Out in Possum Trot, about half a mile past the last paved road, amid the tall trees, slumping shacks, and red East Texas clay, something strange is going on: Children are singing. They’re the ones you notice first when you walk into the Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. A couple dozen of them stand massed together in the front or off to the side of the pews as the choir claps, the band plays, and the Reverend W. C. Martin leads the congregation. A few of the kids are dancing in the aisle. One is playing a tambourine. Two years ago most of these children weren’t even in Shelby County, and they weren’t dancing and singing much, either. They were living in foster homes in Houston, Dallas, Beaumont, and Wichita Falls, victims of the worst kinds of neglect and sexual and physical abuse. They were also victims of the realities of adoption: They were damaged goods, black and mixed-race children desperate for families in a world where most adopters are trying to get healthy, white babies. But then W.C., 53, and his wife, Donna, 39, and two dozen families in this rural community (including Center and Shelbyville) did something without precedent in this country—they took in almost fifty of these seemingly forgotten urban children. W.C. is quick to credit God. Members of the state’s Child Protective Services ( CPS) aren’t sure if it’s divine intervention or not. All they know is they have never seen anything like this mass adoption. “It has been phenomenal,” says CPS social worker and program director Judy Bowman. It is indeed hard to believe, watching the parents hug and kiss their children at the church service, that, as W.C. says, “These are kids nobody wanted.” Bennett Chapel (congregation: 200) may be the reverend’s church, but adoption was his wife’s idea. The two met in nearby East Hamilton in 1978. W.C., a Gloster, Louisiana, native who had moved to Houston at fifteen, was singing gospel with his brothers in the Martin Brothers group when they visited a church Donna was attending. She came from a family of eighteen children in Possum Trot. They married a year later and lived in Houston. Four years after that W.C. entered the seminary. He began pastoring at Bennett Chapel and made the weekend commute for ten years while working a day job at a Houston tool company. The couple also had two children: Princeton in 1981 and LaDonna in 1987. In 1994 W.C. got fed up with the commute and moved the family to Center, where he sold insurance and preached in nearby Possum Trot.
Life went along well enough until Donna’s mother, Murtha, died in 1997. Donna drifted into what she describes as an “inconsolable sadness.” “I said to God, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’” she says. “ ‘If you don’t move this pain from me, just let me die.’” She says God answered her and told her to give to others what her mother had given to her. “He said, ‘Give back to the children who don’t have what you had. Foster and adopt.’”
With her sister Diann, Donna drove to Lufkin, an hour and a half away, and took a ten-week series