LEIGH JONES, HOST: Donna Martin grew up in a tiny, unincorporated, East Texas community called Possum Trot.
DONNA MARTIN: We came from a very humble beginning, you know. If it was cold on the outside, it was cold on the inside, if it rained in the house, on the outside and rain on the inside, but we were never neglected from love.
Martin was one of 21 children born to Martha Lee Grisby, a woman cherished by her entire community.
DONNA MARTIN: Every friend that came over to our house as kids reminds me now that we did not know that we would have enough meal food to feed the siblings, but there was always a kid that was there. She would never turn nobody down.
But Martin's mother died in 1996.
DONNA MARTIN: But back in 96, when my mother passed away, about six months after then I just became so heavily burdened. I mean, through it all, my mother and I were very close.
After her mother’s death, Martin sank deeper into depression. She couldn’t see beyond the anger and pain.
DONNA MARTIN: I'm here at that kitchen sink, washing my dishes. And I felt this heaviness come over me. And it was so strongly sprung upon me it was like I couldn't speak. I just had these emotions. And just painful, such a heaviness, a weight upon me that I couldn't express. I looked up and all I could say to the Lord was you either heal me or let me die.
In that moment, Martin felt the Holy Spirit speak to her.
DONNA MARTIN: Think of those children who are out there that did not have what you had in a mother. He says, foster, and adopt, give back. Now I'm a black girl from East Texas. I don't know anything about adoption. That was not in our vocabulary. I thought that's white folks, wealthy people do, just go and adopt kids.
But she made the call anyway.
DONNA MARTIN: I didn't question the Lord. He said it. I came back in here, picked up that phone, dialed 1-800 adoption, and I said my name is Donna Martin and I'm calling because I want to adopt.
That call started a movement. In 1997, the first foster child found a permanent home in Possum Trot. By 2005, the families of Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church had adopted 72 children out of foster care.
The Houston Chronicle picked up the story in 1999 with the headline: “Pining for homes: small East Texas church becomes hub for adoption.” Stories on Fox, NBC, and Good Morning America quickly followed. Oprah Winfrey hosted the pastor and his wife on her show.
AUDIO: NEWS STORY ABOUT THE MOVEMENT
The story pricked the conscience of the nation and helped fuel a church-wide emphasis on adoption. At the same time, the one church, one child movement gained steam. It used statements like: If every church adopted a child out of foster care, Christians could give every child a home.
That works on paper but not so well in practice. America has nearly 400,000 churches and about 400,000 children in foster care. But only about one quarter of them need a permanent home, and new children enter the system every day.
Plus, not every Christian is able or called to foster and adopt. But everyone has a part to play, and churches are finding ways to get more people involved. Because only the church—not government agencies—can meet the deepest spiritual and relational needs of children and families with the hope of the gospel.
From WORLD Radio and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything In It, this is Effective Compassion.
I’m Leigh Jones.
UNDERWRITING SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
Earlier this year, WORLD’s compassion reporter, Addie Offereins, traveled to Possum Trot to learn more about Donna Martin’s story.
ADDIE OFFEREINS: It’s Sunday morning at Bennett Chapel. Donna Martin and her sisters are leading the congregation in song. One of them has a tambourine. They sway with the music that fills the whitewashed sanctuary. Donna’s oldest son, Princeton, plays the bass guitar. Her grandson Noah is on the drums. Churchgoers sway in the pews and clap in rhythm with the music.
The church sits off an unpaved road near the center of Possum Trot. It’s about 20 minutes from the Louisiana border and doesn’t show up on Google Maps. It’s surrounded by tall pines and hints of the Louisiana wetlands.
Bishop W.C. Martin is Bennett Chapel’s pastor.
WC MARTIN: We describe it as Bapti-costal. It has a Baptist foundation, but it operates under the anointing of God and the power of the Spirit.
His piercing baritone reaches the back of the room without losing any of its intensity.
BENNETT CHAPEL AMBI: BISHOP MARTIN PREACHING
Donna Martin was raised in Bennett Chapel, at the center of the community.
DONNA MARTIN: It's really down home country if you will. Hog killing, chicken pickin, eating fried food kind of place. Oh, and the church, let me tell you, the church is something that everyone looks forward to. You start preparing on a Saturday to get ready to go to church on Sunday to put on your if you will, your Sunday best, whatever your best was, and go and worship the Lord for what you have accomplished or gone through all week long. We don't have no McDonald's and no streetlights and no newspapers. So it's just families that live up there. And just a great bunch of people.
Martin met Donna when he and his brother visited Bennett Chapel to sing. The couple lived in Houston for a while, but they eventually moved back to the area and Bishop Martin took the role as Bennett Chapel’s head pastor.
He’s told the story of the Possum Trot adoption movement on most major news outlets and at adoption conferences across the country. But when his wife first told him about her kitchen sink experience and her call to adopt, he was skeptical. He was already struggling to raise money for church repairs.
DONNA MARTIN: So when I called him and told him, what had happened to me and what the Holy Spirit had said. It was like, this is another one of Donna's projects. And so when he got home, I began to tell him, he just didn't get it.
But God changed his heart. Donna Martin also called her sister Diann Sparks, and told her what she felt God had called her to do.
DONNA MARTIN: He said not just the cute kids, but the ones that are really disturbed, that are really broken. I want you to bring them in and love them and nourish them back, nourish them, let them know their purpose, let them know that they are important. And she said, First Lady, if God told you to do it, we can do it.
Diann Sparks is a single mom with one daughter and a full time job at a flooring factory. But she decided to adopt anyway. Not long after, their social worker, Susan Ramsey, called about the first placement—a 4-year-old boy named Nino.
Like Sparks, most of the community residents barely made ends meet as it was. Possum Trot is in rural Shelby County. It has a population of almost 24,000. The poverty rate is almost double the national average. Residents only make about $40,000 per household.
DONNA MARTIN: I believe that, you know, just ordinary people, people who understand that you don't have to be a millionaire, or you don't have to be wealthy, to raise a family, to be able to train them and teach, teach them and provide a stable home, you know, and being in a rural area, when that's all you came from, and that's what you have, so you don't, you're not getting up every morning looking to buy the name brand tennis shoes. You come up knowing how to make ends meet with a make-do meal with some rice and potatoes and gravy and biscuits and you just make do.
After Sparks adopted, other families kept signing up to help. So the state offered to bring the adoption classes to them.
DONA MARTIN: Well, if you can get eight families, we'll come into your church and do the classes. So what happened? We ended up getting, I think, the first time we got about maybe 12. It began to mushroom. It stayed in the church for a while. But then it got outside the church, where people in the community saw what the church would do and then they wanted to get up and do a part of it.
By 2005, 23 families had adopted 72 children.
DONNA MARTIN: Oh, honey, and went by so fast. It wasn't like every year, it was like every month. And they were coming in like by the tens and the twelves.
A few months after Nino’s arrival, The Martins brought their first two foster children home. Five-year old Mercedes and 2-year-old Tyler. During their first family dinner, the Martins watched as the siblings stuffed food into their mouths…afraid it would be snatched away. Their biological mom had taught them both to steal.
DONNA MARTIN: She had gotten on drugs and gotten into drug habits and situations that from one leaving, then she would leave them with friends, and say, ‘keep them for an hour,’ and I'll be back and it would be weeks, days. And there are times when Mercedes was a little girl walking around in a store, and she would train her how to get food, take food from the stores, steal food for them to eat.
The Martin's usual parenting strategies didn’t always work. It took years to break Mercedes’ stealing habit. Sometimes it was candy at school. Once it was the offering money at church.
DONNA MARTIN: But I had to realize that what the lifestyle that these kids came from, was a whole different world. So when I had situations to come up, then I would say, Lord, how do I handle this? And he would tell me, put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel? I had to become that child.
Twelve-year-old Terri joined the family in 1999. Her mother often beat and neglected her. After the state took custody of her, Terri moved from foster home to foster home. A social worker brought her to the Martins for two weeks while her foster family went on vacation. But then they decided not to take her back. Terri didn’t know that her foster family didn’t want her.
DONNA MARTIN: And so she told her what was going on, that she had to find a place for a new placement, and Terri just cried. She just cried, and I just held her in my arms. I just let her cry on my shoulder. And she looked at me and said, "Will you be my mom?"
Sometimes the Martins wondered if they’d make it through. Their tight community became essential for them and the other foster families. When parents wanted to give up or children acted out, the church rallied around to help. One of the adoptive moms taught Sunday school for many of the other children.
DONNA MARTIN: And so everybody kind of helped out and did what they needed to. If they saw a child in the wrong, they would try to straighten him out and help them. I think this is why it is so important for the church to lead the charge, and it is because the church can be there when the state can't be there.
Their social workers also gave them the support they needed. None of the adopted children went back into the system.
DONNA MARTIN: And I feel like God had placed these peoples in these positions because they were so amazing. They knew that they placed the right children in the right family at the right time.
AUDIO: NEWS STORY ABOUT THE MOVEMENT
Getting to the Heart of Christmas in Possum Trot, Texas with The TODAY Show. Soon people across the United States heard about the movement in the rural community.
DONNA MARTIN: We were in so much different media. They were just coming right out the right behind each other. Just one after another. It was so much.
Martin started speaking about adoption at churches and conferences around the country.
DONNA MARTIN: When we were raising these babies, my husband traveled, to speak on many platforms, and crying out ringing the bell and speaking: bring these children into your home. If we can do it, anybody can do it.
He emphasized how adoption displayed the gospel.
WC MARTIN: Adoption is not a man-made thing. It started with God. God purposely started adoption. And by starting the adoption, the only way a man was able to get back to God was through adoption through Jesus Christ.
LEIGH JONES: The Possum Trot movement contributed to a nationwide push for adoption and showcased the fundamental role of the church in providing deep love for the least of these. As Bishop Martin says, it’s a role the church can provide but the state cannot. Jedd Medefind couldn’t agree more.
JEDD MEDEFIND: But, you know, while the government, though, has played an increasing role throughout the 20th century, and particularly over the past 50 years, at the same time, the role of faith based organizations continues to be really significant.
Medefind is president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
MEDEFIND: And also, what we also see is that the people who are especially willing to provide that relational commitment, whether as mentors to families, mentors to youth, foster parents, adoptive parents, all of those things are coming in an outsized way from people motivated by Christian faith.
He knows this from firsthand experience.
MEDEFIND: And the first part of my career was actually in the political realm. I worked in the state legislature in California, did some international work and then worked as you know, in the George W. Bush administration, and as part of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative there.
Former President George W. Bush defined the initiative as a determined attack on need. But it was different from other government poverty projects run by Washington bureaucrats. It didn’t just create another agency to deliver the needed goods or services.
MEDEFIND: President Bush's plan was to say: You know what, while government has an important role, some of the most important work needs to be done at the community level by committed organizations rooted in communities that have dedicated volunteers that have personal relationships that will provide high levels of accountability and relationship and encouragement to those who are trying to change their lives and needing help, whether this is returning prisoners or the homeless or recovering addicts.
WORLD’s former editor in chief Marvin Olasky gave examples of this approach in his book Compassionate Conservatism. In the book’s forward, Bush described how Olasky shaped his view of Effective Compassion—help that really helps by motivating lasting change.
Government does have an essential role to play in protecting children. But it can’t raise them. It can’t mentor their parents. It can’t build a network of community around struggling families. Only the church can do that.
MEDEFIND: So when you're looking at a particular problem, if a particular problem, if the main issue there is a lack of material resources, or the need for a particular one size fits all service, then government can actually deliver that fairly well. It can deliver medication for instance.
But not every need has a material solution. That’s because children and families are more than groceries, an electricity bill, or the roof over their head. Taking a child out of a bad situation is just the first step.
MEDEFIND: But if the fundamental need includes relationship, includes a person feeling cared for, and loved, and belonging, those are things the government cannot do on its own and in fact, when it tries to, often it will create more problems than it solves.
But taking back ground that the church has lost isn’t easy.
HERBIE NEWELL: My name is Herbie Newell and I am the president and the executive director for lifeline Children's Services.
You met Newell in Episode 1. His organization started in 1981 to support women in crisis pregnancies and emphasized adoption. Its focus has changed to meet shifting needs over the years.
NEWELL: I believe that the Lord gave to His people, the mandate to care for the vulnerable, the orphan and the widow, I believe we, as the church over time, have subjugated that call back to the state. And we've kind of become lazy and said: Well, that's what the state does.
That doesn’t mean Christians should completely dismiss the way the system works. It’s easy to criticize the way someone else does their job.
NEWELL: And we've allowed the state to walk in. I believe it's easier to lose something that you have than to get it back. And so to get it back, we've got to take a humble posture and go back to the state, come back to the counties and the government child welfare and say, How can we help? We're here, what do you need? And what we've seen to answer your fuller question is, as we started to meet their need, which was foster families, and reunification, and kids are aging out.
That’s what Newell and the Church at Brook Hills did in Shelby County, Alabama. Newell attended the metro Birmingham area church when David Platt served as lead pastor. Platt says it all started when he preached out of the book of James.
DAVID PLATT: And so then, there was one point when we were walking through the book of James and James obviously makes it clear from the beginning, don't just listen to this word, do it. And so then we got to James 1:27, God tells us that religion that's pure and faultless before him is to look after orphans and widows in their distress. And so we just said, Okay, how are we going to do this? And specifically when it comes to orphans, I reached out that next week to our Department of Human Resources in our county, and I said do you have any needs when it comes to foster care, or adoption? And the other person on the other side of the phone just kind of laughed. They said, of course, we have so many needs.
Two counties make up the Birmingham metro area. At the time, Shelby County had about 200 kids in foster care. The church’s congregation numbered in the thousands.
PLATT: And I said, well, how many families do you need to be able to care for all the children that you're trying to care for? And she laughed again, I was like, no, really like how many families do you need? And she said, we need 150 more families.
Lifeline, the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home, and the state child welfare agency hosted an info session at Brook Hills one Sunday night in September 2009. They were shocked when almost 800 families showed up.
PLATT: And that that day, we had over 150 families sign up to help with foster care and adoption to help the needs basically saying, hey, we want to make sure that kids in our county are cared for and I remember that worker from the just with tears in her eyes and what made you decide to do this and I just looked back at her and said I didn't decide to do this. God designed his church to do this. And he loves every one of these kids, and he wants their good. And that began a process where we began caring for children through foster care through adoption all together in new ways and different people playing different parts in that.’
The church’s primary focus was fostering and reunification. But if some children did need to be adopted, families stepped in.
PLATT: God wasn't calling everybody to foster. God wasn't calling everybody to adopt. God was calling us all together to care for these children and their families. The beauty is there's so many different parts we can play. And that's what I love about seeing the church activated on this issue. Because God will lead some families, and there's great need for families to adopt, to foster. And there's great need for those families to have a lot of support as they do that.
Anita Bucher was Platt’s executive assistant at the time and today still runs the foster and adoption ministry at The Church at Brook Hills.
ANITA BUCHER: Several times I've had these conversations and people say, ‘so I heard you adopt that you took in all the kids in Shelby County.’ And no, we didn't take in all the kids in Shelby County. But even if we had, they were coming in as fast as you could place one in a home. So it's not like you can finish foster care and just end it. It's an ongoing need.
Today, the work goes on.
BUCHER: And I'm thrilled to say that here we are 13 plus years later, because it was in September of last year, we celebrated 13 years of ministry. We still have parents who are signing up every semester to take the licensing classes, and we have people who are volunteering, and God is still doing amazing things through that effort.
And it didn’t stop with The Church at Brook Hills.
BUCHER: The really cool thing is churches all across the city are doing that. You know, it has spread literally across the city. And so classes are being hosted all over the city. Foster parents are gathering in churches all over the city. And it's just been amazing to watch what the Lord's doing.
Every Christian is called to care for the orphan. But as David Platt said, not all are called to foster or adopt. How can the church get them involved? Jason Weber says it starts with thinking small. You met Weber in Episode 6. He’s the president of More than Enough.
JASON WEBER: One of the biggest challenges I think we have in foster care specifically in the U.S. is that we have traditionally presented it as a large national unsolvable problem. And what I mean by that is how we talk about it, right? So if we get an opportunity, if any advocate in the church in the U.S., gets an opportunity to speak in front of the church for maybe seven or 10 minutes on a Sunday morning. We share the biggest numbers we can find because we want the church to understand how big and important this problem is.
The short presentations are full of staggering statistics about the more than 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States and the 117,000 available for adoption.
WEBER: They're true that that is the case. But what we've just done is we presented the church with a problem that feels too big for anybody to solve. And then what we do in our seven to 10 minutes we have per year is we then invite people, we say, if you want to help solve this problem, you can be a foster parent or you can adopt. So we've just presented the problem that feels too big to solve and we've just provided two options that don't feel actually practical for most of the people sitting there listening.
More than Enough helps churches to think smaller. The organization equips them with the tools they need to get involved in every aspect of orphan care.
WEBER: Let's share the smallest numbers we can find because those are the numbers that actually are motivating. When your pastor finds out that there are 62 kids in your county that are available for adoption and there are hundreds of churches with tens of thousands of people in your county, you immediately go hey, this is possible.
It’s not just about getting church members signed up for adoption or foster care. Local churches can host parenting classes and meet the needs of families upended by a crisis.
WEBER: We think that every community is capable of getting more than enough. in these four areas: more than enough foster and kinship families for every child to have an ideal placement; more than enough adoptive families for every child who's waiting for one; and more than enough help from biological families who are trying to stay together and get back together; and more than enough wraparound support for all these families for foster kinship adoptive and biological families.
Churches can also wrap their arms around foster and adoptive families struggling to get from one day to the next. Jedd Medefind says one of the best things church members can do is meet basic, everyday needs.
MEDEFIND: And in some cases, this is formal, where you actually have an official program and you recruit families to support the families, and build a wraparound team of maybe four or five other individuals or families around the core family that needs that support, and it's highly coordinated. And that's very effective.
But it could also be as simple as spontaneously offering to mow a family’s lawn or babysitting a few nights a month. Foster and adoptive families need people who anticipate their needs before they have to ask. Asking for help isn’t easy.
MEDEFIND: But often I see it happening very informally, where a church just maybe has a few foster families and then there's just a number of other families that are kind of pitching in at different moments, bringing them meals and running errands, doing babysitting. And that's a beautiful thing because it doesn't necessarily need to be highly structured. But I would say that as the church goes on, just enabling there to be a coordinated support is helpful, so that the family themselves doesn't always have to be sharing with everyone else, Oh, these are my needs. Could someone please help me?
BENNETT CHAPEL AMBI
Back in Possum Trot, it’s 2 p.m. and the boisterous church service is almost over. Here’s Addie Offereins again.
ADDIE OFFEREINS: After church, the Martins gather with some of Donna’s extended family at her old family home. It’s a small wooden house with peeling white paint and a front porch trimmed in dark green. Inside, the ceilings are low and a few floorboards creak. The mouth-watering smells of southern cooking fill the small kitchen: black eyed peas, collared greens, homemade cornbread, and pork ribs falling off the bone.
FAMILY LUNCH AMBI
To the right of the kitchen, a tight hallway leads to what was once Donna’s mother’s small, but cozy bedroom. The bedspread is a colorful quilt—a little frayed, but still vibrant. It’s a fitting place to talk to the children and extended family members carrying on their grandma’s legacy of loving children in need. One of them is the Martin’s niece.
MARQUITA GARRETT: My name is Marquita Garrett and we are in my grandmother's room in Possum Trot. My grandmother was Martha Lee Grigsby, and she's kind of the foundation of the start of the orphan care, and the foster adoption that we did here in Bennett Chapel Church.
You met Garrett in Episode 6. She grew up with a gaggle of cousins—many of whom were adopted through the Possum Trot movement.
GARRETT: Oh, it was exciting for us, because we always came from a big family. And to me, it was just like more, additional cousins. So I mean, we enjoyed it. We didn't look at them as adopted kids or anything like that. They were just a part of our family. And so that transition was really easy for us.
Garrett is now the regional manager for CarePortal, a technology designed for foster and adoptive families to submit needs that are assigned to a local church. She says it's a way to help churches become pillars in their communities and introduce kids and their families to Jesus Christ.
GARRETT: God left it to the church to do. So I mean, that's why, because otherwise, it'd be just like any other governmental agency, just going out and meeting the needs, but it's about the connection.
CarePortal is also another way to involve every church member, not just those who decide to foster or adopt.
OFFEREINS: How would you maybe respond to someone in a church who's like, I'm just gonna not help with this issue, because I can't foster right now?
GARRETT: I would say, Well, I understand that you can't foster or adopt right now. But she could still help. You can join the Care Portal team. You can be on a response team at your church, you can get your local church involved with Care portal. It helps foster parents and it helps at-risk children through prevention. And that way, you'll be adopting them all.
LEIGH JONES: During this season, we met Christians building lasting relationships with families in crisis at risk of losing their children. We met church members meeting the needs of foster and adoptive families and supporting social workers. We followed Christians living out their faith in the courts.
We witnessed the irreplaceable role Christians play in caring for vulnerable children and breaking the cycle of rejection and trauma with the life-changing love of Jesus Christ. All of these efforts bear the hallmarks of effective compassion—help that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. Help that really helps, not just now, but for eternity.
Effective Compassion is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Leigh Jones. Addie Offereins reported and wrote this episode. Thanks to the incredible team of reporters that helped make this season possible: Bonnie Pritchett, Anna Johansen Brown, Lauren Dunn, Kim Henderson, and Jenny Rough.
I’m the producer. Paul Butler is our executive producer. Technical assistance provided by Rich Rozel and Creative Genius Productions.
UNDERWRITER SPOT: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in impoverished communities around the world. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea, one of the most dangerous nations for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week's worth of food to a Christian living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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