Caring for the Least of These

First UMC Morrilton’s Room 29:11 provides shoes, clothing, personal items and support for foster parents in the community.

From the very beginning, she thought of him as “her boy,” although she would not give birth to him. She stood in the delivery room, next to the hospital bed, while a teenage girl birthed this child who would be named Nathanael.

The Rev. Alicia Finch-McCastlain, pastor of Pleasant Hill UMC in Little Rock, recalled that life-changing experience with a catch in her voice. At the time, nineteen years ago, she had befriended a female student, one of many whose lives she touched in her role as an assistant principal at a public high school. Little did either of them know that a year later their lives would forever be entwined.

“We first became acquainted because she was having difficulties in school and we spoke often,” Finch-McCastlain said. “When I saw her at the beginning of the next school year later, I thought at first that she’d put on some weight. And then I realized she was pregnant.”

Finch reached out to the girl’s mother to see if she could help. As that emotional conversation drew to a close, Finch-McCastlain thought, “Is this supposed to be my child?” She heard a voice—one she says

she knows was God’s—say, “Yes.” Without even realizing she was doing it, she called out to the girl’s mother, “Wait, my husband and I have been thinking about adopting a child.” And the mother said, “That would be an answer to our prayers.”

That evening she told her then husband what she had done and it was decided. While the couple had been told they would never be able to have children, just like the Old Testament stories, God found a way.

That story has a happy ending. That baby boy grew up in a home where he was loved and nurtured. He’s one of the lucky ones. Sadly, there are others whom may never know what that feels like. According to the third quarter 2017 report of the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services

(DCFS), there were 5,135 children in foster care in Arkansas. Of those children, who range in age from less than one year to 18, 45% have been in foster care for 12 months or longer. The largest percentage of the population (24%) are between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Nearly half of the children resided in foster homes, with the remainder living in family-like settings (therapeutic foster home, relative care, pre-adoptive home, or trial home visit). The report states that the majority of these children have been placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect. DCFS reports that at the end of the quarter, 689 children were available for adoption. Of the available children, 62 percent were white and 15 percent were black. Half of the children available for adoption were between the ages of six and 13 years old.

There’s hope

This should matter to all of us.

It especially matters to a number of United Methodist families who have adopted children, such as Finch-McCastlain, or are living out their faith by becoming foster parents. These families and others were gratified to see the Arkansas Conference unanimously pass a resolution regarding the church’s role in caring for these vulnerable children. The resolution, adopted during the 2017 Annual Conference held in Hot Springs, urges United Methodists and their churches to find ways to raise awareness about fostering and/or adoption as well as caring for families who have taken on the responsibility of loving the children if even for a short time. The resolution, brought to the floor by the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, associate pastor at Pulaski Heights, outlines the deficits children, and especially children who age out of the foster care system, have to overcome.

“The majority of these children have less than a GED, will be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance and many will find themselves in prison, homeless or parents at an early age,” states Snyder in the resolution.

It goes on to cite a portion of the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that says, “We support and encourage greater awareness and education to promote adoption of a wide variety of children through foster care, international adoption, and domestic adoption.”

The thrust of the resolution focuses on encouraging every local UMC in Arkansas “to support adoption efforts through recruitment of potential adoptive parents,” and doing so by recognizing November as National Adoption Month.

One Heber Springs family was already well aware of the great need and had responded by living out their faith and God’s will through fostering and adoption. John and Ashley Herring, members of First UMC in Heber Springs, have been married for 22 years. They have five biological children, ranging from elementary to college age; an adopted daughter who is a senior in high school, two other girls in pre-adoptive placement, and are fostering a two-year-old girl.

Looking back a her journals written years ago, Herring said God gave her a heart for children before she was even aware of it.

“I have journals that go back to 2007 where I have written, ‘foster, adopt, missions,” Herring said. “I just had that compassion even as a child, that there is an injustice about kids that didn’t have a family or that weren’t taken care of.”

Herring recounts that even as she and her husband were raising their biological children, God kept nudging them to do something. They began the process of becoming foster parents, despite the counseling of their family and friends from church, who felt the family was taking on too much. But the Herrings forged on, convinced that this was what God wanted them to do.

At first, they worked with a state agency but later became aware of The Call, a faith-based organization that partners with the state and helps train potential foster parents and supports them throughout the process. The Call is currently assisting in 44 Arkansas counties, and Herring has become the coordinator for Cleburne County.

Herring said becoming a foster parent is a tough job and not everyone is equipped to handle the emotional, psychological and financial responsibilities. She also says there is a huge role the church can play by supporting any foster family, whether they have a church affiliation or not.

Herring feels that since they’ve been foster parents and have brought nearly 40 foster children with them to church over the years, the awareness of foster families in the community has changed the culture of their church.

“These children, they’ve had trauma and our home is a healing place,” Herring said. “When a child comes in and they’re different and their behaviors are different, it ust adds so much more grace to everybody. It helps people to be more open.”

She added that her goal is for the families to be restored, and 90% of families are reunited. Some of them choose to become part of the life of the congregation. Herring believes that is also part of God’s plan.

“Their parents come with us to church, and then people are viewing this redemption of a family, this restoration of a family, this mentorship,” Herring said. “And all that is being watched and viewed within the church, and the church welcoming them and loving them.”

“Our church is about action,” Herring said. “And not just saying it, but people in the church living it. Like somebody in the church has to actually live it out. And people have to wrap around them to see that it can be done.

Herring is glad, too, that the message of caring for foster children and their families is something regularly preached from the pulpit.

‘The pastor has to speak it in a way that is gospel-centered, that’s saying, in a way, that we’re taking care of them is the way that God reaches out and takes care of us,” Herring said.