What Story Are We Telling? Looking Beyond the Stereotype

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our Family Centre in Heideveld is often a part of the Arise story we tell. Heideveld, like much of the Cape Flats, is characterized by high levels of substance abuse, gang violence and unemployment BUT this is just one part of the story.  Heideveld is also characterized by a strong sense of community, by resilient caregivers, by children with dreams and a sense of togetherness. One only needs to get lost during a home visit or drop off of documents to see, hear and listen to this. Telling one side of the story is too easy, too simple and doesn’t invite us to engage with the fullness of the people and communities we work with.  Chimamanda Adichie’s quote above is a powerful reflection tool when we assess the images or stories we are telling.

Poverty porn or Stereotype porn is said to the be the sharing of poverty or charity related images, campaigns and stories in such a way that elicits an emotional as well as a financial response from people who these are aimed at.  While well intentioned, we also need to think through the dangers and impact this might have on the people whose stories are being told through a single lens.  The danger of poverty porn is that it stops us from engaging.  This became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, where the crisis triggered many economic hardships and many opportunities for giving arose.  It also meant that there was much debate in the media about how to share ethically and with accountability towards both donors and recipients. This is a needed conversation and one which bears much consideration.

As World Adoption Day approaches, and the focus shifts to adoption dynamics, we are also mindful that the stories we share during this time needs to be more than a single story.  Too often there is a single and damaging narrative preached in churches, told online and from people’s couches in which we hear about orphans needing care but don’t ask the questions why.  We see pictures of babies & children who are in vulnerable positions without asking the questions of what led them to being there.   Too often people get to step into the role of saviours without recognizing that we are part of a bigger picture. 

Sarah-Jayne King and Angela Tucker recently challenged the adoption community to consider what it would mean to move beyond performative activism in the adoption space.  What would it look like to ask bigger questions about the power dynamics and poverty related reasons for relinquishment of children and babies?  What could it look like for churches and faith-based spaces to become spaces which support and enable parents who would choose to parent their children if they had extra support in place?  What would it look like to stop only looking back and saying we have a huge need for alternative care for children and instead started to do the work of dismantling the unjust legacy that set this up? What would it look like for churches to partner with less resourced churches in this space from a position of relationship?

As we head towards what has historically been referred to as “Orphan Sunday” in many churches, perhaps it’s time we asked the bigger questions of why, as a church, we are called to respond to the need; what has led to the need and what does this mean for the “orphans”  who we are responding to?  What does this mean for the children and families formed through adoption in the communities we are a part of? What narratives or role players are missing in how we are telling a story?  Is it understanding the first family and what their dynamics might be? Is it the fact that too often we speak of children and families as people waiting to be rescued, rather than children we are choosing to love, to parent and to respond to in the fullness of who they are?

What narrative and story do we want to tell this year as we reflect on what it means to act justly, love mercy and remain humble as together we start to create a more complete story? Let’s be intentional about the purpose and the dignity of the story we tell and the invitations we extend.  In our preparation, our engagement and the story itself.  Let’s ensure we are telling a fuller story.