It was front-page news in my town. "12-year-old girl found lying in her own feces, locked in closet for years." I couldn't believe it! Maybe things like this happened 20 years ago, but not in the nineties. Maybe it happened in other towns, but not where I lived. Yet the pictures and the headlines weren't lying. It was terribly true.
The most surprising part of all was that the family, guilty of this most revolting type of abuse, had been thought of as good, quiet neighbors. Their other four children, all younger, had been seen playing outside, so no one suspected there was a fifth one being starved, beaten, and imprisoned within that little white frame house.
As I read the article, I wondered, "How different might that little girl's life have been if, at her birth, some one would have sent a Welcome Baby card to the family and visited them monthly for the first year, making friends and meeting their needs?" The statistics are clear: abusing parents are often isolated people--no phone calls, no friends, no extended family. The frustration of parenting becomes more than they can bear, and they take it out on their children.
Being our neighbor's keeper
In the early seventies I read about an experimental program in Denver, Colorado, that sent nonprofessional women to visit high-risk families. The rates of child abuse were significantly lowered by periodic visits. Now this study has been replicated in Hawaii with the same finding: abuse is almost nonexistent among families who are visited regularly. These are modern-day illustrations of the truth of the biblical concept that we should be our neighbor's keepers. For the children's sake, we must be involved in the lives of others. It's our Christian duty to help meet the needs of young families and care about what happens to them.
For 20 years the idea has been in my mind to develop a set of monthly news letters that church members could deliver to parents of newborns, offering them a social network of support, information, and resources to meet their needs. Now it's time for the harvest. I call this pro gram Welcome Baby. But reducing the rate of child abuse in your community is not the only reason for your church to implement this program of sending a Welcome Baby card and hand-delivering 12 monthly newsletters to the parents of newborns.
If you look around your church or community, you'll discover that those whom you consider to be the best parents, don't parent alone. They have a good support system of friends and relatives to help and encourage them when the going gets tough.
It sometimes takes years for couples to build this supportive network in the transient society in which we live. The ironic thing is that the very time that a support network is most needed--at the birth of a baby--may be the time it is most lacking. Young families chasing the rainbow of economic security may have moved hundreds and sometimes thou sands of miles from their families of origin. High school and college friends are left behind. Many have no church home. With both husband and wife driving in opposite directions to full-time jobs, they have precious little time to make friends with the people in the next apartment, and there is certainly no time to visit over the back fence.
Social support system
Most couples don't realize the importance of a social support system until a baby is born. I love the little note a new grandmother showed me that her son wrote to her when their first child was born.
"Dear Mom, you asked me how we are enjoying parenthood. Well, we can honestly say that after two weeks the baby is... that we are... things aren't ... Mom, could you possibly come out for a while? Love, Bill."
This expresses the need quite well! But what if a mom can't come out for a while? Where can that young couple reach out for help?
In Hickman, Nebraska, where a strong Welcome Baby program is developing, one of the families visited, Jeff and Barb Peas, had just had their fifth child. Neither of them had any family in the area, and shortly after the birth of the baby, Barb became ill and had to be taken to the hospital. It was snowing that evening, and the driving conditions were certainly not normal. A quick call to Jani Rexinger brought the Welcome Baby volunteer to their home to watch the children while Jeff took his wife to the hospital.
An entry point
There's more to the Welcome Baby program than just the card and 12 news letters. The Welcome Baby Resource Manual offers hundreds of ideas that can be implemented at your church to make your church family-friendly. Each news letter has an article that is written to be used as an entry point to mention various church and community resources. For example, when handing out the first newsletter, you can mention newborn support groups or lactation consultants that are available in your church. News letter 4 has an article about the importance of baby dedications, number 7 about cradleroll, number 8 about nutrition programs and cooking schools, and number 12 about spiritual values.
My husband and I selected three families with babies born on our birthdays. One of the fathers, Joe Kinser, developed a serious heart condition, and since his father died young with the same problem, Joe suddenly became very interested in a healthy lifestyle. This gave us the opportunity to invite Joe to Health- Fest, a week-long outreach program in Chattanooga during which he was introduced to the Adventist lifestyle and was our guest at a vegetarian banquet at which Dr. Ben Carson spoke.
In Sidney, British Columbia, the church planned a Christmas party and invited all 31 of the Welcome Baby families they had been visiting. Twenty-nine entire families-- mother, father, children, and babies--responded and are eager to attend other church events.
"Traditional methods of evangelism have not effectively reached young families," says Roy Caughron, director of evangelism for the Seventh-day Adventist Georgia-Cumberland Conference. "That's why our conference has adopted the Welcome Baby program as a major evangelistic thrust to be carried out in our churches." Roy recently visit ed a church of 40 members on the day their Welcome Baby coordinator announced that they had eight new births in their town in the past few weeks. Eight members eagerly took the packets of Welcome Baby materials, wondering who the Lord had brought their way. Many small churches have vowed, "We're going to grow our own church with the Welcome Baby program."
It's true, you don't know who the Lord is preparing for a friendly Christlike contact. In Bennet, Nebraska, the church members make handmade quilts to take as a gift at the first Welcome Baby visit. Can you imagine how shocked these families are that someone would take such an interest in them? After the first visit to a mother whose name was found in the paper, the mother was so overwhelmed she called the Welcome Baby visitor. "I didn't have a chance to tell you about my birth and delivery. I almost died, and so did my baby. I prayed to live, promising the Lord that I would find a church to raise my baby in, get involved, and make some Christian friends. You were the first people who visited me since I've been home. I think the Lord is telling me something!"
Monte Sahlin, a vice president of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is excited about this project. "We must find ways to meet the needs of the baby boomer population, and I believe the Welcome Baby program is on the right track."
When the Welcome Baby materials were first introduced at an Association of Self-supporting Industries meeting, Arden and Yvonne Brion took home a newsletter packet and visited a couple who had just had a baby and who had once been interested in their church but had become discouraged because of some criticism. They showed Craig and Bern the Welcome Baby newsletters and gave them the entire package. Arden wrote, "They were impressed! Your program gave us the opportunity to invite them back to church with their baby ... and they accepted!"
Ramona Perez Greek, who is actively involved in the North American Division women's ministries work, pro motes the Welcome Baby program as an evangelistic program especially suited for women's ministries! Through her leadership, along with Norma Alban Lowry, an Andrews University doctoral candidate in religious education, and Carlos Pardeiro, president of Creation Enterprises, the Welcome Baby program is being produced in Spanish. Special thanks goes to Manuel Vasquez, vice president for special ministries and director of multilingual ministries for the North American Division, for the funding that made this possible. Ramona Greek states, "There is a tremendous need in every culture for the information provided in the Welcome Baby newsletters and seminars, and for the support church members can offer these young families."
The Welcome Baby program is so simple and nonthreatening that every church member can be involved. Edwin Martin, a retired but very active layperson in the Cleveland, Tennessee, area and board chair of Family Matters, said, "I'm not one for knocking on people's doors, but even I could take a special newsletter out to a family and say, 'I just heard you had a new baby, and I have something special for you.' And it wouldn't be difficult for me to invite them to a seminar that I knew would really be meaningful to their family, or tell them about some other church resource that I think they might benefit from."
Reclaiming all of God's children
The Welcome Baby program is effective because it meets the felt needs of young families at a time in life when they are most willing to make lifestyle changes. They feel, "Nothing is too good for my baby!" This is the time when many young families remember their child hood church experience and decide to give the church a second chance. There are thousands of "lost" members who have grown up, married, moved away from their childhood church, and been too busy establishing their own careers and homes to become involved in a new church. Most have left their member ships on the church books back home with their parents. There is no better time to reclaim these families than when they have a baby. I know a number of new grandparents who have written to the churches close to where their "lost" children are living, pleading, "My son and his wife just had a baby. Could you please send someone to visit them with the Welcome Baby program?" It's time to reclaim all of God's children. I believe the Welcome Baby program has been developed for such a time as this.
Your church members can help prevent child abuse. Your members can offer friendship and church resources to parents when they need it most. And once they begin to make friends with the families in your community, the next step is to share with them the greatest gift of all--the gift of salvation and the fellowship of your church family.
"Look around you! Vast fields of human souls are ripening all around us, and are ready now for reaping" (John 4:35, TLB). Charles Bradford, former North American Division president, makes this comment: "Ellen White has written about a great reform movement she saw among God's people, where hundreds and thousands of church members were visiting families and opening before them the Word of God.* I often wondered how God planned to fulfill that. But with the Welcome Baby program, I can see how it can happen. I'm looking forward to visiting some families myself. Won't you join me?"
*See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (MountainView, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, p. 126.