Flying to the dusty foothills of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains wasn’t on the day’s agenda. But when Beth Guckenberger heard that one of the orphans her ministry served had been in a serious accident, she swooped up her 6-week-old daughter and caught the next flight out of Cincinnati.
While caring for the injured child, she got a call. An infant boy needed a home, and his window of opportunity would close in 72 hours: Unless adoption took place in that time, he would likely spend his childhood in an institution. Since he was paperwork-ready for international adoption, Guckenberger was asked to take him. She answered “yes” without hesitation. Guckenberger’s propensity for that word might seem impulsive to most, perhaps even to her husband, to whom she said, “Honey, we’re going to have another baby!” But that particular word changed the boy’s story, and theirs, forever.
With her daughter and new son—whom she named Evan—Guckenberger flew home to Ohio, where the family’s pediatrician diagnosed his condition as cerebral palsy. Evan received months of therapy and encouragement but still could barely move a muscle. Guckenberger was advised not to recover the toys his sister repeatedly snatched from the boy, but to let him struggle. Soon, she noticed Evan wiggling his stiff body until he was propped up on his elbows. Before long, he was able to crawl to the couch, pull himself upright, and walk as he’d seen his sister do hundreds of times.
Today, when Guckenberger shares the story during speaking engagements, this is the moment Evan marches across the stage like any other able-bodied teenager and the audience erupts in applause. “The best stories come when I’ve no idea what’s going to happen next,” she said, pushing blonde hair behind her shoulder, “when I’m in over my head, my back is against the wall, and there’s only one Person who can help me.” It’s then that her yes is met with ample provision—the kind of storyline written by a God who meticulously fills in the details.
“God is in control. God has a plan. And God will use what is broken and rebuild it.”
But this grand tale has humble origins. Guckenberger and her husband Todd began as teachers who led summer mission trips. Growing weary of painting walls from green to blue one summer and blue to green the next, they felt there had to be a better way to do missions. So the couple decided to save one of their salaries in preparation to spend a year in Monterrey, Mexico. Although they didn’t speak Spanish (and no one had asked them to come), Guckenberger says the call to serve orphans there drew them in like a magnet, the force intensifying until they drove their Isuzu Trooper across the border.
They showed up at an orphanage, where their involvement initially consisted of cooking, holding kids, and playing soccer. Then they prayed for co-laborers. “We thought if 50 people came to visit, it would be unbelievable,” she said. “By the end of the first year, 350 people came.” That’s when the Guckenbergers realized God’s call to serve orphaned children wasn’t just for the two of them. They were merely the catalysts who would awaken compassion for this work across the globe.
That was in 1997. Today, Beth and Todd are the Co-Executive Directors of Back2Back Ministries, which partners with six orphanages located in Mexico, Haiti, India, and Nigeria. Their goal is to provide children with holistic care that mitigates the negative effects of being raised in an institutional setting.
Orphanages, which are overfilled and understaffed, have been scrutinized since the 1940s, when researchers began studying the effects of institutional care on children. Without a dependable source of attention, affection, and stimulation, “the wiring of the brain goes awry,” said Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity in institutionalized orphans, Nelson found “a dramatic reduction in what’s referred to as gray matter and in white matter [neural tissue]. In other words, their brains were actually physically smaller.” But Nelson’s research revealed a silver lining: Children who are adopted by age 2 are most likely unaffected, and older children who are adopted often show remarkable recoveries.
Though her ministry recognizes that an orphanage is not an ideal environment to raise a child, Guckenberger is quick to point out another variable. “Those case studies don’t take into account the role of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “He can restore, reconcile, redeem, and rescue.”
She has seen numerous examples, including girls like Shannen, a compassionate and mature 19-year-old who is using her experience growing up in a Monterrey children’s home to teach others about God’s love. And Ronaldo, a Haitian orphan who is working toward his dream of opening a recycling center. “God is in control. God has a plan. And God will use what is broken and rebuild it,” Guckenberger said.
She refuses to let the particulars of each kid’s story take a back seat to statistics, which is why every child’s circumstance is evaluated to determine the best care option available—adoption, reunification with the birth family, institutional living, or foster care. Guckenberger’s ministry is currently working with the Mexican government to establish a foster care system, which she calls “family-based care.”
Government officials were initially hesitant because they assumed financially motivating host families was the only way to launch the program. “We told them we believe a family can be incentivized by faith rather than finances,” Guckenberger said. “We believed that if we explained the needs of abandoned children to local churches, families would come forward.”
In April 2013, Back2Back held a summit in Monterrey to promote family-based care. Close to 500 community and faith leaders from across Mexico attended. The program is now operating on a pilot level, intercepting kids before they are assigned to an orphanage and placing them with loving host families. “One wrong step at this early stage could kill the program, but I think that as we see success, we’ll have the opportunity to expand it to other countries,” Guckenberger said.
The initiative is being tested on the same soil where she fostered three children, adopted four more, and raised her three biological kids for 16 years. “God places the lonely in families,” Guckenberger said, quoting Psalm 68:6 (NLT). You might say that witnessing the truth of this promise time and again has given her a unique kind of expertise.
“Case studies don’t take into account the role of the Holy Spirit.”
When Guckenberger speaks on the subject of adoption, her message is clear, though controversial: A child’s spiritual identity trumps his or her national identity. “I believe it’s important they remember they are Mexican, but not nearly as important as them knowing they are a Christian,” she said. “There are lots of things about them that haven’t changed. ‘You’re a boy who loves soccer,’ I tell them. ‘You’re funny and artistic, and you’re a son of God.’”
It’s this point Guckenberger labors to drive home, both in her children and in the kids her ministry serves. Whether or not they have an earthly parent to care for them, there’s a Father in heaven who calls them beloved. “It takes a lot of us,” she said, “to reinforce over and over again, ‘Shannen, you are important, you are gifted, you are created, you have an eternal life’—all of those messages are repeated by a chorus of people.”
Perhaps it was the loss of her own father, who passed away the year before she moved to Mexico, that impressed upon her the reality of eternity. “In many ways, [his death] was a defining moment for me to recognize that heaven is an address, not a concept. Someone I know is very much there, and everything we ever do in this life—all of it—matters in that place,” she said. So she chooses to follow small, magnetic tugs that make heaven spill over into earth.
When asked how she plans to serve orphans next, Guckenberger says she honestly doesn’t know. “God writes the best stories, so I’m listening with all of my heart,” she said. But one thing seems certain: Until all the lonely find families, Guckenberger’s anthem will be a daring, resounding yes.