Beyond the usual pastoral duties

Beyond the usual pastoral duties: An interview with David and Freda Charles

Pastor and Mrs. Charles have a special ministry: providing foster care for children with special needs. Why are they doing it? Nikolaus Satelmajer & Willie E. Hucks

Nikolaus Satelmajer, DMin, is editor of Ministry.
Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

Editor’s Note: Clergy and their families have many demands placed on their lives. In spite of the many responsibilities they have, some—such as Pastor and Mrs. David Charles of Baltimore, Maryland, United States—have reached out in their community by providing foster care for children with special needs. Our readers may not only be interested in the commitment this pastoral family has made, but may also consider becoming foster parents themselves or adopting.

Nikolaus Satelmajer (NS): You’re a congregational pastor. Tell us about your church.

David Charles (DC): We are a full-gospel Christian church in the area of Baltimore, Maryland, with an average weekly attendance of about seventy. In 2007, the Lord blessed us with our own building, and, as a result, we are able to more effectively reach out to the community.

NS: You and your wife have a special ministry. What prompted you to open your home to the care of children, not only in a foster care situation, but who have special needs?

Freda Charles (FC): Well, actually I had been thinking about it for a while, and it just so happened that we moved next door to a lady who was doing foster care. She asked me, “Oh, are you a stay-at-home mom? Have you ever thought about doing foster care?” And I said, “Yes,” it had been on my heart. Three years later we decided to go into foster care, which turned out to be a blessing.

NS: When was that?

DC: Two thousand and four. We began the process and were licensed to do it in January of 2005. It’s been more than five years.

Willie Hucks (WH): How many children do you care for?

FC: Altogether, we’ve had five. Right now, we have one. At one point, not too long ago, we had three little boys in the home. It’s been exciting.

WH: There’s no doubt in my mind that this takes a lot of time and energy. How do you find the time for this and pastoral ministry?

DC: Basically, it’s still raising children. So, yes, there’s some additional time investment. For example, the little boy that we have now is a little more doctor-visit intensive. It varies from diagnosis to diagnosis. In utero drug exposure qualifies some of these children to be in the program. In the cases we’ve had, the effects were not evident outside of being born with withdrawal symptoms. So those children were presented as normal. It was just as if they were our own children. We’ve always said, “We raise kids.”

FC: When they come into my home, they are my children. So, it doesn’t bring “extra” work. I would have to go through the same steps as if they were my children; they are my children. It’s not an extra burden. It’s just as if they were mine, as if I’d given birth to them.

NS: Obviously you don’t just say one day, “We’re willing to do this,” and the child shows up. What’s involved in getting started?

DC: A person has to be thoroughly vetted with regard to their background— legal, criminal, and so on. Then there are a number of informational classes you take to find out if this is something you are willing to commit to. There are statutory, state governmental things you have to be willing to adhere to in understanding that you are part of a team. This is not just your child; or what you say goes. You work with a team of social workers; there are informational meetings that can last several hours. Then we came back and once we decided to commit, we began to go through the steps: fingerprinting, and different things the government requires. Then we took classes to familiarize us with the kind of children we would be dealing with—special needs children—children from cerebral palsy to just about anything medical.

Stephanie West1 (SW): In relation to your question about Pastor and Mrs. Charles, one of the things I see in working with them is they work as a team. And when you think of a first lady supporting her husband in a church, it’s a lot of what you see in the home, and I think that’s one of the things that really helps them do such a fabulous job as foster parents. Their demeanor and belief is so important for the type of kids they care for. So, I just wanted to add that because they don’t speak a lot about just how much they bring, the individuals they are, or how much they have helped me as a social worker in the job that I do.

NS: Do you remember the moment the first child came? What happened in your home?

DC: Yes. Actually, we had already gone through the final steps of becoming licensed foster parents, which is called a home study—a series of interviews you have with a social worker as a couple and then as individuals. And then they interviewed my daughter—she was six years old at the time, I believe, and our son, because they’re also concerned about the impact, not only on you, but on your children. So we finished the home study. We were in Seattle for a ministers’ conference. While we were there, we got a call from the agency, saying, “We have a little boy that we would like you to meet as soon as you get back.” Well, we were excited.

FC: At first he would come home with us for a few hours. When we picked him up to go, he just came with us, but after we would drop him off, even after the first time he met us, he was crying as if he had already attached himself to us. It was the reverse of what we thought it would be, for we were strangers. But that spoke to us about some of the issues with his family attachment.

WH: What impact do you see from your life and ministry, on these children, in terms of their growth and maturity?

DC: Many times people say, “Well, you’re just doing a wonderful job with these children.” Sometimes what I see in fostering is that there is a parental deficit. As foster parents, what we’re doing is taking a seed and putting it into that soil, knowing that it will one day sprout and grow. So to me, it’s just a matter of providing that emotional normalcy of home that sometimes children don’t have, for whatever reason, with their family.

FC: And with the kids we get, our members take them in just like they’re part of the congregational family. When the children return home, they notice. People in the congregation have developed a love for our kids. So, they have another extended family.

WH: How do you say goodbye to these children?

FC: We don’t think about it.

DC: No. We try not to think about it.

FC: We make friends with the family, and hope to maintain contact in the future.

WH: How has foster care impacted your view of God, and how has it impacted your church members’ view of God as they see what you do?

DC: When you look at a foster situation, or an adoptive situation, a lot of times you’re asked, “Would you like to help this child?” So many times the child needs a lot of help. From a spiritual point of view, recognizing that we are lost sinners with our faults and failures, God still adopts us, by His Spirit, when we ask Him. He adopts us into His family. He chooses us. We’re all His children by creation, but sometimes we live outside of the blessing. We’re like the estranged child. And so, it’s just a reminder. I think, in general, parenting is a reminder to us about our relationship to our heavenly Father. It gives me a stronger daily reminder of what God puts up with, and God puts up with a lot.

FC: I think about myself—all that I was—and God took me in with unconditional love. So that’s why I say, when these children come into my home, they’re my children, unconditionally. We love to impart how much love God has for them. It’s an unconditional love like God has for us that we have for these kids. And it’s a love that never ends; they’re always going to be in my heart.

NS: These children have either emotional or physical, or both, challenges. What are some of the challenges and how do you cope?

DC: The agency wants us to continue to foster for a long time. So they tend to ask, “What types of children do you want to bring into your home? Are you alright with children with emotional problems? How about medically fragile?” I’ve always said that with foster care, it’s a choice. You’re going to have to deal with issues of teenagers or older children or you’re going to have diaper bags and strollers and deal with babies. Both are challenging.

NS: I want to ask the social workers a question, How do you find families? Do you have other clergy families involved in fostering?

SW: Well, in terms of clergy, we do have one who has been with the program for about three years.

Nikole Satelmajer2 (NiS): We get a lot of phone calls from the general public. We also put ads in community papers because we want to recruit local families. We also do and we receive many initial phone calls—people interested, but few become foster parents because the training is so invasive.

SW: We’ve got a deacon who is also a foster parent. He’s been fostering for quite some time. His child has grown into a teenager. So, he’s been with him for quite some time.

NiS: Current families are our number one recruitment tool. So, not only do we want to keep our families happy because they’re helping our kids, and they’re doing such a great job, but they’re also our number one outreach.

DC: The agency we’re with, Kennedy Krieger,3 provides respite. Like my sister, for example. She does not have a full-time foster child. She is actually what they call a child-specific provider for us. So, when we have ministry conferences, which we do once or twice a year, usually out of state, we just call and say we need these dates. She knows the boys.

WH: Is that what you mean by respite —someone who just fills in while you take a respite?

FC: Yes.

NiS: We have families that come in who can do the long-term commitment of foster care, and then we have families who come in and say they can only do a little bit here and there. They do respite. All of these families help us out extensively.

NS: If you were standing in front of a group of pastors representing various congregations, what would the two of you like to say to them?

DC: Fostering children, or adopting children, whichever a person decides to do, certainly is, in many ways, a natural fit for a pastor, because it really is a picture of what God does.

NS: It’s obvious to me that this is an intense experience and something very personal that you go through.

DC: I often think about the old illustration of the starfish on the beach. The tide had come in and left all these starfish on the shore when it went back out. This little boy was picking up starfish and throwing them back into the surf. A man came by and asked him, “What are you doing? There’s so many starfish on the beach—thousands of them. It doesn’t make a difference, you know.” And the little boy smiled at him. He looked down again, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the water. He said, “It made a difference to that one.” That’s what we do. We can’t, as individuals, change every child’s life. But to that one child who is changed, this change is absolutely important to him, and he’s absolutely thankful.

1 Stephanie West is a social worker with Kennedy Krieger
Institute Therapeutic Foster Care.

2 Nikole Satelmajer is a community outreach coordinator with
Kennedy Krieger Institute Therapeutic Foster Care.

3 Kennedy Krieger Institute Therapeutic Foster Care operates
in the Baltimore metro region and provides foster care and
adoption services for children and teenagers with special
needs (www.foster-a-hero.org).

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Nikolaus Satelmajer, DMin, is editor of Ministry.
Willie E. Hucks II, DMin, is associate editor of Ministry.

July/August 2010

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