The Orphan Train: Our Story

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I married a Kansas boy back in 1996. “The 1900’s” my daughter likes to call it. 🙂 I knew he was Italian and German in ethnicity, but he was oh, so very American in culture. Through and through. People were intrigued a boy from the heartland and a girl from New Jersey found each other.

But we did.

As a girl, I lived between Philadelphia and the shore until we moved north into New York City’s shadow. As I mentioned, I knew my husband’s paternal ancestors were from Italy, but I never gave much thought as to how they landed in Kansas. I guess I assumed they traveled west in search for land like all determined pioneers – by their own choosing, their own power, their own sheer will.

But they didn’t.


Pause and identify a real, live six year-old in your life right now. Picture her face. Say his name.


He was just six years-old and the son of Italian immigrants.

His parents had made New York City their home, for I imagine they didn’t have the means to continue their journey beyond the City That Never Sleeps. Oh, the irony of that nickname, for it reflected the tension within his parents’ hearts. I’m talking about the fear that keeps you up at night and doesn’t let you rest.

Jim Perona’s father died shortly after he was born. And his mother was left a widow raising six children. An immigrant in poverty. Grieving. Desperate. Confused that this new world hadn’t delivered like she had hoped.

I ache as I write this, for little Jim, my husband’s grandfather, never knew his dad. Never knew the man with hope. Never knew the man who took great risks to start a new life. Never knew the man that walked right onto the path of the unknown.

Jim’s path looked very much like his dad’s, but it wasn’t his own choosing.

You see, at the age of six, his mama hugged him tight and put him on the Orphan Train, never to see him again. I’m not sure how I got through 13 years of school and four years of college and never knew about this era in U.S. history. But, I kid you not, the first time I heard of the Orphan Train was while watching Samantha, an American Girl movie, with my own daughter when she was six. She was so tiny and fragile and needed her parents so very much at that age…

But it’s true. Over 100,000 children sleeping on the streets of New York were placed on the Orphan Train from the 1850’s and the 1920’s. And some parents in poverty who couldn’t possibly feed their children led their tiny sons and daughters to that boarding platform, too. The goal was to rip these kids out of hopelessness and place them into new lives in rural America.

But still… Jim was only six.

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Have you ever judged people in poverty for their decisions? Have you ever measured someone’s choices by looking only through your lens of comfort? Yeah, me too.

Jim’s story ended well, for after staying at an orphanage in Atchison, Kansas, he went to live with a family in southwestern Kansas. It was common back then for orphans to be indentured on contract to work for families. But these people eventually became Jim’s real family and the rest, I guess is history… a history we’ll never really fully know.


And here we are, resonating with parts of Jim’s story…

Some of you don’t feel a day wiser than six, and you’re begging God for wisdom to navigate this mess.

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking. James 1:5

Some of you have been ripped from your norm and placed into a new story whirling with risk and fear and mystery.

When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned. Isaiah 43:2 niv

Some of you feel rejected. Or forgotten. Or not known.

The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17 niv

Or maybe you’re living like an indentured servant — striving, striving, striving — trying to earn your way into the family.

Are you so foolish? Do you think you can perfect something God’s Spirit started with any human effort? …Now it is absolutely clear that no one is made right with God through the law. Galatians 3:3, 11

(And why — when we need wisdom, when we’re forced into something we didn’t choose, when we feel rejected and betrayed — why do we feel shame? But that’s another post for another day…)

I titled this post “The Orphan Train: Our Story”. And by “our” I meant the Peronas — my husband and my children, and therefore me, for I’m somehow grafted into it all.

But really, it’s all of our story, yes? For we all need wisdom, and we’re all living stories we didn’t write, and we’ve all felt unknown, and we’re all tempted to live motivated by others’ approval and acceptance.

But I promise you, we are not alone in the deep, deep water that taunts of drowning. We are not consumed in the fire.

I see your stories. And I see your wounds. But you are absolutely not identified by your brokenness, for we are His sons and daughters.

He endured the breaking that made us whole.
    The injuries he suffered became our healing. Isaiah 53:5

Pierced for us. Crushed for us. And by those very wounds, His wounds, we are healed.

Known. Chosen. Welcomed in as adopted children.

photo source | Wilson Lau

Find more details about the Orphan Train online.

8 thoughts on “The Orphan Train: Our Story

  1. Gorgeous words for such a powerful message: ‘Have you ever judged someone in poverty for their decisions? Have you ever measured someone’s choices by looking only through your lens of comfort? Yeah, me too.’ This is one for further reflection. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this! I am a Kansan born and bred and didn’t know about the Orphan Trains until I was almost 30 and I read the novel by Christina Baker Kline! Beautiful words about your family’s history and how it ties to and reflects all of our stories. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Beth. I need to read that novel. How interesting that you being from Kansas, and me being from outside of New York City, are tied together through something so painful, yet redemptive. It’s all so complex. Thanks for your comments.

      Like

  3. I love Christan Perona!

    I love old stories about family and pictures like this.

    I love how you eloquently weave in God’s word into your blog but especially this one.

    This reminds me of my little dealio. I am always telling my kiddos, friends, strangers….everyone has a story. Simple, maybe but people forget this. Folks are so quick to judge, assume and even write people off. Sadly, I find that our Christian friends can be the biggest offenders.

    Everyone has a story.

    Thanks for the encouragement this evening as I am in a ‘mysterious’ place with Jesus. Waiting on His perfect plan for my future employment.

    Love ya girl,
    Jennifer

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jennifer. We learn so much by listening to others. They hold experiences in their stories that can mold and shape us. I look forward to hearing how your story unfolds as it moves from “mysterious place” to new experiences.

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  4. What an interesting story of J.D.’s heritage! Yes, we have judged without knowing the circumstances that brought a person to that point. Shame on us, God holds us accountable for our attitudes. This country is such a hodgepodge of people who could tell their stories, wonderful stories of strength and faith. Can’t believe you will have a 20th anniversary. Best wishes to your family. Keep writing. Love from Uncle Al and Aunt Sue

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awww… thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I love our “hodgepodge of people”. I know… 20 years. I’m typing on a laptop on top of that beautiful table you made for us for a wedding gift. 🙂

      Like

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