Nebraska church invests in troubled teens
by Myra Holmes
What to do when a troubled kid—one with umpteen strikes against her and emotional baggage to spare—moves into the community? Take her out for pizza.
At least, that’s what happens in Henderson, Neb., where three local churches—Henderson MB Church, Bethesda Mennonite Church and Faith Evangelical Bible Church—partner with Grace Children’s Home to welcome and love such kids. Over seven decades it’s become so much a part of the church life that folks at Henderson MB may not even realize what a big impact their involvement makes.
Grace is a Christian residential facility for youth from “disrupted families.” Children and teens that have been removed from their homes by the state are placed here for support until they can be reunited with their families or live independently. The home is unapologetically Christian, seeking to provide not only emotional and physical support, but also spiritual guidance to help them “grow into all that God intends them to be,” according to Amelia Patrie, wife of executive director Chuck Patrie and part of the Henderson MB congregation.
That spiritual support comes in part through Christian staff who naturally include the youth in prayer, daily devotions and church attendance. It also comes through the town’s three churches who actively partner with Grace to love the youth. That’s been the case since Grace began in 1936. “The churches have always seen that relationships with the kids from Grace Children’s Home are important,” Patrie says.
Grace is licensed for 23 youth who live in three “cottages,” two for girls and one for boys. Coincidentally, Henderson is home to three evangelical churches, each of which partners with one cottage. Henderson MB connects with Bader Cottage, which houses about eight girls and three staff.
The church’s support for Grace often takes the form of board membership and finances. When a need arises, funds appear. For example, when the church youth group attends special events, such as an annual Dare to Share youth convention, the church often helps pay the way so that Grace girls can attend. Patrie suggests that donations are often generous: If even something as big as a car was needed, Patrie says, “I think a car would appear.”
But the most important way that Henderson MB partners with Grace is by building relationships with the girls.
As soon as a girl arrives at Bader Cottage, the church posts her photo and some introductory information on a bulletin board, so that church members can easily identify her, begin to get to know her and, most importantly, pray for her. She’ll attend church services, and the youth group will include her in weekly meetings and other activities. Sometimes support takes a formal form, like assigned prayer partners, but often it’s informal, like taking her out for pizza. Or including her in family dinners, hot dog roasts and go-cart and horseback rides.
Both Patrie and J Edward Epp, pastor of Henderson MB, say the church incorporates the girls into everyday church life as much as possible. Epp says, “They become part of the life of the church and (the girls) become part of our family.”
Building relationships with girls who come from troubled circumstances can be challenging. That’s perhaps especially true in the youth group, where most of the youth have been raised in church and sometimes struggle to relate to girls who might never have seen a Bible.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Epp admits. But he says that the youth are generally accepting of the girls and good at including them. He gives the example of a girl who this year was part of the junior high youth group, which he and his wife help with: “She was very much part of the group.”
Epp notes that the strength of the relationship between the girls and the church often depends on how involved the girls are willing to be. For example, one girl recently helped a Grace staff member in the children’s midweek program, which helped church folks get to know her.
Girls sometimes stay at Grace less than a year, which hardly seems long enough for the church to make a difference. That doesn’t seem to deter either the church or Grace from encouraging these relationships. Patrie says that, while the results of the church’s efforts aren’t always obvious, it does matter. The average girl who comes to Grace has been in seven different placements before coming to Henderson, Patrie says, so just being included in a stable community is new and important. Sometimes, just observing healthy, functioning families makes a difference.
Patrie says of the Henderson MB congregation, “I don’t think they’re really aware how much their lives impact the lives of the girls.”
Epp says that connecting with Grace makes a positive difference for the church, too. He notes that, especially for older, more established churches like Henderson MB, it’s sometimes difficult to see the needs around them and be willing to meet those needs. When Henderson MB builds relationships with these girls, it’s a reminder of a world that needs Christ. “It helps us take our eyes off ourselves,” he says.
So, what to do when a girl with a troubled past moves into the community? Take her out for pizza. Welcome her as family.
“It’s what we’re supposed to do,” Epp says simply, as if it were obvious.
For more on Grace Children’s Home, visit www.gracechildrenshome.com.
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