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Kansas family embraces “beautiful chaos”

Desire to be obedient prompts family to expand their household

by Myra Holmes

It wasn’t that long ago that David and Shelly Jennings, of Wichita, Kan., and their four children had a “Norman Rockwell sort of life,” says Shelly. Then 18 months ago, their hearts and their family expanded beyond Hannah, 22, Seth, 18, Luke, 15, and Hallie, 13, to include 19-year-old Cardarius*, a young man whose background is very different from their own.

While family life is now sometimes messy, Shelly describes their household as “beautiful, God-centered, God-orchestrated.” She says, “For us, love is a beautiful chaos.”  


Events prepare family to serve

The story of how Cardarius came into the Jennings family, who attend First MB Church in Wichita, is one of service and obedience to God’s nudging. It began years ago, with God preparing their hearts. Both David and Shelly have always had a desire to serve in some way. Over the years they talked about various possibilities—hosting students, foster care–but never followed up.

When their oldest daughter, Hannah, graduated from high school, she asked for an unusual graduation gift: a short-term mission trip to Mexico. She and Shelly went in March 2012 and came back with a renewed desire to serve.  As a family, they began to look for ways to serve: with special needs kids at church, at the humane society, with their sister church in town, at homeless shelters and nursing homes. 

Meanwhile, youth groups at First MB were reinforcing a focus on others and the value of service for the other children. “We couldn’t have taught that alone,” Shelly says.

And the Jennings’ small group at First MB made it a goal to serve as families every month, giving the family further opportunities to practice noticing and meeting the needs of those around them.

So when the Jennings met Cardarius, they were ready. “Our hearts were open to service,” Shelly says. “If those events hadn’t taken place before we met Cardarius, I don’t know if I would’ve felt the heart-tug and the nudge.”


God orchestrates first meeting

They were introduced to Cardarius through basketball. Seth, their oldest son, was invited to compete in a basketball tournament in Texas in the summer of 2014. Looking back, David believes God orchestrated that trip. “There was a reason we went to Dallas.”

The trip gave them an opportunity to meet Cardarius, who was also invited to fill in on the team. “Cardarius and Seth just hit it off,” David says.

The two young men played basketball together through the summer, and the family got to know something about Cardarius’ past, which was quite the opposite of their middle-class, suburban life. Still a teenager, Cardarius was already well-versed in dysfunction, broken families, hurtful relationships, addiction and street life.

Shelly says, “He knows way more than we want our kids to even know.” 

But they also got to know his heart. They saw a young man with great basketball talent and life potential and a desire to break the negative cycles of his past. “He really needed some consistency and stability,” Shelly says.

He needed a family.


Family follows God’s nudges

David and Shelly felt a nudge to help him, and they had learned that when God nudges, it’s important to respond. But they weren’t sure what that looked like until one evening in July 2014. As they were dropping Cardarius off after basketball, he clearly didn’t want to go. David simply asked him what he wanted to do.

His answer: “I want to move in with you.”

So they gathered his things and took him home.  

David says, “Sometimes you have a desire you need to listen to and go with.”

Right away, the church became a tangible support and resource for the family. Cardarius, a high school dropout with his GED, was headed to junior college in just a few short weeks, but he had only a small suitcase of belongings and was quite unprepared to move out on his own.

 So the Jennings put the word out through their church and their schools; both are educators. The response was immediate. Shelly says, “Our dining room was covered with everything a kid would need to go to college: bedding, a microwave, a TV.”

When they loaded their SUV, took him to college and worked through the registration process with him, Cardarius put the Jennings’ names and address on his information form as “home.”


Being "family" no matter what

The Jennings readily admit that adding to their family in this untraditional way has been a rocky journey. The story is “forever ongoing,” as Shelly says. “We find ourselves a little bit deeper into it all the time.”

The family loved him, supported him and prayed for Cardarius as he struggled to adjust to classes and college life, as he worked through difficult relationships with his biological family, as he wrestled with whether to stay in school or return to the streets.

In February 2015, Cardarius brought them a new twist: He hesitantly told them he was going to be a father.

“My jaw dropped and my head spun,” Shelly says. They could have broken the relationship right there and ended their involvement—and Shelly imagines Cardarius probably expected them to do exactly that.

David was the first to speak: “This doesn’t change how we feel about you. What do we need to do to help?”

The couple made sure Cardarius could be present at the birth of his son, and they have since gotten to know the mother’s family. Cardarius’s son, like Cardarius, is always welcome in their home. Shelly tells Cardarius, “Our home is your home. We consider you part of our family.”


Family can be messy story

It’s tempting to look for a nice, tidy bow to wrap this story up: a spiritual awakening for Cardarius, perhaps, or a dramatic turnaround in the choices he makes.

Such a tidy ending doesn’t exist.

 “It’s a huge, heavy story—one we hardly even believe we’re part of some days,” Shelly says. At the same time, she says, “We know that to turn around or walk away would be disobedience.”

So they keep listening for those nudges, keep learning to love and serve.  David says that sometimes they look at each other and wonder together, “What are we doing?” But faith propels them forward. “It comes down to trusting God,” he says.

Shelly talks about learning “every day, every hour, every minute faith.”

“I can’t tell you how this is going to end up,” she says. “It’s all as unpredictable and messy as it was when we got involved. But it’s a beautiful, messy, chaotic love story. And it’s all going to be OK.”–Myra Holmes

*Last name withheld to preserve his privacy and that of his biological family.

Photo provided by the Jennings family: Cardarius (center) and his son are always welcome in the Jennings home and are considered part of the family. The Jennings children have embraced him as much as their parents have. “They have been so unselfish through this,” says Shelly.

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