Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.
It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.
I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.
What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.
But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.
It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.
As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.
Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”
4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”Galatians 4:1-6 ESV (via biblegateway.com)