Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).
Welcome Rick Morton, founder of Promise 139 and author of Know Orphans, to Dreams Coming True! Leave a comment on this post for the chance to win a copy of Know Orphans! Winner will be announced next Thursday.
Tell us a little about yourself, Rick:
I am a husband and father of 3 children, who all came to our family through transnational adoption. I didn’t start out to be an orphan care or adoption advocate. I was just a pastor who was confronted with the reality of God’s heart for the vulnerable and defenseless and His mandate for us to care for them as an outward expression of the gospel. Moreover, I was really changed forever the first time I stepped into an Eastern European orphanage when we adopted our first child. The plight of the children that we left behind changed me in a significant way.
When did this creative dream begin?
When we were adopting our first child, we had many extraordinary experiences. One of them was quite a “God moment.” I write about it in detail in my new book KnowOrphans: Mobilizing the Church for Global Orphanology. It was a real moment of confirmation. It involved my wife Denise meeting a man from Ukraine, in what seemed like a really random encounter—and then only a few days later, sitting in a meeting with an adoption agency halfway across the country and having the same man’s name mentioned as someone they needed to contact to help them with an orphan hosting project. Without going into too much detail here, the conversation that we were part of (actually bystanders in) planted a seed. Over the next several years, Denise and I were able to see that hosting program up close and begin dreaming of the possibility of using hosting as a way of ministering to kids like the ones we left behind in the orphanage in Ukraine.
How did this project/idea get started?
Like I said, the idea for Promise 139 was one that God planted in our hearts long before we had any opportunity to actually pursue it. After years as a seminary professor, God led me back to become part of the pastoral team of a local church. That church really began to get it missionally including understanding God’s heart for orphans and other vulnerable and defenseless people. Eventually, we took a small group of people who had expressed their desire to engage global orphans more deeply to visit the orphan hosting program that was being run by the friends that I mentioned earlier. It was a little like a Numbers 13 sort of moment for us: a little band of spies exploring the mission. On the way home, we started talking over a meal in a fast food restaurant in a gas station (some auspicious beginning, huh?), and the sentiment was that we could and should do something similar. So, we went home and started to get together regularly to pray.
From there, God enlarged our group. We put a plan together to begin hosting kids in about 18 months. Our plan was pretty simple. We wanted to bring groups of orphans from countries that would allow children to travel and be hosted during their holiday breaks for a cultural exchange. Our objective was simple as well. We wanted to share hope with them. The kind of hope that is found in the 7 promises found in Psalm 139. That no matter who they are or where they may go, God loves them and cares for them. We wanted to show them the unconditional love found in the gospel.
Our plan was to start slow and work our way into it. God had other plans. Without going into too much detail, I found myself in a rather miraculous encounter with a high ranking official from Ukraine who had authority over the orphanage system soon after we decided to take the plunge. I felt God prompting me to tell her about our dream. She engaged the discussion and agreed to help, and said that she would send us children in upcoming summer. Wow! So now we had kids coming but no real organization, no money, and no plan. In short, God provided it all, and 7 months later we hosted our first group of children from Ukraine.
What makes your Promise 139 stand out from the crowd?
I think there are several things that make Promise 139 exceptional, if not unique, related to our goals and objectives, but the heart of what makes us stand out is the ability to bring community together around orphan care and global missions. It has been awe inspiring to see the way people have rallied together from many churches across denominational lines to cooperate to make Promise 139 a reality. It really is a great picture of unity in the Body of Christ. In fact, as Promise 139 has grown, we have even been able to include groups of folks from other places, many of whom have come to participate and to learn so that they can begin to do something like Promise 139 in their own community.
What are the goals and intentions of Promise 139?
There are other orphan hosting programs around, and while we respect them, we do differ from them in design and goals. First, we don’t bring children to be hosted in individual homes in individual families. They all stay together in one large home. It is an atmosphere that capitalizes on giving the kids the experience of living with a family and experiencing the dynamics of a home without causing some of the stress to caregivers of having children separated all of the country.
Second, as I said previously, our program is a cultural exchange program. We want our guests to experience fully American culture as we get to know Ukrainian (and Russian) culture. They get a chance to celebrate holidays the way we do, including special foods and traditions, visit attractions and museums, and enjoy things like fishing, swimming, and bike riding. A significant part of our culture is our faith, so they experience that, too. They encounter the gospel both in words and actions as people love them unconditionally and as we weave the gospel story throughout their stay.
Finally, our third goal is to spread hope. Many of these kids come having literally no hope for their future. They live in a world in which everything is conditional. They grow up with no certainty and no stability. Many can’t even imagine graduating into a world where anyone is waiting to help them or be a safety net. We want to show them that there are people in the world that do care. We want to show them unconditional love. This involves beginning relationships that go beyond just hosting but begins with hosting. In addition to the initial hosting contacts, we have maintained contacts through reciprocating the cultural exchanges and assisting in establishing a transitional assistance program.
Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?
A friend who we collaborate with in Ukraine says it best. He says about meeting orphans and vulnerable children, “When you close your eyes and can see their face and you know their name, you are accountable for them.” We all have come to know these kids. They are part of our lives, and we are accountable for them. That thought is part of the driving force that keeps the fire burning, but more than that is the sense that this is a project that was conceived by leading from the Holy Spirit. We prayed a great deal and saw doors opened. And, this was a collaboration among a group of people. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” We have been able to keep each other encouraged and going.
Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributer have a specific role?
We have a volunteer board of 6 people that directs the project. The board handles all of the administrative details for the program including managing the partnership with our international orphanage partner, securing all permission from both governments, planning the yearly schedule including dates for camp and fundraisers, and connecting with key volunteers and church partners. All of our spouses have been integrally involved as well. Additionally, there have been some other key leaders that are heavily invested in many aspects of the project to help put together a well-rounded two-week cultural exchange experience for our guests.
What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?
With out a doubt, it has been navigating between the ever-changing requirements of two national governments to secure all of the permissions and satisfy all of the requirements necessary to host the groups. Every year is an adventure, and we joke, “the only thing we know for certain is that we don’t know anything for certain.”
What have you learned?
Not to be cliché, but we have learned to depend upon God more fully. In our first year, we began with nothing. No experience, no money, and no idea how we were going to gather the army of people it would take to pull off our first camp, but God provided. He was never early! We got what we needed when we needed it, and that was a great lesson. We raised enough money to bring the kids and keep them here for two weeks in just four months. We received visas for them to travel within days of their need to get on a plane and come. People in the community gave meals, cleaned, washed clothes, donated outings, and played with kids in amazing numbers, and through it all, we learned that what God purposes to do, He will resource.
Have there been any unexpected surprises?
I think the greatest unexpected surprise happened in our first year. At the end of our first hosting, a local television crew came out to do a story on our program. They interviewed one of the boys. The reporter asked him what his favorite part was about his time in the U.S. I expected that he would say riding bikes or a trip to a baseball game. I was wrong. You see, this young man was almost 15 and had come from a pretty tough place. He was fairly new to the orphanage and hadn’t really ever been to school. He was a thoughtful, bright kid, but he had never had a chance. He told the reporter that his favorite part was the people he had met. He went on to say, “I’ve never seen people treat each other the way they do. The love each other and help each other. It’s made me start to think differently about my life and to think about my future. I never thought about that before. Now I want to make plans for my life.” I think that’s what “hope” looks like, and I don’t think we expected that they might get it so quickly or fully.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting your project?
I think many people assume that Promise 139 is about getting kids adopted, and it is true that quite a few of the kids that have come over have found forever families, but that is not our goal. As a matter of fact, we are very strict to keep adoption at arms length from our camps, and we have no idea whether the children who are coming are adoptable or not. They are chosen at the discretion of their orphanage director and approved by local officials with no input from us. Our commitment is to them when they go home. That is why we have sought to be involved in reciprocating the cultural exchanges to the orphanage and to set up a transitional assistance partnership. If families meet a child and want to determine their availability for adoption and pursue them for adoption, that is a personal matter that can be done outside Promise 139.
What are some ways you promote your project?
We have been pretty simple in our promotion. In the beginning, we relied on word-of-mouth, connecting through speaking to local church groups, and connecting with friends on Facebook. Whatever we did, it worked. In the first year, we had over 200 volunteers that participated in our first project doing everything from cooking and cleaning to driving for outings. Eventually, I wrote about Promise 139 in my first book Orphanology and that kicked our visibility into a whole different realm. We began to get people interested in learning about what we were doing from all over the country and offers of volunteer help from people across our region. I have amplified more about how we are addressing the global orphan crisis in my new book, KnowOrphans: Mobilizing the Church for Global Orphanology.
Creating something is one skill. Marketing and promoting it is an entirely different skill set. How has that gone for you? Shocked by the amount of work marketing takes? Or pleasantly surprised?
Probably the greatest shock has been the on-going burden of fundraising. Honestly, it never stops. Keeping the base of volunteers together has been much easier than gathering the funds as the economy has sputtered. What we have learned is that we have to be consistent in maintaining relationships and faithful in connecting with people and sharing our story.
Any marketing mistakes you would avoid?
Ultimately, I would say don’t be so obsessed with marketing. Focus on relationship building. Things like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs offer more opportunity to connect with people personally than ever before. At any level, I think what we are trying to do is foster relationships with people that lead to a deeper connection. The point is not that you want people to build loyalty to a product, program, or book. You want them to connect with you and/or the people you serve. Your product or program is merely a way for them to act upon something that they need to do or are passionate about, and the best “marketing” is to make sure they get what they need from a trusted friend.
What social network has worked best for you?
For us, I would have to say it is Facebook. I don’t think that will always be true, but right now it is the prefect fit for the demographic of our volunteer and donor base. Most of the folks that are connected to Promise 139 are parents and grandparents, and Facebook is the right platform for sharing information, media content, and messages to them. Most all of them have a presence on it still and use it.
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
Pray hard and seek God’s direction. Once you are sure in the way you should go, step out. God will provide and direct.
Where do you see this project in five years?
Honestly, I do not know. We are in a period of reevaluation. Our orphanage partnership in Ukraine since the inception of Promise 139 has been in Crimea. As you know at the point of this interview, the status of Crimea is very uncertain. Even prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea, we were prevented from bringing a group by last minute policy changes by local authorities this past summer and have been praying through options.
What question do you wish that someone would ask about your creative dream, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.
I think the question I wish we were asking is, “What is it going to take to end the world’s orphan crisis?”
As long as there is sin and brokenness in the world, there will be orphans. Death, poverty, and indifference will still rob children of families, but the Church has the people and the resources to stand in the gap for them if we act together globally. The wonderful thing is that we are seeing that God is awakening His church around the world to this reality, and in caring for orphans, the church is giving a powerful apologetic and example for the gospel. In the end, what it is going to take to end the crisis is the King establishing His Kingdom here on earth completely. We may wrangle theologically about what that looks like or when it will happen, but John is pretty clear in His Revelation that it will happen. When He does, there will be no more orphans, widows, or outsiders. Until that day, every follower of Jesus Christ has both the responsibility and the privilege to care for orphans and other voiceless people in Jesus name in some way as a way of putting that coming Kingdom on the lips of the whole world. In my latest book, KnowOrphans: Mobilizing the Church for Global Orphanology, I take readers on a journey to understand how every believer can do something to respond to God’s call to care for orphans and vulnerable children and point the world to Jesus.
How can we find your creative dream come true?