Sunday, December 29, 2013

Charity on the Prairie: Christian Orphans' Home of Nebraska

        The Christian Orphans’ Home of Phelps Center, Nebraska, began in 1888 in response to human need—a response prompted by love of God and neighbor. The orphanage was founded by Axel Nordin (1858-1912), pastor of the Swedish Free Mission at Phelps Center, now Holcomb Evangelical Free Church. Nordin took into his home three young girls and by this act of charity laid the foundation for this work of caring for and educating orphans and other dependent children.
According to a local newspaper at the time, L. W. Larson, a blacksmith from Loomis, was without his wife and found he was unable to care for his daughters. The three girls were brought to the pastor with a request that he provide for their care. Since Nordin was a bachelor, he enlisted the help of his mother, Mrs. Lars Nordin. It soon became generally known that they took in destitute children and orphans, and consequently received additional applications.  In over a year the number of children increased from three to nineteen, with eleven boys and eight girls.
Nordin, originally from Skultuna, Västmanland, Sweden, was converted to faith during his youth and began to preach at age twenty. When he arrived to America, he joined the Free Mission work. His mother, Anna Stina, and father, Lars, immigrated in 1884, settling in Phelps County. The Free Mission church at Phelps Center had been established in 1880 by Fredrik Franson who along with burgeoning Free Mission Friends drew upon the Swedish Pietism of P. P. Waldenström and American Revivalism of D. L. Moody.

When the home incorporated in 1889, the board included such members as: J. G. Princell and John Martenson of Chicago, Axel Nordin, John Dahlström, and several highly respected citizens of Phelps County. The home was incorporated with the understanding that any homeless child of any race or religious faith would be admitted. The home’s early history titled Hågkomster och Minnen (Recollections and Memories) reported that Nordin knew that such an undertaking would require effort and sacrifice and that the education of the children entrusted to his care came with great responsibility. This work was “not the management of perishable things or temporal capital, but the care of eternal souls whose formation shaped essentially who they would become then, as well as in the future. To undertake such an exceedingly great responsibility before God and humanity was not to be taken lightly.”
Mary Johnson Norlen
In 1890 the home continued after Nordin accepted a call to become pastor of the Oak Street Free Mission, now First Evangelical Free Church, in Chicago.  Miss Mary Johnson (1850-1927), affectionately known as “Tant Mary,” came from the Windy City to assume responsibility as the housemother. She was assisted by others including Charles Norlen whom she married. The Norlens themselves adopted two children, Jennie and Reuben.
            The orphanage was designed to be a safe and healthy environment— an alternate home for distressed children.  Most of them came from where “hardly a ray of human love and affection was known.” The children often arrived “dirty, clothed in rags, and devoid of humane treatment.” It was reported:

They have perhaps a father in their life, but he consumes everything he earns and then wastes everything he possesses, and moreover, when he comes home, he is a terror to his family. … They have perhaps a mother, but because of sorrow and hardship, she has become so overwhelmed that she has hardly a trace of motherly instinct left. … O, the poor children that are raised in such homes! What can we expect will become of them? How bleak is the future for these small, innocent creatures! Should not philanthropy’s (människokärleken, love of humankind) sunlight displace the dark, heavy clouds that hang over these troubled homes, ready to crush so many of their futures?
            The Free Mission Friends who supported this work maintained a theological view of social obligation in this world and eschatological hope for the world to come.  In light of the circumstances that “put innocent children in the most horrific distress, without homes and without care” and in “hearing the heart-rending cries for help until the blood curdles in one’s veins,” they were prompted to ask: “Why all this suffering? Why all this sin? Why such neglect?”
Nordin and the staff who followed him were saddened as they witnessed extreme poverty alongside luxuriance, and wondered: “How can some people so completely forget the needs of others? For, from one man ‘[God] made of one blood all the nations of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth.’” Like earlier Pietists whose sense of social obligation was shaped by the Bible, these Free Mission Swedes believed it was their responsibility to care for God’s creation, and asked, “Should we not all be struck by the Master’s words: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

Personnel of the Orphans' Home
In contrast to Jesus’ words of warning, the home’s staff held to the conviction that they were “here on earth to protect and care for each other.” They thought that to neglect this responsibility would bring fearful consequences. They held that everyone would “give an account at the judgment.” And yet they looked forward to Jesus’ second coming, saying: “Come soon, come soon!” In essence, they viewed Jesus’ return in glory as “a day of rejoicing for many,” but also a day of “woe to those who will be held accountable for their neglect!”
When Nordin presented his plan for the children’s home at the Free Mission’s meeting at Phelps Center in 1889, it was received with great interest.  Since no orphanage existed among the Swedish free-church denominations in America at the time, the need was easily recognized. The Free Mission preachers from different parts of the country pledged their support, and interest continued among their churches as well as other Swedish-American denominations.  Although the home was supported mostly by Swedes, the doors were open to every needy child as long as room and funds permitted. At times there were “twelve to fifteen children of [other] foreign nationality.”
From the beginning, the primary objective of the home was “to be a Christian home”—a home that surrounded the children with Christian influence. Therefore, the staff was generally comprised of those “who professed and proved to be Christians.” With such close proximity to the Free Mission church in Phelps Center—just five minutes away—the children attended Sunday school and occasional preachers’ meetings. Regarding the children, it was reported:
Not a few have given their hearts to God, and profess faith in Christ. It is certainly great to see human beings saved from temporal suffering and destruction, but how much greater is it to see them saved eternally. Temporal life and happiness are valuable enough but do not compare with eternal life and happiness. How beautiful it is to hear the children’s testimonies when they say they will live for Jesus and obey him. We believe, too, that while seeds planted in the children’s minds may soon be forgotten and we may not see the long-awaited harvest as soon as we would like, the seeds will sooner or later bear fruit. When we have sown and watered, have we done our part; God makes it grow.
Clearly, the home not only observed the mandate to care for others but also the mandate to proclaim the good news of Jesus, keeping in view the Pietist principle of personal conversion.
            The Christian Orphans’ Home sought the children’s safety and wellbeing, much like the biblical concept of shalom, often translated as peace but includes wholeness or holistic health of body and soul, and living in harmony with God and fellow man. From the beginning, the home was to be a “life-saving institution” (räddningsanstalt). Sometimes it was not mostly orphans who needed protection and care but defenseless children, victims of domestic violence. One such child had come to the home after having been mistreated by the father. It was noted: “The child would scream with all its might whenever a man came in the vicinity.” In light of the home’s purpose, the early history records:

What a contrast between what things should and could be, and how they are!  A
happy home is the best imitation on earth of heaven, while an unhappy home is the extreme opposite. To escape from such a “home” and enter a Christian orphanage is a benefit to these little ones… Therefore, a great deal of insight and understanding is required in order to lead and nurture the minds of these children in the right direction, and in this manner, we pluck the weeds that have taken root and started to grow, and replace them with what is wholesome and good.
Girls at the Christian Orphans' Home

During its years of operation the home purchased 240 acres of land, erected and expanded its dormitory, and added other buildings including a school. In 1926, it relocated to a new facility west of Holdrege and changed its name to the Christian Children’s Home. The work continued until 1954 when growth of the foster care system in Nebraska enabled an alternative setting for the care of homeless and abused children.
Between the years 1888 and 1954, it is estimated that the home welcomed over 1,100 children. While some were residents briefly, others grew there to adulthood. The facility has continued until today as Christian Homes Care Community, providing nursing care and assisted living to senior adults.
            The Christian Orphans’ Home remains an example of a theologically informed and socially engaged Pietism. This continued through the early decades of the twentieth century when American Fundamentalism was separating social action from the Christian life and focusing almost exclusively on “spiritual” matters. Yet during this period and afterwards, the Christian Children’s Home practiced a faith that proclaimed the gospel in word and deed. This charity on the Nebraska prairie is an example of what it means to love God and neighbor.

1 comment:

  1. Nordin figured in Stromsburg history, as he was asked to recommend a pastor representing the free faction (they alternated, also had Baptists and Lutherans). He recommended M.E. Peterson, who was more of a Congregational type; he followed Nyvall as assistant to Risberg at C.T.S. directly from Stromsburg. Bob G.