As my wife and I settled into our new home in Jonesborough, Tennessee, we began to feel better about our lives. This new church offered us a type of hospitality we had not received before. They didn’t know they were doing it, because it just came natural to them, but they were healing our brokenness with their love and grace. They listened patiently as we told about our pain, and many of them gave us hope.
We approached a different adoption agency, and tried to start a new home study, only to be rejected once more. The agents that work for these outfits seem to have been trained first as Nazis. They just didn’t seem to care a lick about us. And why should they, their business was providing homes for kids.
We struggled with what we should do. Our state funded home study in Virginia was no more. God and a bishop who wanted to do the exact opposite of what anyone said had moved us away from that option. I almost went Baptist on them! But we contacted our former agency and the worker who had been assigned our case was kind to offer help that I can’t put in print. But that greatly expedited our process of a new home study with the Department of Children’s Services in Tennessee. We didn’t go directly, but we did go, and we started the foster-to-adopt process there, having to take parenting classes all over again, this time in Greeneville, Tennessee, through the department. We enjoyed meeting the other potential families and hearing their stories.
In the meanwhile, we came to grow deeply in love with our new congregation. The people were so full of life it was hard not to. Then when a tragedy struck one of our families, we were astonished at what God showed us. A young man, about 21, died in a car accident. Over 600 people attended his funeral in our church. His family grieved with such rawness that no heart was untouched by it. I learned in the midst of that experience that there are worse things than losing a pregnancy. Our congregation’s leaders, feeling helpless in this situation, began the process of Stephen Ministries, which is lay-led care for people who are going through tough times. The training helped me, and helped the church reach out to folks in trouble. The program wasn’t easy to sustain in the congregation, but it served a good purpose.
Soon we were getting phone calls from DCS, asking us to consider this situation or that. I was saying “no” every time. I wasn’t sure this was what God wanted, and my wife and I were enjoying our life together. We were raising a German Shepherd mix dog that we had adopted, and that was giving us something to love, and making our family pretty comfortable. A lot of my pastoral colleagues were paying right smart sums of money to adopt children from foreign countries. I felt deeply that this was not the direction for us.
Finally, on one night in December, 2006, my wife was looking at a story on TV about how few people were responding to a certain “Angel Tree” ministry in the Tri-Cities area. We listened and I said, “You know, we haven’t helped a child this year, maybe we should go and take one of those angels to help.” As soon as I had said those words and she had agreed, the phone rang.
“Would you be willing to consider taking a young man, about 12 years old?” The voice was a familiar voice of a DCS worker we had met. I was stunned. Had we not just agreed to help a child for Christmas, I might could have stayed tough. But I listened carefully to the things that were said next, descriptions of his situation, and what the DCS worker wanted us to know. I put my wife on the line to hear the information as well. My response to them at that time was “We were just about to go out the door, let us call you back in an hour or so and we’ll tell you our answer then.” It was agreed, and off we went.
When we returned there were several messages on our voice mail, DCS expressing desperation. We called them back and told them to bring the little guy over. I thought, “I can intimidate a 12 year old.” My assurance that this would be nothing. Somehow all my training had been put in the part of my brain I didn’t use very often, apparently. In a few minutes the doorbell rang, and I was introduced to a young man who was every bit as tall as me, and wearing dread-locks. I was intimidated. 12 years old? What’s his name? What is that hair? I wasn’t so sure. But as the paper work was signed, we began to get to know this young fellow. Soon we were talking up a storm and on our way to a store to get some things he needed. He seemed delighted to be with us.
We had promised to keep him at least for the weekend, and they would reevaluate the situation on Monday. We gave him a good time that weekend, took him to church Christmas parties, the town parade, and ate several meals away from the house. He was in hog heaven. When Monday came, the Department seemed to have forgotten how to use the phone. My wife approached me asking “Have you heard anything?” I said no, and she picked up the phone, about 4:30 p.m. to find out what was going on. She was told that DCS needed us to keep him a few more weeks while they tried to work something out. Those weeks grew into months, and in a little over a year we were in court attempting to gain “permanent legal guardianship.”
The process of foster-to-adopt is a really emotionally tumultuous one. Our situation was good for a few weeks, but when the child came to feel safe with us, he did what foster kids do, he began showing problem behaviors as he dealt with his anger issues. School situations were not optimal, but eventually he was led to a place where he could make academic progress. I was never so pleased when he asked me if he could cut his dreadlocks off. Soon he was in a regular pattern of life, and that helped a lot. Structure can bring comfort. But anger seethes through the soul. And his anger took us on long rides.
We moved out of state with him when I was appointed to another church in Virginia. At least here the school resources were better for him (Tennessee had branded him and was discouraging us), and he was able to spend all his high school years in one place. His fifteenth year was the worst ever. I hope to never have to live through anything so painful again. But as he has grown in our home, he has begun to make some reasonably good life choices. We are in our third church setting, he has reached the age of majority, and is still with us, even though we have no legal relationship to him. He is taking college classes and working a good job.
Along the way, I have had to preach his mother’s funeral, send letters to his dad in prison, and deal with other things relating to his family of origin that I never expected I would do. I have had my eyes opened to the way folks live. This has been some of the best training I could ever have gotten in how human beings can be. But our family has also been enriched to have the experience of helping raise a boy.
When I was in the throes of grief over losing our only pregnancy, I told the Lord that if it wasn’t His will that we should have children to take the desire from my heart. Over the course of time, while I don’t regret loving a child through foster care, I can say that I am now at a point where that desire is gone for the most part. We are enjoying being aunt and uncle to some sweet nieces and nephews. And we enjoy working with the kids in the church where we have been sent to lead. But there are worse things than childlessness.
My prayer is that those who have walked through similar valleys can find hope. We did. I don’t think turning to foster care is the best thing for everyone. In fact, it will change your life in ways you may regret, but if you are called to help give hope to people who need it, then it might be right for you. But prayer and walking closely with the Lord are requirements. May God bring healing and hope to all whose arms have become empty. And may every child find a home and people to call family.