The International Children’s Bible renders James 1:27 in this way: “Religion that God the Father accepts is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help; and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence. This is the kind of religion that God accepts as pure and good.” I saw such religion on display at a church—when church was almost over and hope was almost gone.
It was 5:30 A.M., and dawn was just starting to break across the highway. I was heading south to Columbus, Ohio, to speak at a United Methodist church. I was responsible for foster care programs for abused children in different parts of Ohio. We always had a scarcity of foster homes. So, every weekend I was up early, on the road to whatever church would let me present the need. I arrived around 9:30 A.M. for a 10:00 A.M.. service. It was an old church—with nobody in it. By ten, there were 20 congregants, including the pastor. Most were older people. By that, I mean well over 60. So many miles—so few people, I thought to myself.
I saw only one person who appeared to be under 40—and she appeared to be single. But there I was, so at the pastor’s invitation, I presented the need and told the people that I would be around after the service to talk with anyone interested.
The service ended, the congregation of 20 people shuffled out, and the single lady stopped to talk with me. She was very interested but said she needed to speak with her husband. I discovered that not only was she married, but she also was a parent. I gave her the information and took hers. “I’ll call,” I told Pat, “in a few days, after you have had a chance to talk with Chris.” That was how it worked typically and, usually, the result was that the husband was not interested. Another Sunday wasted, I thought to myself as I left.
A few days later I called Pat. Yes! She had discussed it with Chris. They were interested! I asked if I could visit with them, try to answer any questions, and see if they were ready, begin the process. Again, yes! I reflected on that old, almost-empty church and confessed the reality, “ ‘Humans do not see what the LORD sees, for humans see what is visible, but the LORD sees the heart’ ” (1 Sam. 16:7, CSB).
Beginning the process
The visit took just two hours. Their questions were answered. The Bell family wanted to start official procedures for licensing! I was relieved but realistic. The process can be quite an ordeal. Family members must have a physical to ensure they have no communicable diseases. Family members must have their fingerprints run through FBI, state, and local police records as well as statewide Child Protective Services files, to ascertain their involvement with those agencies. Family members must have three references. Finally, family members must have 36 hours of preservice training.
What often appears fruitless and happenstance is, in fact, God leading us to open doors.
The fastest that the process can be completed in Ohio is 90 days—the average is closer to 150 days. Three to five months—a lot can happen in that time. People change their minds. Couples get divorced. Wives become pregnant and back out because they do not want to foster with a newborn in the house. Others grow frustrated and just quit. The Bells persevered—and became licensed. “ ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’ ” (Mark 9:24, NKJV).
After licensing, the most important thing is matching the right child to the right family. The agency worked with them, through ongoing training and support, to broaden and refine the population they could serve. The Bells had two elementary school–aged children, so they wanted children without too many problems who were near the age of their own. Many families say the same.
The Bells’ first placement was Mic—a rebellious teenager who did not receive the structure he needed in his biological home. The Bells provided positive support for Mic, but when he turned 18, he ran away; no one from the state went looking for him, and Pat and Chris chose tough love. Pat says, “Mic . . . opted out at eighteen . . . and when he was homeless, [he] wanted to come back. We had to say no. As a side note, I have watched two of his daughters graduate now, and the kids call us Grandma and Grandpa.”
Their second placement was a neglected sibling group of three, ages four through nine. They stayed with the Bell family for about six months before returning home. The Bells made these children feel safe, loved, and wanted. They also coordinated with the biological family to ensure a smooth return home. But these children were just warm-ups for what was to come.
Loving the children
During one of our training sessions on AIDS, we talked about the need for homes for children born HIV positive. One day, while I was conducting a case visit in their home, Pat informed me, “We would like to work with a child who is HIV positive.”
“You have two young children of your own,” I stated. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“We have talked to our children. They are aware of what HIV is, how they can be infected, as well as how to avoid infection, and both of them, as well as Chris and I, are prepared for the risk.” This was now beyond the usual level of care. I had asked God to open their hearts. God was again asking me to open my eyes. “ ‘I will not leave you without help as children without parents. I will come to you’ ” (John 14:18, NLV).
The Bells lived three blocks from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, home to one of the country’s best pediatric AIDS programs. Characteristically, Pat informed me, “I have already met with the program directors and I know what supports are available. I have signed our family up for the training provided by the hospital.”
So, we agreed to identify a child who was HIV positive for placement in their home. Erie County, Ohio, called us with a referral of a two-year-old boy who not only was HIV positive but also had full-blown AIDS. The child had contracted the disease from his mother as he passed through the birth canal. Rex’s mother had been inconsistent in giving him his medicine and keeping his doctor’s appointments. He was sinking fast. Survival rates were not hopeful. Pat and Chris said, “Sure, bring him here. We would love to work with him.”
“We picked him up at the hospital,” Pat remembers, “and to this day, it amazes me that he walked out of there holding our hands. You would never have known that was the first time he met us.” The couple took extraordinarily good care of him, making him feel loved and wanted.
Going the distance
During the placement arrangements, someone told Pat, “Do not expect him to make it to kindergarten. All you can do is give him as happy a life as possible while he is with you.” I would often visit Rex in their home, sometimes with my son, who was just a few months older. I remember leaving there one night with tears in my eyes, knowing my son would grow up and this boy would not.
On another visit, Pat said, “I want you to taste this medicine, so you know what Rex has to deal with. He has to take it twice a day.” It was horrible! That taste stayed on my tongue for two days. Pat wanted everyone who worked with Rex to experience, as much as possible, what it was like for him. Eventually, he went from oral medicine to ports, so the situation improved somewhat.
Rex thought that everyone who came to the house was there for him. Most of the time, it was true. He had daily visiting nurses, doctors, court-appointed special advocates, and social workers from the hospital and other agencies. Such attention resulted in Rex becoming very spoiled. I remember telling Pat, “You are spoiling him. He needs more discipline.”
“What difference does it make?” she answered. “He won’t be in kindergarten, so he should enjoy all he can while he is here!”
The family made sure Rex got every treatment possible. Pat became involved in the parent-support group at the hospital and fundraising efforts for HIV research, in addition to learning all about the disease. One day, while playing on the couch in the front room, Rex fell and cut his head. Such head wounds bleed a lot. Contact with infected blood is one way that HIV spreads and is of most concern in a family setting. The Bells’ children, Christine and David, had learned not to touch blood, so they ran to Pat, shouting, “Blood, blood! Rex hurt his head.” Pat donned her rubber gloves, always used when dealing with bodily fluids, and cleaned up Rex. After a stitch or two, he was back to normal.
The Bells incorporated Rex’s biological mother into the process. They made a scrapbook of his life for her so that she could see him grow. They transported him from Columbus to Sandusky, Ohio, for visits. They treated his mother with respect and encouraged Rex to be happy to see his mom and siblings. It took five years, including a meeting with a US representative, to terminate parental rights. Rex became adoptable, the Bells adopted him, and they maintained contact with his biological mother until her death in 2016.
The love and care from the Bells and their extended family enabled Rex to attend elementary school. While persons there had issues surrounding his presence, Pat was at all the meetings, educating teachers and parents about HIV, and advocating that Rex had all the rights of any other student. Rex made it through elementary school into middle school—then into high school. By the time he was in high school, new treatments led to him being pronounced virus free. The little boy who would not live to enter kindergarten graduated from high school and then from Ohio State University. Today he is a proud officer in the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Opening a door
Chuck Swindoll says that all children are special, but some are extra special. “Some children, because of unusual circumstances during the prenatal period or at birth—or afterward—are marked off by the Lord as extremely special gifts: the unplanned child, the adopted child, the disabled child, the gifted child, the hyperactive child, and the one-parent child.”1
Pat and her family opened their home and hearts to children in need of care, discipline and, most of all, love. They touched the lives of five extra-special children and their families, transforming them. But Pat observed, “That meeting changed our lives.”
One never knows what God may do in and through our lives. An early morning drive, a providential meeting, a willingness to open one’s family to opportunity, and lives are touched, and the kingdom of God grows. Nothing is meaningless or by chance with God. What often appears fruitless and happenstance is, in fact, God leading us to open doors.
- Charles R. Swindoll, You and Your Child (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1984), 36.