The Impact of One
At any given time in the United States, there are more than a half million children in the foster care system. In my state alone, the figure hovers near 14,000. In a nearby suburban county, the disheartening ratio is almost 200 children in foster care, for only two dozen foster homes. There are more people within any five-minute span in line for coffee at a Starbucks than there are foster parents for vulnerable children in this same county.
Do the math. The numbers aren’t good.
“They have to go someplace,” Kathy Harrison wrote in her book, Another Place at the Table, “the children you read about in the paper, the injured ones with burns and broken arms, the little ones found alone in cold apartments, the frightened ones on the scene when their parents are arrested on drug charges, the glassy-eyed teenagers sleeping on park benches.”
So our response was to sign up to become foster parents. First came a weekend packed full of training. That weekend, I looked around the table in the training room, and the numbers still weren’t good. There were six couples, all from different towns and different seasons of life. We sat next to an older couple whose kids had gone off to college. Across the table were newlyweds. Standing at the front of the room was our trainer, a family consultant with the foster care agency, clicking through the introduction to our three-day training.
The trainer’s phone vibrated. He glanced at the number, then paused the PowerPoint presentation.
“I have to take this,” he said.
He huddled in the corner of the room and carried on a conversation in a low voice.
“That was a case worker from a nearby county,” he told us. “She was asking if we could receive placement of a set of siblings.”
He looked around the room at the six couples. None of us were ready. We needed to finish the training and a home study in order to be certified. We had to buy bunk beds and convert home offices into guest rooms and safety lock drawers and cabinets for small children. We had to get physicals and run background checks.
“Unfortunately, I had to say no—we don’t have enough families.”
I balled up my fists, wishing there was a steering wheel to pound.
It was overwhelming, hearing those words. A handful of us were training to enter a crisis that would from the start make heavy demands on our lives.
It reminded me of the scene in The Chronicles of Narnia, when Peter leads the Narnians out to battle the White Witch and her army. An eagle scouts ahead and returns with grim news.
“They come, your highness, in numbers and weapons far greater than our own.”
The centaur warrior shrugs off the news. “Numbers do not win a battle.”
“No,” Peter says, “But I bet they help.”
I was reading a book recently that contained the letters of a missionary, Frank Laubach, the only American missionary whose face is remembered on a postage stamp. He created an amazingly successful literacy program entitled, Each One, Teach One. Through this program, 60 million people would learn to read and write in their native language.
In these letters, before he achieves success, he struggles. He is sitting atop an island hill, lonely and dejected, having trouble connecting with the local population and his mission, which at this point he considers a failure. He’s not moving the needle. He’s not making a dent in illiteracy.
I think in that moment he comes to realize his limitations. He sees a wide chasm between his capabilities and God’s designs. He can’t accomplish a fraction of it on his own. But I don’t think it leads him into despair. I think the realization opens him up to more possibilities.
So before Laubach leads a change in many, he focuses on an inner change, a pursuit of God in every waking moment, a resolve “to be as wide open toward people and their need as I am toward God.”
Jesus looks at numbers and doesn’t flinch. A crowd of five thousand men and countless women and children stand before him and the disciples, and through His power there is enough food to eat from a few fishes and loaves. Yet He doesn’t bask in the moment.
After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus withdraws to the other side of the lake. The crowd follows. He tells them some hard stuff. Jesus begins to reveal the kingdom in more concrete terms, and His followers start doing the math of what it means. The crowd dwindles.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus transformed the world. Yes, thousands were fed and countless healed and those who had ears to hear heard Him at the temple preaching the Good News, but I don’t see Jesus taking comfort in numbers. Nor was He intimidated by numbers. His kingdom was proclaimed by a few. Most were unqualified, misfits or worse - their odds beyond unfavorable. But they were willing to face all of that, and still lend their voice to a redemptive song and sing it for a fallen world to hear.
Today, knee deep in unfavorable odds, as those gone before us, we do well to recognize that each move forward began with a “yes.” It always starts with saying “yes” - to one.
Graham Garrison is a magazine editor, and the author of Hero’s Tribute and Legacy Road. He and his wife Katie have three children, and were foster parents for 16 months before adopting. They currently are Foster Care Advocates at their church, Mount Pisgah United Methodist, in Johns Creek, Georgia.