Felicity: her name is supposed to invoke happiness. When she was small and rosy pink, I am confident that she was the very source of her mother’s delight. But now, after seven years, with poor decisions and lack of support spread wide, that initial bliss has faded.
I’m sitting in the living room of her mother’s small apartment as her little brother diligently frustrates her attempt at playing house. Felicity’s mother, belly swollen ripe with another, snaps to the little brother’s defense.
My visits are now weekly, lasting several hours where my job is to model, teach and ultimately ensure that Felicity, her brother and the new baby will be safe in their mother’s care.
Felicity makes her way to my feet with three baby dolls, interchanging her parenting duties as she attempts to swaddle and feed each one. I note the number of dolls, all bearing a likeness in age, and state the normal comment it begs: “You have triplets!” Through stringy blond strands, Felicity’s eyes meet mine with confusion. After I explain the wonder of God’s rare and magnificent gift of multiple births, she shrugs and goes back to her role-play. Sighing, she points to the dolls and informs me, “These two have the same daddy, but this one has a different daddy.”
I asked about dolls and got a 7-year-old’s take on family and fatherhood.
As many of us are making plans to celebrate the grace of having a present and involved father, I’m all too aware that in pockets of our nation, there are thousands of children like Felicity -- children whose understanding of the role of father has been skewed.
For years I walked into homes like Felicity’s, homes where it is common for siblings to have different fathers or for fathers to not be around for long, if ever. You cannot ignore the palpable strain that exists here. The strain of leading, protecting and providing has rubbed mothers thin -- thin on patience, thin on help and thin on hope. Consequently, despite their apparent tough skin, we know the reality of this thinness lends itself to easy bruising -- bruising that shows up in children via substance abuse, high school dropout rates, juvenile crime, emotional problems and teenage pregnancy.
But stories like Felicity’s, coupled with our biblical command, has rightly led many of us to raise the flag of compassion and “take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). We shamelessly tie the string of our voices to faces like Felicity, hoping that with their stories the string will be pulled tight, forcing a massive movement toward fatherless children and all they are attached to.
There are many ministries, programs and services that are doing much to provide support and help for Felicity and those like her. We applaud their efforts and advocate for early intervention strategies that can increase the likelihood of a father’s involvement and potentially change the trajectory of a young life.
But perhaps what we miss -- perhaps what is most bothersome -- about fatherlessness and all of its consequences are that it perpetuates a lie about who God is. Fatherhood uniquely displays the glory of God as Father. When an earthly father is present, he demonstrates God’s presence. When an earthly father embraces his role as leader, defender, protector and provider, he demonstrates the character of God: our leader, defender, protector and provider.
When scripture speaks of the fatherless, we too are given the task of defending them, caring for their basic needs and protecting them from those who would seek to do them harm. This may mean adopting a child, becoming a foster parent, mentoring a young person, volunteering for a local outreach ministry or advocating for them in the public square.
Felicity’s lesson can be rewritten. When we take up the cause of the fatherless we tell the truth of who God is: “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). That truth, undergirded by compassionate action, heals bruises and points to the grace offered by the kind and merciful father of the fatherless (Psalm 68:5).
Renee Pettinger is Deputy Director of Shepherding the Next Generation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.
Publication date: June 13, 2012