When I was a kid, I loved to read. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books were my favorite. I took in every detail of life as a pioneer family living on the prairie. To the point of even asking my grandmother, who was probably in her mid-fifties in 1973, if she was a pioneer woman. I wanted to meet a pioneer!
It finally happened in 2008 when I met two pioneer women in their fields – the fields of the fatherless. Alicen Bennett and Mary Carol Pederson blazed a trail. Eliminating undergrowth, removing obstacles, and setting boundaries. All to clarify the path to collaboration between the State Government and the Church in Arkansas on behalf of children in foster care.
Child Welfare Pioneer: Mary Carol
Mary Carol, a young Christian mom, recognized the need for foster parents in her community. She and her husband opened their home and hearts to a teen boy in foster care. Then they began to get daily phone calls for placement. In the true spirit of pioneer women, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She was searching for the answer to the question. “Who is responsible for making sure the kids in foster care are safe?”
Mary knew that child welfare agencies and court systems were responsible for protecting vulnerable children and teens. She also knew that child welfare systems could be large, cold, and impersonal. She asked herself, “Can a government agency provide for the deepest needs of kids who have suffered abuse and neglect?”
Mary Carol attended a compassionate, bible-teaching, and equipping church. However, she had never heard that there was a need for foster families. She knew God’s heart for vulnerable children and understood His call to defend the weak and the fatherless (Psalm 82:3.) Mary had answered God’s call (James 1:27) to care for one of the abused and neglected kids in foster care. She was tangibly demonstrating what Jesus had done for her on the cross (Galatians 4:5.)
Child Welfare Pioneer: Alicen Bennet
Meanwhile, Alicen Bennett, a kind-hearted and genuinely cheerful person, was working her way up in the child welfare agency. She had a deep desire to impact children’s lives in foster care for the better. She had experienced the frustrating and disheartening work of trying to place children in foster homes. And she wondered,” Where is the Church?”
Like Mary Carol, Alicen understood God’s call to all believers to care for abused and neglected kids. She had answered that call through her work in foster care. She knew not everyone was called to foster or adopt, but believed that all Christians were called to care. God prepared Alicen and placed her in her role for the transformational work He was about to do.
She got a call from a colleague who invited her to a meeting with her co-workers and some “Christian people” to talk about how the Church could serve children in foster care. “Interesting,” she thought. Alicen had been down this road before with people who wanted to do something nice for kids in care.
She knew that children in foster care needed a family more than anything. A home where they would be welcomed, loved, and nurtured. They needed a place where they could experience safety, stability, and belonging and heal from the wounds of abuse and neglect.
Church and Government Work Together
On meeting day, Mary Carol Pederson and Alicen Bennett walked into a massive gathering of people. There were agency staff, foster and adoptive families, legal representatives, pastors, and volunteers all from organizations that cared about children and teens in care. Both eagerly anticipated what God would do. Would He keep the Church and the government separated when children and families’ lives were at the heart of the matter?
A pastor from the community moderated the meeting. His opening comments included a humble acknowledgment. The Church had not done what the Church needed to do for the children and teens in foster care. That the church desired to engage with the child welfare system in ways that would be helpful to the agency. The Church and the Government resolved to find a way to work together on behalf of children in foster care and their families.
Mary Carol shared research from a few states where the government and the Church had begun to collaborate to help children and teens in foster care. The movements created by Project 1.27 in Colorado and Bennett’s Chapel in Possum Trot, Texas, led by Bishop W. C. Martin, grew out of a desire to help children in their local communities. Both movements proved effective at calling the Church to action on behalf of the vulnerable children.
A New Group of Pioneers
Then the state and the Church began to dream big about what working together would look like. A completely new group of pioneers rolled up their sleeves to work together on a collaborative solution to solve the local need for foster and adoptive families. At the end of the meeting, the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) director stood before the crowd and invited the Church to engage with the state on behalf of children and teens in foster care and their families. A new movement of the Church in Arkansas was born and named The CALL (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime).
God instituted government. He gives leaders in government authority. Sometimes He asks His people to play a public leadership role, like Joseph, Daniel, Nehemiah, and so many others.
God asks all of his people to be good citizens who actively engage, minister to, and disciple in our local communities, seeking the common good and the well-being of all people. We are commanded “to love because he first loved us” (John 4:17), and “to do good to all people.” (Galatians 6:10.) God also calls his people to defend the oppressed and take up the cause of the fatherless (Isaiah 1:17)
Blazed a Pathway
Both Mary Carol Pederson from the Church and Alicen Bennett from the Government devoted years of their lives and immeasurable energy to clarify a systematic way for the Church and the state to work together collaboratively on behalf of children and families. Together, they blazed a pathway to connect prospective families with the child welfare agency, walking alongside prospective families and the agency, and providing support and encouragement throughout the process. Their collaboration has resulted in nearly 23,000 children being cared for by Christian foster families and more than 1,800 children and teens adopted by forever families.
Praise God for how He orchestrated all the details and forged a relationship between the Church and the State that works for His kids in care and their families!