From Joe Knittig in India: I’m in India until November 19. This trip is a critical part of our discernment process about whether to pilot expansion into India in 2012. Throughout my trip, I’m sending reports of big picture observations back to the office. Some of you like to go deep into the guts of the ministry, to better understand how it works. You orphan care zealots might find my reports interesting. Here’s the first:

For some time, we’ve been exploring the possible expansion of our ministry into India. This process has advanced to the point of scheduling on site visits with some key people in India. The Lord opened the doors for these visits, and has taught me much about local church based orphan care in the Indian context.

The need is great. I didn’t need to come to India to determine that. With India’s dense population and poverty among the lower castes, such as the Dalits, there is a tremendous problem of de facto parentless children in villages and slums. There is also a significant problem with “economic orphans,” children on the brink of abandonment because their parents cannot afford them.

Also, cultural traditions create some extraordinary problems. For example, in the dowry system in India, the family of the daughter must pay a dowry for the daughter upon marriage. This creates a special problem, as families among the poor often do not want to have girls (because they don’t want the dowry obligation). To try and mitigate abortions of girls, India has outlawed doctors from telling parents the sex of their babies before birth. While this law may prevent some abortions, it presents another problem: rampant infanticide and child abandonment of girls.

One real challenge for us in India will be child selection of our partners. That’s always a challenge, though. If you’re familiar with India, the first kids you’d think of as being appropriate for residential orphan care ministry would be the street kids (often called “rag pickers”). Just think of the images in Slumdog Millionaire. This would be true in some cases, but not so in most. These children are rarely parentless. Rather, they’re usually in poor families and are working as beggars. They beg to try and hit a required number set by their boss, in order to get a little bit of the money in exchange. You can’t just drive a bus down the street and scoop up and “rescue” such children. Try that, and many parents will come out of the woodwork claiming their children were trafficked.

For sure, some of the target children would be these street kids, those fending for themselves. The most likely target children are in the shadows. The kids of a man’s mistress whose mom has died, and whose dad denies the children. The children whose dying grandmother is their only care option. The little babies facing infanticide. The little girls who survive infanticide but are otherwise discarded. There are so many of these children. But they are often hard to get at, and hard to care for. This is why local relationship, trust, and commitment are so important.

And that gets to the second big challenge for local church based care in India, the religious landscape. In most all of the countries where we work, Christianity is widespread. As a rule, local churches are both common and trusted in the community. It is no leap for a community to think that the church is a safe place for a child otherwise without care. Not so in India.

Christians comprise less than 5% of India’s largely Hindu population. Local churches are neither common nor immediately trusted. This means that people dealing with end-of-the-line kids in their communities don’t think of the church as a help option. Parents thinking about killing their baby girl don’t know that the local church is an option to help love and give her a future.

Compounding the challenge, some so called Christians here (as in many places around the world) have started fake “orphanages” as money making scams. In these scams, you shuffle in kids, you charge donors a bunch of money, you don’t care for the kids, and you use the money for other purposes. More kids = more money. We’ve encountered this problem in our ministry experience. And I saw a blatant example of it here a couple of days ago. This practice has rightly raised the ire of the Indian government any time the word or concept of “orphanage” is raised.

What has amazed me most, however, is the creativity of our God. He always provides a way for His church to care for His kids. He’s doing so here in India in two ways that I can see.

The first involves house churches and small village churches. Indigenous church planters are absolutely on fire here in India. They are clever, persistent, resilient, and willing to suffer to establish an authentic presence among the poor. Deeply rooted house churches exist in so many villages. So many have established trust and credibility among the local people. These house churches present an opportunity for a micro version of what we ordinarily do in other countries. Such a church cannot support multiple homes and dozens of children like a large church in Uganda can. But the church family absolutely can integrate into the family one home with 5 to 10 children. This could be intimate, familial, bite sized, impactful, and very doable. This could be done many times over in many villages. I’ve found that an accountability/assistance system for house churches undertaking local church based care wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I am encouraged by this possibility, though further scrubbing is required.

The second, and probably the best, involves schools. Some of the very best private schools in India are Catholic schools. Notwithstanding the Hindu dominance, the people of India value Christian schools because of the great education work done by Catholic missionaries. Families will gladly send their kids to Christian schools. They will do so even if the school includes upper castes and lower castes. They will pay handsomely for their kids to go to such schools. And, it’s common for such schools to have residential options, though such residential options are usually reserved for wealthier families who can afford to pay boarding. The residences are called “hostels.” Nobody cares whether such residences are big dorms, or little family style homes. Many Christian churches in India, Catholic and Protestant, utilize this acceptance to operate excellent Christian schools that generate a profit.

There is a tremendous opportunity to utilize the Christian school acceptance, but with a flip. Instead of focusing on wealthier kids, we could focus on the kids at the end of the line. How would that school function? Simple. It’s a Christian school, just like we’ve started with our partners elsewhere in the world. The local church runs the school, just like many established churches do here in India. The school “hostel” consists of some small family style homes, with live in house parents from the church – instead of large dorms. And instead of going to the wealthier kids at the front of the line who can afford the full tuition, we start at the very end of the line and work forward from there. It’s a school for the poorest kids, and not a profit center. Those kids with no viable parental care live at the church based school, in a family environment in the homes. And they go to school. Other poor children who do have a family and a home come to school and go home, so the church and school helps keep families on the brink in tact. In summary, it’s the same model that we use elsewhere, except we do NOT slap the label “orphan care” or “orphanage” on it. We take those labels, throw them in the trash, and burn them.

I visited a location here that has quietly utilized this church/school model with excellence for years. The children in residential care are the absolute end of the line kids. They are fully integrated into their community via the school and the church. They’re in loving, family style residential care. But they’re not called the “orphans.” They’re not stigmatized by living in an “orphanage.” They’re just kids with a little different form of care, but with bright futures. It works.

In 2012, there’s a real possibility that we’ll have pilot opportunities in both the home church and church/school models in India.