If you attended either CPC, Orlando or San Diego, I’m sure you were blown away in the group session when Beth Guckenberger shared her passion and life-calling to minister to orphans. In preparation for a breakfast interview with Beth, I read her soon to be released book, Tales of the Not Forgotten, on a flight across country. With every page, I felt my heart being tossed around like a boat in a storm as I tried to right myself. The stories shook me to places of compassion that have not been touched for a long time and kept me struggling to keep the tears from falling. And this was a book intended for elementary-age children! And, God was using it to rock my world! The intent of Tales is to help form a mindset that is sensitive to the pain and aloneness that is part of an orphan’s life. In Tales of the Not Forgotten, Beth shares four unique stories of orphans who are trying to make a life for themselves in very different parts of the world. Although their stories were diverse, they shared the common thread of being without those who should have been nurturing and providing for them during these young, formative years. Sadly, there are seas of children just like them who have their own stories. That’s what Beth, her husband, and Back2Back Ministries confront and tackle each day with the resources God provides.
Let me share just a little of what Beth and I talked about over an omelet and muffin. Open your heart and allow the Holy Spirit to move you with compassion.
Tell us about your family and where you live.
Todd and I have lived the last fifteen years in Monterrey, Mexico with our nine children. We have three biological children, three adopted children and three foster daughters. Three of them are out of the house, so most nights, it’s just the six youngest around the table with us.
You have 3 children who were adopted during your time in Mexico. Do other children ask to be adopted and how do you deal with that?
I think adoption is a calling and while my heart longs to bring them all home, in the end, there has to be a Holy Spirit nudge that this is His plan for our family. When children ask, I usually just lean down, hug and kiss them and remind them they are very special to me and I will love them regardless of which roof they sleep under.
What is Back2Back?
Back2Back Ministries is the non-profit, orphan care ministry my husband and I serve with. We have sites in Africa, India, Mexico and soon to be in Haiti. Our website for more information is back2backministries.org.
How did God take your heart for orphans and use it to provide a home and family for orphans all over the world?
I always say that my heart for orphans started out as a burr under my saddle. Once I had seen and interacted with an orphan, I just couldn’t sit comfortably again in the same place. All burrs start with a cry, and my heart was tuned in to hear the cry of the orphan. So initially, that meant saving some money and then in 1997, we packed up our Isuzu Trooper and drove three days until we landed in Monterrey, Mexico. It was a humble start for sure, but one of my favorite verses is “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zech 4:10). It started with the orphan at our knees, and then grew to other places and countries and staff. We just wake up every day and try to have our willing hand in the air, so the Lord will call on us.
What are the circumstances that bring orphaned kids to you?
Kids come either directly from a family member (mom, grandmother, uncle) or they are dropped off by the government social services. They can be newborn or even early adolescence. They might have a parent who loves them but can’t financially provide for them, or a parent with a mental illness, substance addiction or jail sentence. Almost a third of our children are products of first relationships and the mother is unable to survive alone, so she gets involved in another relationship and the second man isn’t willing to work an extra job to care for some other man’s children.
You live in Monterey, Mexico, where you oversee one Back2Back orphan ministry. Describe what happens at the compound and what happens in the orphanages under its care.
We have a ministry compound that houses our local b2b staff (about 40 people) and the staff children. It also houses the children who come from our children’s homes that are over the age of 15 and desire to go on to high school and college. Finally, it has a lodge in the campus where up to 130 guests who are visiting with a missions’ team can stay. It’s an active place!
The children’s homes (or orphanages) are in the surrounding area and house between 15-100 children each.
What do you see as your role, at the present time, with Back2Back?
My role currently with back2back is very hands on. My husband is the executive director and he recently gave me the title “chief talker.” I guess he was referencing all the communicating I do. We live full-time in Mexico and I work with the children, our teens and the groups that come and visit.
What place do nationals play in the orphanages?
Nationals are the full-time caregivers and the people we stand “back2back” with in every sense. About half of the Back2Back Ministries staff are Mexican nationals as well.
What’s the make-up of the groups who come there on mission trips?
They can be families, men’s groups or women’s groups. They can be student groups or college teams. We have Christian school groups and businesses and seniors. It’s pretty varied. There’s plenty of work to be done at every age level and gifting. We ask during the planning of the trip what specifically a group has to offer and try to incorporate it with our current needs.
Give us a sample of what a family mission trip (parents bringing their kids) would do in a day.
A typical day would start out with breakfast at 8:00, followed by a campus-wide quiet time and then a small group. By 10:00 everyone gets on a bus and heads off campus to one of our children’s homes or missions in a low-income area where they will spend about 8 hours working. During that workday, a little more than half of the day will be spent in projects, depending on the demographic of the team and the needs of the home. The balance of the workday is spent in relational ministry (kicking a ball, crafts, puzzles). Then, everyone comes back to campus for a 6:30 dinner and the evening is filled with worship and debriefing, as well as prepping for the next day.
How can those who come on mission trips but don’t speak the language minister to the kids?
Most experts agree that 90 percent of all communication is non-verbal, so most of what you want to say will be already without words. Your actions, your hugs, smiles and work projects will go a long way in sharing with a child their value to you (and to the Jesus who sent you). Additionally, we will always have bilingual staff who will accompany a team throughout their day.
How are people changed once they experience a mission trip to a Back2Back orphanage?
The world is smaller. They have relationships with people who are very real to them and that enhance their prayer life and understanding of God’s world. They are usually driven to come back home and minister more in their own community and have a stronger vision for how God can use them.
You’ve written a 6-week curriculum called Tales of the Not Forgotten. What is it and what are you hoping will happen because of it?
It’s actually a chapter book for older children (ages 8-12) with a curriculum that accompanies it. We have found though that families and teachers have enjoyed reading it aloud to the children in their lives and the conversations that follow.
It’s a book that tells four stories of children in Nigeria, India, Mexico and Haiti and addresses four themes in missions (clean water, education, hunger and shelter). The main characters are all children who learn lessons of God’s promises for them and how He pursues them wherever they are. My hope is it stirs the heart of children and spurs on a conversation around classrooms, dinner tables and bedtime about what is our role in the world? These are conversations our children will be having in the decades to come and if we can start them early, we can build a strong foundation.
In Tales of the Not Forgotten you have included questions at the end of each story and open space for the reader to journal their reactions. This is not a common thing to find in a book an elementary child would read. Why was it important for you to include these moments of interaction?
The questions at the end of the book are designed to create interaction between the conversation about missions and the child … to give them a place of their own to write questions, concerns, thoughts, and prayers. My heart behind the material is that it would stir conversations of substance between children and the Lord, children and themselves, and children and the adults in their lives. I long for the chance to impress upon them the heart of Jesus for His children, and all the activities, journal spaces, service ideas and debriefing questions are designed with that in mind!
How can kids be involved with ministry to orphans without leaving home?
There are lots of ways children can be involved in international missions, mainly through prayer and educating themselves on the issues children face around the world. We can also engage children in small service projects and fundraising efforts that benefit children in their country and overseas. The accompanying curriculum is full of practical ideas of classroom projects and family activities to put hands and feet around these ideas.
There are orphans all over the world crying out for Christ-followers to open their eyes to their horrific life situations and to provide for them … to make a difference. Let your mind be changed and your heart softened. James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”