Picture this: A pastor and his wife decide they and their small congregation are going to do something about the number of children languishing in the foster care system in America. They believe that surely, in a nation of such great wealth, these children should have permanent homes.
Now this is a small church -- Bennett Chapel Baptist. And it's in the tiny town of Possum Trot, Texas -- a community of mostly working-class African-Americans who don't have loads of extra resources to make room for adopted children in their homes. Outsiders might have thought it best to first study the foster care system and seek solutions and resources to help ease these children out of foster care over time, and not get in a big hurry about it. Well, that's not the Possum Trot way.
"We just took something on without counting the cost of what it was going to be like," is the way Pastor W.C. Martin often explains it. He and his wife, Donna, set the example by adopting four children who had been raised in abusive homes. Then a few more of Bennett Chapel's families adopted children from foster-care and then dozens more. Today, a decade after the Martins' mission began, 72 children have been permanently adopted by the families of Possum Trot, with more still considering adoption.
At the outset, Donna Martin told the families in the congregation that these children would come to them with challenges, since many were severely abused before they arrived in foster care, and many more had been passed over for adoption time and time again.
"We felt called to give to those totally neglected, told they would never amount to anything," she said. "And those are the kids we have taken in."
Some of these children had been raped as toddlers. Some were burned with scalding water, or with cigarettes; some were starved; some were locked in lightless rooms; some were abandoned. Many were beaten, and all were deprived of the kind of love that allows a child to feel safe.
Today, the Martins say their adopted children --Terri, Joshua, Tyler and Mercedes -- are happy, healthy, successful, loving kids. But it has not been easy, Donna Martin readily admits. She herself was raised by loving parents, in a home where she and her siblings delighted in the company of their mother and father. Donna had no reference point for dealing with children who were emotionally and physically scarred by parents with no idea of how to love and care for their children.
"It's been rocky. It's been tough," she said. "I thought, you know, bringing them into a loving environment, dressing them up, taking them to Sunday school and the movies, letting them run and play, kissing them at bedtime," all this would be enough.
Not so. It has often been "Five steps forward, 25 steps back, but," she quickly added, "absolutely, without a doubt it has been worth it. They're beginning to learn that they have goals and standards, and can choose to do positive things." That is evident watching the Martin children with their parents; the hugs come easily, the banter is familiar and gentle, and there is the subtle self-discipline of children comfortable in their parents' love and their family's routines.
"We talk about anything," Mercedes said. "We're very close."
And while that's very satisfying to the pastor, it's not enough. It's not even enough that the dozens of children adopted by the other families of his congregation are doing well and thriving. Or that more of Bennett Chapel's members are getting ready to adopt.
No, W.C. Martin wants America to look at what his modest, hardworking, hard-pressed and sometimes overwhelmed little congregation has done --- and he wants thousands, if not tens of thousands, of American families to do the same thing.
And he's not kidding.
"I have a problem with this. I really do. We have so many children who need a place to stay," he said, the preacher in him quickly emerging when the subject of adoption comes up in an interview. The cadence of his voice shifts to that of the pulpit, his words appealing to the best in every person.
"In every state of the union, there's tens of thousands of children who need a home, who need a refuge, who need a place where they can call 'Mommy' and know they have a home and a mother and father."
He wants families in America to consider what many might think impossible: to have faith that bringing children out of the foster care system and into their families can work, if they are determined to make it work.
"There's no reason in the world why no child, no child should be in the foster care system. The system right now ought to be out looking for a job," he said with emotion.
Even in a tough economy, he is convinced that Americans have more than enough to reach out and take children in. "As much as God has given us, and as much as we have, there are so many wealthy churches," he admonished. "What are they doing to become part of the solution?"
When people congratulate Martin for all he and his wife and the Bennett Chapel congregation have done, he takes no time to bask in the praise. Instead, he usually issues a challenge.
"There's people right now who may look at us and say, 'Oh, they are doing such a good job down there with all them little children and it's a wonderful thing.' Well, yes, it is. But it can be an even greater thing," he said. "If all of us start working with one another, we can take this whole problem and remedy it null and void."
He has many convinced that Possum Trot is an example for the nation. Among the convinced is Joyce James, the assistant commissioner for Children's Protective Services in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
"When you look at the concentration of families in this small community as we have, people wonder a lot about how it could happen," James said, noting that most of the families live paycheck to paycheck, and many already had children of their own when they adopted. "But it is possible. And I think they're a living example of it. And I think what has happened here is because they're so close knit, and because they worship together and live close together. They have a special bonding."
Donna Martin believes that her community's closeness, their willingness to work together to overcome the challenges and hurdles, are the keys to it all. She hopes that if people take nothing else from the Possum Trot example, they at least understand that the one ingredient that can make it work anywhere is love -- real, gritty, tenacious, forgiving, sacrificing, patient and enduring love.
The kind of love, she says, that operates on faith. "You have to love enough to not think about 'What I can't do', but love enough to say, 'What can I do'?"
Martin has been reaching out to pastors across the nation, urging them to address the needs of the thousands of children in foster care in their own communities.
"We are letting precious gifts just slide through our fingers. ...The burden is so heavy," acknowledges Martin. "But the situation itself is so great. And God just wants somebody that he can trust, that he can just put some children in their hand."
Bennett Chapel Family Ministry: www.bcministry.org/
Organizations that offer grants, no-interest loans and other assistance for churches and other groups that want to establish adoption funds:
The Abba Fund: www.abbafund.org
Lifesong for Orphans: www.lifesongfororphans.org
Shaohannah's Hope: www.members.shaohannahshope.org
Family Legacies: www.familylegacies.us