. The church can respond because we have the mandate and the compassion to do so. I think of a Canadian working with a group of Latin American street children. When he asked them to define loving-kindness, one little boy said, "Sir, if I am hungry and you give me bread, that is kindness, but if you put jam on it, that is loving-kindness." As Christians we can put jam on our caregiving. That is what God is calling us to do; that is our unique role. We have that compassion. We have the gospel, which ultimately will be the only hope for street children. In Rainbows of Hope we claim Jeremiah 29:11 for our children: " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' "

After children in crisis have endured a traumatic experience, the first stage of intervention is restoration of their immediate needs. Before psychological help or spiritual nurture can be provided, recovery from the basic losses they have suffered is a necessity. They need food, shelter, and someone in their lives to love them. If a child has lost a mother to death, we cannot restore her to life, but we can provide a significant caregiver who will give motherly nurture and love. It is also necessary to rescue the children from exploitation, which has robbed them of trust, self-acceptance, and moral development. Making good these losses requires long-term care and intervention strategies.

Prevention is our first line of defense. We have found in St. Petersburg, Russia, for example, that one of the biggest problems is that parents have lost hope. In this city at least half of the 40,000 to 70,000 street children are true orphans; the other half could go home if they did not have abusive parents who come home, hit the bottle at night, and beat their children. The kids find it much better to sleep in a sewer pipe. It was in St. Petersburg that I first went into the sewers to look for children. It is not a very pleasant place at all--the smell, the stench. We realized if we were going to have an authentic ministry with these children, our first line of defense was to work with the parents. We are doing a number of projects with local churches, with Russian Christian families "adopting" alcoholic families.

We feel God wants children back with their families. So we want to make nurturing families for the children, empowering parents as a line of prevention. We have mothers come to our street children center once a week. We let them come for the day to take classes with the children and to train them in a skill right along with the children. If the mothers do this, they can make a living and the children do not have to be on the streets. This is the area where I think most of us are weakest. We are so busy rescuing or restoring that we forget about prevention. If we do not focus on prevention, there will be a continual flood of street children. When we do not restore nurturing homes to vulnerable and powerless children, the mafia ensnares them in drugs and arms deals, prostitution, and pornography. The mafia constantly threatens our workers, trying to run them over in their big Mercedes Benzes.

The Need for Structure
When we rescue children who have been exploited and are living in surrogate gang families, we have the task of helping them recover from long-term losses. For example, we help these children develop trust. If they cannot trust people, I really doubt they can ever trust God. Children learn what God is like as their parents exhibit unconditional love and acceptance, forgiveness, belonging, responsibility, and all the values that come from the home. That is why parents are so very important in the lives of children.

Children lose all the structure in their lives when they fall prey to the streets. They lose home, family, community, school, and church, if they ever had these supports. Children develop best with structure in their lives. It is a natural form of discipline for them and this is how they grow. Nehemiah faced walls that were burned and gates that were broken down. He was not concerned about beauty, but about protection and safety. I see Jerusalem's burned walls and the broken gates as a picture of today's street children, products of dysfunctional families, poverty, and parents who are not there. God's plan is for children to be in families. That is why Rainbows of Hope places children in family group homes with house parents, helping homeless kids restore the vital structures of community, school, and church.

No Quick Fixes
Street children cope with fear, insecurity, abandonment, sexual abuse, and totally degrading exploitation. While we try to address physical and medical needs, as we must, we cannot forget the deep psychological wounds these children bear. Imagine a five-year-old child created in the image of God saying, "I am nobody's nothing."

Meeting the needs of street children is not a quick fix. Instead, it requires responsible, compassionate, multifaceted, and well-coordinated intervention. To succeed, networking is all-important. We have to provide alternatives so that no child ever has to return to a sewer pipe or brothel. What can we do in the economic collapse and poverty? We know, of course, that training for jobs that do not exist is useless. So in St. Petersburg we spent a whole summer asking businesses what we could do to train 14- to 18-year-old street children to make them employable. Every company said computer skills. If the children could gain computer skills, they could find jobs. The Lord has enabled us to open a computer school. We are trusting that we will be able to put many of these children into jobs, giving them an alternative to the streets. We also are trying to establish a farm outside St. Petersburg that, again, will keep children off the streets. Prevention is continuous, even with rehabilitated children.

Rescue, One Step at a Time
Typically, the biggest problem with ministry to street children is that we want to rescue them this instant. Many ministries become discouraged because they try to place street kids into 24-hour, structured care and it just does not work. The children end up running away. We have to rebuild trust, and that is where our drop-in center helps. Street children can come and go while at the same time rebuilding structure in their lives with schedules and routines as simple as breakfast only at 8:00 a.m. and lunch only at 12 p.m. Certainly, it is difficult to have to turn children away because they have not obeyed rules, but we must do this for their own benefit. There is no way children can continue with their education or anything else unless they rebuild structure in their lives. We begin simply by having a drop-in center and then a night shelter. We stay with the children and provide them with basic, nonformal education and vocational training. Besides computer training, we offer courses in auto mechanics, shoemaking, and shoe repair. We also teach independent living skills and personal money management.

Local Church Ownership
We insist absolutely that work with street children be tied to the local church and that the local church must own the project. In St. Petersburg we work with the International Church, a Pentecostal church, and a Baptist church. The poverty of church members is so great that many eat only every other day. Nevertheless, we feel they must have ownership. These are their children and God will bless them only if they care for them. We have each church take one day to feed the street children. That is a sacrifice because they really do not have enough food for themselves, but we feel it is essential that they help at some level. Our street children ministries now are totally nationalized and we have worked our way out of a job. We are basically funding the facilities. One of our goals, of course, is to make all of the projects self-supporting, but this will take time. This is our goal, but regarding facilities, we try to provide them, though it is a constant stretch of faith. In Russia we try never to set up a program that the local church cannot sustain, and for day-to-day ministry we depend upon it in every instance. We do not know when we may have to leave and we do not want any of our work to fall by the wayside.

Preparing the Soil
I am writing a course on work with street children with Pathfinders that will be translated and published in Russian. We seek to address those hindrances that keep children from accepting Christ and to explore ways to compensate for their immediate and long-term losses. If children are hungry, dirty, full of lice, or on drugs, how can they authentically listen to the gospel? We have a lot of work to do in preparing the soil for the seed to fall on good ground. We constantly have to prepare that ground, removing everything that would keep children from coming to Jesus. This is our goal in this holistic ministry.

Working Together
The task of guiding children from damaged childhoods to responsible adulthood is one that we all must assume in equal measure and with respect for each other's roles and contributions. This is the beautiful part of the body of Christ. This is why we can have the answer because we can work together. To shift from a fragmented approach of service delivery to one that is integrated and holistic will require a willingness to forge partnerships and to enter into strategic alliances. This is the only way that we are going to optimize our resources.

One of the blessings of working with children is that we do not have competition from other groups. I wish we needed to fight over who is going to help the children of Russia. There are so many. We are talking literally about nations of children. There are twice as many street children living in Latin America as the entire population of Canada. We are looking at an overwhelming task.

I think of Hagar with her son Ishmael in the desert--a place of no provision. And I think of the church as Hagar in the wilderness (Genesis 16). In a desert place, Hagar felt there was no way to respond to the desperate need of life-giving water for her son. Not wanting to see her son die, Hagar placed Ishmael "under a bush, then went off to sit down, a bowshot away." She sat there, hopelessly sobbing. While still in this overwhelming situation, God commissioned Hagar (verse 18) to "lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." After giving this commission, God then opened Hagar's eyes to see the well of water, God's provision for Hagar to care for the child. Likewise, God, who has given us this same commission, will provide the needed resources to enable us to care for wounded and exploited street children. We do not have to throw up our hands in despair; God will empower us to make a difference in their lives. Then we will witness God making them into a great nation.

Dr. Phyllis Kilbourn is the founding director of Rainbows of Hope, Fort Mill, SC, and editor of four books on children at risk: Healing the Children of War; Children in Crisis; Street Children; and Sexually Exploited Children: Working to Protect and Heal (www.marcpublications.com).

Phyllis Kilbourn,"Reaching Out to Street Children," East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Spring 2001), 15-17.

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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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