Lao Ba Ba means “old father” in Mandarin. Government officials in Shanghai gave it to me, believing I would be father to as many children as the stars in the sky — a promise I’d been given by God some years earlier.
When I left the Navy, I got a job as an accountant. I found it difficult being confined to an office; so I applied for a job as a sports teacher and house-father at a school for maladjusted boys. Serving in the Navy in submarines gave me empathy with lads who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Later, I worked in local-government residential care before qualifying as a social worker and becoming a fostering officer.
I’d always looked for adventure and the opportunity to explore culture and to travel. I grew up in Norwich, where most of my friends were looking to Hollywood, and we saw very few foreigners. But I was always attracted to China, and when a boy from Hong Kong came to our school and was being bullied, I befriended him. He helped with my art O level, and taught me a bit of Cantonese.
I knew residential care failed many children in the UK. There was just no replacement for a child’s heathy growth in a family. Attachment and identity were key to the outcomes of human growth and development. Understanding the strong value of family within Chinese communities persuaded me that China was ready for positive alternatives to institutional care.
In China, family is all-important. It’s as important for parents to take care of their children as it is for children to take care of parents in old age. There are no pensions or care homes; so parents were abandoning girls because they would be destitute without a daughter-in-law to take care of them in old age. China did a “Love girls” propaganda, and that succeeded, but there were also many disabled children abandoned.
I travelled to Shanghai, and received an invitation to lunch with some government officials. Westerners were criticising China’s child-care policies, but I was complimenting our hosts on their amazing hospitality. What I didn’t know is that in China most business is done through ganxi — relationships — over meals. They invited me to another meal, and we started to discuss family placement as an alternative to institutional care.
By this time, we’d become good friends and having a laugh, especially because of them having a one-child policy and me having six. Once the Chinese government decided they wanted to work with me on the Care for Children programme, they contacted Whitehall through the British Consulate General.
People look at administrations and reflect on the whole nation, and that’s very unfortunate. I found Chinese people to be very humble, servant-hearted. In 15 years, we never felt threatened. It was a wonderful, exciting place for our children to grow up in.
Bear Grylls has made a film for the BBC, Children of Shanghai, which shows the transformation of a whole generation of abandoned children in institutions brought back into families. One was a little girl with cerebral palsy, who became a gold-medallist at Sydney’s Special Olympics. Another was a boy of nine, abandoned with his brother, who was able to return home and is now a successful businessman.
There’s the biggest revival of Christianity in the world happening in China today. For me, it wasn’t surprising that Christians were coming forward to foster. It’s in the Christian DNA to take care of widows and orphans.
China was having a lot of bad publicity then, too; couldn’t do anything right. An independent audit showed it was one of the best family-placement projects in the world; and that made a great difference. One little girl with a hole in her heart was placed in a family, though it was thought she would die. A few years later, she made news in China: she was shown, the picture of health, in her ballerina suit dancing in a hospital waiting room, and her consultant coming to tell her foster parents, with tears in his eyes, that there was nothing wrong with her heart. China’s national news called her “a miracle baby healed by the love of her mother”.
This changed everything. I was invited to become the national adviser in Beijing and roll out the Care for Children programme nationally. In 2014, the Chinese government made family placement the priority for all children in care. By 2018, 85 per cent of children in care in China were in families — over a million children placed over the 20 years — and we built community-resource centres in rural areas to support children placed in families in the local community.
Our legacy project is to digitalise all our training materials, minimum standards and child-protection and safeguarding procedures, and instructional videos in Mandarin. God put this in place before Covid; so we can still support our teams.
Halfway through, a new minister, making his mark, rebuilt some institutions called Blue Sky project. I visited a remarkable building with a Disneyland playground and smartly dressed children, and wondered if I was doing the right thing, placing children in poor villages. Then I took some children to a village, and a little boy attacked me furiously with bamboo stick. He explained that this had been his village, and pointed out his school, where he went with his dog, and said that he had lots of uncles and aunties and parents and grandparents, who gave him apples and biscuits, who knew him and loved him. No institution could replace that. It was a good lesson for me. Families are the way.
My father left home before I can remember. I was raised by my mother, and had two older sisters. I didn’t really miss him till I was a young man, but every young man needs a father for confidence, steering.
At eight or nine, I was aware of Father God. I was in the choir and youth group, very passionate about Jesus, and God was filling that gap for me at the that time. I was very aware of what Jesus had done for me on the cross — how amazing that God had brought himself to earth and sacrificed himself for us — and that planted the seed of wanting to give something to back very early on. Like many, my faith dwindled through young adulthood, but my wife had a very strong conversion, and my faith was reignited.
My childhood gave me empathy and understanding for abandoned children. How terrible to have no parents to advocate on your behalf, giving love and guidance! But I had to have that experience of football and the Navy and hitting a brick wall, too. That led me to marriage, children, and preparation for going to China. Elizabeth and I had prayed for two years that God would use us in some way.
Prophetic moments like being given that name Lao Ba Ba, or being told that I would survive an earthquake — they were key cornerstones. It’s very important to know that you’re following God’s call. I was invited to work in India, and thought: well, that would be serving half the world’s population, with China; but, as soon as I got on the plane, I got ill, and I heard God saying: “I didn’t call you to India.”
Knowing where God wants you to be is vital, because there’s no better place. We have to be emptied of ourselves, and then God can use us. If we follow our own designs, we tend to mess things up.
We came back to England, because we’d taken on Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and also needed to spend time with our parents and children here. We support these other countries from the UK from offices here, in Hong Kong, and in Kansas. Having the Bear Grylls documentary was a brilliant way to show the value of family placements, and the team is working with a US distribution company to get it on general release.
I’d still like to sail the Mediterranean. My favourite sound is the sea.
My children and grandchildren make me happiest, and I most often pray for my family.
If I were locked in a church, I’d choose to be with my wife, Elizabeth, because she’s a true worshipper of Jesus.
Robert Glover was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
As Many as the Stars by Robert Glover with Theodore Brun is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-529-31717-6.