Faith-Based Organizations Sit at the Intersection of Criminal Justice and Immigration Reform [Part 1 of 2]


These articles are meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

Recent frustration over the government’s inability to preserve DACA has sparked renewed concern about immigration, especially as it involves youths and children. Stories about individual Dreamers who meaningfully contribute to U.S. society have circulated and amassed public, bipartisan support of DACA. But what if instead of having to come to the United States to succeed, children and youths from places like Central America could thrive in the places they call home?

Sacred Sector participant Orphan Helpers is a faith-based organization that equips incarcerated, at-risk youths for success in El Salvador and Honduras. Its staff and volunteers teach soft and hard skills in addition to providing discipling, counseling and Bible studies.

“Our work stems from our love for the most at-risk kids in some of the harshest places on earth. At the same time, the work we do also has a national security and a border security component to it,” said Greg Harris, Executive Director of Orphan Helpers. “We want to provide and create opportunities for these youth to be a success in their homelands and not always think they can only succeed by coming to the U.S. We want to promote culture change so they can perceive hope in their home countries.”

Orphan Helpers illustrates that when governments and individuals are unable to address the complex problems impacting the immigration and criminal justice systems, non-government, faith-based organizations can implement innovative, far-reaching solutions. Orphan Helpers’ ability to live out its sacred mission in each aspect of its ministry — from its interactions with public policy and internal practices to its external communications — promotes both individual and cultural transformation.

Public Policy

For the last 18 years, Orphan Helpers has been serving struggling children and youth in Central America. Since transitioning from working primarily in public orphanages to providing success academies in juvenile detention centers, Orphan Helpers has redefined its understanding of the modern-day orphan to include neglected youth. Its 2015 pilot project had 13 graduates, and today the organization has 230 participating students.

Sacred Sector provides resources to equip faith-based organizations such as Orphan Helpers to address issues that are central to their missions. One resource, the Religious Staffing Public Policy Toolbox, says:

To promote public justice, government must protect diverse nonprofit organizations [...] It should protect diversity in areas and styles of service because, while government has an indispensable role in promoting well-being, so do nongovernmental organizations, which are flexible, close to needs and tailored to particular places.

As the toolbox suggests, faith-based organizations often meet needs that cannot be met by government. For example, Orphan Helpers’ state and community-level work uniquely positions it to promote public justice through its care for disadvantaged youth in Honduras and El Salvador. Moreover, Orphan Helpers is able to utilize its position to inform the U.S. government about restorative practices in countries where youths lack opportunity and are vulnerable to crime. “We speak to the state department, USAID, Congress and the embassies about the work we are doing,” said Harris.

Orphan Helpers is also aware of how it can partner with government to partially fund its programs: “We seek government funds to further our mission. We help youth spiritually as well as with other life skills. Although we can’t use the government funds for the spiritual aspect, we can use them for the life skills program.” Knowing how to use the resources received through federal grants ensures that Orphan Helpers can make the most out of its government partnerships.

Another way Orphan Helpers engages in its public policy context is by joining with other organizations such as Orphans Promise, Back2Back Ministries, Biglife and the American Bible Society to make a broader impact. According to Harris, “We realized we can’t do it all but we just want to be a conduit for these kids to find opportunity and hope to get them plugged into a church, education and work opportunities.”

Its knowledge of relevant public policy as well as its collaboration with government and other organizations indicates how Orphan Helpers effectively engages in public policy while maintaining its faith identity.

To learn more about how faith-based organizations can intentionally interact with public policy, see the Religious Staffing Public Policy Toolbox.


Orphan Helpers’ local, faith-based engagement with neglected youth in Central America allows it to contribute to immigration reform in ways that government alone cannot. The organization’s restorative programs equip neglected youth with the tools necessary to succeed in their home countries, reducing their need to seek success in other countries. Orphan Helpers also shares its solutions with other organizations and government, and partners with government by accepting grants that expand its impact. By being aware of how its policy context influences its work, Orphan Helpers can take advantage of collaborative relationships and contribute to lasting solutions grounded in faith.

If you are not a Sacred Sector participant and would like access to resources on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning for faith-based organizations, sign up to become a Sacred Sector participant here.

Kathryn Mae Post is an intern with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). She contributes to two different initiatives at CPJ: Sacred Sector and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). She is graduating from Calvin College in May of 2018 with a BA in both political science and English.