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 of Parenting Resource Information Development Education (PRIDE) classes, which are mandatory for those who plan to adopt high-risk children. “It was enough to scare you silly,” says Donna. “To us, the way we grew up, parents were the ones who loved you, provided for you, didn’t do you any harm. We didn’t know anything about incest or molestation or anything like that.” Meanwhile, W.C. was working his day job while rebuilding the church, the floor of which had caved in at Donna’s mother’s funeral.
Five months after completing the class, Diann adopted a son, Nino. In February 1998 W.C. and Donna got five-year-old Mercedes and two-year-old Tyler, a mixed-race brother and sister from Dallas. It was not the easiest of transitions. “Someone had told Mercedes that you don’t want to stay with black people because of all the roaches and rats,” says W.C. That misconception was instantly dispelled, but other troubles ensued, especially with Mercedes. “She had never had structure,” says W.C. “We started some time-out programs, some no-television nights. ‘Go to your room and stay there.’ What have you. And it worked.” Sometimes the reality of their children’s lives hit hard. “Tyler, when he first came here,” remembers W.C., “would eat so fast, eating like he was never going to get another meal. It hurt to see him. I thought, ‘What has happened to these children?'”
In the Martins’ tight-knit congregation, people took immediate notice. Says Donna: “People at church started asking us, ‘How do you do it? The children are beautiful. Can we do it?'” Demand was great enough that W.C. asked about holding PRIDE classes at the church. He was told that a social worker from the CPS would come if he could guarantee that ten families would show up. He said he could. When the teacher arrived, 23 families sat waiting. At first, agency officials were skeptical. “I’ve been doing this for twenty-six years,” says Bowman. “When you have that kind of response, it’s usually people who want healthy babies without any negatives. I told these families that we place a lot of older kids and sibling groups—three, four, five, six brothers and sisters—many of whom have serious medical and psychological problems. And we’re not talking about kids who need glasses. If you still want to sign up . . . And they did. The more we went into it—the classes, the background checks—we found these were people who met our criteria, were realistic, and were willing to follow through.” In the end it’s quite simple, says Donna: “It’s all about love. We bring the kids into our homes and show them the way we live and give them food and clothes and help them get an education and put them in the church.” Eventually the Martins took in two foster children—Terri and Joshua, now ten and seven years old.
What makes the adoptions even more remarkable is that the area is so poor. According to the 1990 census, the average family income in Shelby County is $16,584, some $10,000 less than the county average in Texas. Most work for low pay at Tyson Foods, in the timber industry, or at a hardwood floor company. “My people don’t have money,” says W.C. What they do have, apparently, is a great capacity for love and old-fashioned country discipline.
They also get a great deal of support from the Center and the Possum Trot communities. “Country folks have always had a lot of children around, and food,” Donna says, laughing. “To us it’s a natural thing to go to each other’s homes and eat and visit.” Says Bowman: “The amount of support they give each other is amazing. A lot of people get isolated when their adopted child acts up. When these kids act up, the families help each other.” As W.C. says, “We network.”
The Martins and their infectious adoptions have recently been chronicled in the national media. People magazine did a feature, as did Good Morning America. Oprah Winfrey cried after showing a taped segment on the church. “I’m breaking my own record for tears,” she sniffed. “Four minutes into the show and I’m crying already.” (You can read about the church’s other honors at its Web site, www.bcministry.org.) Unfortunately, back home the church’s success has been more than the CPS can handle. For the third group of PRIDE classes, held this past spring, three area families couldn’t get in, and the department is so backed up processing approved placements that new classes won’t be offered until 2001. (Nationally, there are half a million children in foster care and only one in ten will be adopted this year; Houston alone has eight hundred children waiting.)
In the meantime, W.C. and Donna are busy raising their children and seeking outside help to build a community center so that all these children will have a place to play. “It’s going to come,” says W.C. of the financial help he is seeking. “It may not come as fast as I want it to, but it’ll come.”
Back at the Martins’ quiet, orderly home, Mercedes, Tyler, Terri, and Josh are asked what they like about living with the Martins. They are all shy and eager to please. Foster child Terri, speaking in the heartbreaking hopeful voice of a ten-year-old wanting a permanent home, says, “That we have a good family.” Mercedes is bolder and responds loudly, “Eating!”
Out in Possum Trot, the children aren’t the only ones getting saved. “You get back from the world what you give,” says Donna. “I don’t have any wondering moments now of emptiness and loneliness. Now I have to say, ‘Lord, I need more time.'”