Eric Porter’s journey into orphan care began when, as a staff pastor at James River Church in Ozark, Missouri, he became fed up with contacting the hotline about cases of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Adherents at the megachurch repeatedly related horror stories from others they had invited to church.
Typically the imperiled children were friends of congregants who attended camp, retreats, or some big event that offered the opportunity to go deep into matters heavy on their hearts.
“They started opening up, and we found out there’s a lot more going on than we realized,” says Porter, 44, an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary with Chaplaincy Ministries.
One child had been beaten with a cane for not getting straight A’s; another put into a clothes dryer as “discipline”; a newborn baby left for dead in a dumpster.
Porter began asking questions, which led to an epiphany that Christians needed to become more involved in the issue.
“Why were we, the Church, sending children to the government for healing when it is God’s job through the Church to bring healing?” he wondered.
He recalls a pivotal Holy Spirit moment one day while driving down a highway:
“I saw the faces of millions of kids, where they’re all around me,” says Porter, believing they represented the world’s 140 million orphans. “They were saying, Speak up for me! Use your voice to be our voice because they don’t hear us, see us, or know we need them.”
At that moment, Porter began weeping so hard he had to pull to the side of the road.
In time, he connected with AG orphan care advocate Aaron C. Blake Sr.
“He started showing me we were flying over children to reach children,” Porter says. “Not that children in other countries are less important than children in our own backyard. They’re equally important and should have the same amount of prayers and ministry focus.”
Scripture says plenty about God caring for the fatherless, including Psalm 68:5-6.
“The Bible is clear that the Church has a mandate,” Porter says. “But we’ve let other organizations care and find homes for children. Funding backpacks or sponsoring one meal is not enough. The children need family.”
The country has more than 400,000 children in foster care. If each of America’s 350,000 churches took in one child, the problem would be nearly solved, he says.
Porter and his wife, Trisha, have four biological children and two adopted children through foster care.
After helping lead the foster and adoption ministry for five years in the AG North Texas District, in 2017 the Porters, who live in Midlothian, instigated what they had learned to launch Backyard Orphans, which has a dozen team members across the U.S. The organization helps create orphan care strategies for other AG districts/ministry networks, as well as for other denominations. It equips congregations nationwide to launch their own programs to recruit foster, adoptive, and wraparound care families.
Backyard Orphans’ strategy in church engagement is top down, Porter says.
“We believe the lead pastor has to have the vision, and the people have to do the implementation,” he says. That’s because the pulpit drives the vision of helping children in their own backyard, which leads to remarkable response in the pew in the form of an ongoing stream of families recruited to foster and adopt. Porter cites Oaks Church in Red Oak, Texas. Since 2013, families in Oaks Church have fostered more than 400 children and adopted 70.
Porter explains Backyard Orphans’ strategy is to engage, equip, and empower churches. Through engagement, the group aims to bring awareness to clergy of local problems.
“Most pastors don’t realize there are children in their own community in foster care who need the church,” Porter says. Once pastors learn of the need, they ask, How do we fix this?” That’s when the Backyard Orphans team steps up to help customize best practices and strategies for their network or congregation, he says.
He encourages congregations interested in developing a foster care, adoption, and support ministry to visit the Backyard Orphans website.
In April, Backyard Orphans visited the New Mexico Ministry Network, where a team guided the state’s nascent foster care ministry. More than one-fourth of New Mexico’s AG congregations expressed a desire to get involved, Porter says.
AG Assistant General Superintendent Rick DuBose, a member of Backyard Orphans’ pastoral advisory committee, has made orphan care a priority at the national level. He and Jay Mooney, executive director of COMPACT Family Services, are building a team — which includes Porter — to develop a connected national process regarding caring for these vulnerable children. The first goal is placing 20,000 children in foster care — 5 percent of orphans in the U.S. — in the homes of AG church families.
DuBose hopes to roll out the plan by General Council Aug. 2-6 in Orlando, Florida.
Porter worked to develop orphan care strategies with DuBose when DuBose served as North Texas District superintendent. DuBose says Porter develops orphan care systems, structures, people, and training at the district and church level “so everything you need is there,” he says, “and the Church understands what it means for the Church to be involved in foster care.”
The North Texas District learned that “support systems matter,” according to DuBose. These systems must be in place before recruiting families into foster care. Without them, often families that foster don’t seek renewal of a license.
“There’re so many one-and-dones,” he says. “They do it once, go through the emotions of releasing the child, and it’s too hard. But when the right systems are there, the family is more likely to stay involved and be effective at it long term.”
Backyard Orphans is a key means to mobilize congregations in helping care for children in need.
“Eric goes in to inspire, but also to organize, plan, and train for the long-term impact of a true foster care ministry in the church,” DuBose says.
Photo: Members of the Porter family are (from left) Kelsey, Halle Jo, Isaac, Robert, Eric, Trisha, Kale, and Madison.