Transformation Story: When "Those Kids" Became "Our Kids"
Following the Bishop's plea (at the 2012 Annual Conference) for churches to partner with schools, Woodville UMC began a unique outreach with neglected and abused children of the Sinclair Center. The miraculous ‘God moments’ that followed have infused this vibrant congregation with new energy.
Within every UMC congregation there is a miraculous ministry story activated by some type of catalyst. Woodville UMC’s story was a long time in the making, as the church has been just steps away from a unique mission field for over 50 years - but has just recently recognized it as such.
Explains Rev. Bryan Harkness, “When Bishop Huie challenged all churches at last year’s Annual Conference to reach out to children in our respective communities, Woodville UMC began to realize we had the prime opportunity right across the street -- to leave the mark of Jesus’ light – and actually live out the words of our new Wesley Center’s core values: to reach and nurture the next generation for Christ.”
It would have been much easier to “adopt” a nearby elementary school down the road, but Woodville UMC Council Chair Tony Castillo and Children’s Director Stephanie Sisson were familiar with severe emotional, physical and intellectual needs of the boys and girls of the Sinclair Center and felt the call to start there. “Knowing these kids from age 5-13 have been permanently removed from their real homes, we began with a meeting to build trust, express our love for the kids and offer our church in anyway needed,” adds Pastor Bryan. “Tony works with similar kids in Beaumont and has a passion for this area of ministry, and Stephanie, being a teacher, had already extended the students her love and acceptance which greatly helped them feel welcome to come to church. We knew it would be challenging but Woodville UMC members were recognizing how much these children needed a sustained, consistent model of unconditional love in their lives and we wanted to commit to be there for the long haul.”
The Children’s Center staff responded to the invitation to allow their residents to participate in Woodville’s children’s ministries – but only as a privilege of good behavior and only when the required ratio of staff-accompanying-child was met.
The God Moments Began
According to Children’s Ministry leader Stephanie Simmons, “Between Sunday school and children’s choir, this outreach has tripled our children's ministry! We have even gone to the Sinclair Center recently to offer to facilitate a small group, and we have plans to provide more groups for them in the future.”
Pastor Bryan beams when he tells this story: “Each Communion Sunday, all children are brought from Children's Church into the sanctuary to receive communion with the adults as a group. One of the boys from the Sinclair Center asked me if I was serving sweet bread and I told him yes, that we use the Hawaiian bread to represent the body of Christ. He then asked if he could have a really big piece. I later shared this with the congregation and said, ‘If Jesus was here, he would have told that boy: You can have as much as you want.’ ” Adds Pastor Bryan, “I wish I had captured on video the precious sight of WUMC kids instructing their new friends in how to kneel, hold hands, and serve communion!”
When the children from the Sinclair Center first began attending WUMC, they ransacked the stash of cookies at the Welcome Center with glee. “We have had some discipline issues with our influx of new children and expanded attendance,” acknowledges Pastor Bryan, “but the Center staff handles them effectively and in general the transition has been overwhelmingly positive! Our congregation has really taken on this outreach and embraced these kids. Where there could have been worry over the stigma of emotionally disturbed children, there has been grace, flexibility, and an openness to extend the love of Jesus. In fact, we have had volunteers in the church decide on their own to make a batch of cookies – just for them each week!”
Designing the future for “our kids”
Rev. Harkness recalls the earliest days of this outreach initiative and how the ministry has blossomed. “It was exciting to realize we had an incredible opportunity to offer love to the least, last and lost and literally to care for the orphans right across the street. When the children first began walking across the street to participate in our ministry areas, I would hear our members refer to them as those kids, but the moment I knew this effort had brought true transformation was when all of us began calling all of the children 'our kids.'"
Adds Tony, “This endeavor is the epitome of a win-win. We have the opportunity to welcome children that have been shunned by the world as damaged goods and help them change their self image based on God’s perspective and they have the opportunity to experience a consistent, Christian love for what is possibly the first time in their lives.”
WUMC is thinking toward the summer and planning for a bigger Vacation Bible School and other ways to Invest in the Young going forward. “When 30 new children responded to our invitation and poured in the front door, we realized we had literally cast the net and we needed to prepare to haul in the fish. When I saw triple the number of children passing through the aisles in the Palm Sunday processional, I couldn’t help but think…God is doing something special here!”