Foster the City: A Church Movement to Give Every Child a Home

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Courtesy of the Graham family

Aaron and Amy Graham, pastors of District Church in Washington, DC, with their two children, Natalie and Elijah

Adoption can be seen as a math riddle, and Aaron Graham aims to solve it.

Washington, DC, has more than 1,300 children in the foster care system, and 300 children waiting for adoption. But the nation’s capital also has something else, says Graham, pastor of District Church: 600 churches. “We thought, wow, if one in two churches helped support a family, there wouldn’t be any children on a wait list to be fostered or adopted but rather there would be families who are waiting to foster or adopt,” Graham explains. “We want to change who waits.”

It’s an interesting proposition, and on Saturday afternoon—the day before churches across the country celebrate Orphan Sunday—Graham had his first real chance to put the proposal into action. His church helped sponsor a citywide event, “Foster the City,” a special initiative of the National Council for Adoption and DC127, District Church’s new organization that recruits and supports foster and adoptive parents. DC127 has already worked with thirteen churches in the District, including Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, National Community Church, and Asbury United Methodist Church, as well as government and community agencies, to begin to shift the adoption numbers. The group’s name comes from a verse in the New Testament, James 1:27, that reads, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The Foster the City concept started over a year ago. Graham, 33, and his wife Amy, 36, who adopted their two young children from South Carolina, felt God calling them to focus their attention on foster care, but they were not sure what that meant. Then Regina Lawson, director of recruiting for DC’s Child and Family Services Agency, heard from a colleague that the Grahams had a passion for adoption advocacy, and she quickly arranged to meet them. “We knew that in order for us to get a lot more support, that maybe if we had another pastor working with us, and really speaking to other pastors, that might be able to really make a difference,” Lawson says.

Graham invited Lawson to speak at District Church.  More than 100 people showed up, a third of their entire church at the time, and Graham saw the stirrings of a potential new foster and adoption ministry. “We quickly realized that most people in our church are single and not in a position to foster, but we realized that a lot of people have a heart to help,” he says.

The church decided to create DC127, and hired church member Chelsea Geyer as its full-time director. Just 24 years old, Geyer understands the challenges both of the foster system and of having mostly young, single volunteers—her three foster siblings are a biological sibling group, but they were bounced separately between different homes, one as much as 23 times in six years, before they finally joined her family. “It is an issue, you are a young 20-something, and you may only be in DC for a couple years,” Geyer explains. “The last thing a child in foster care needs is another adult to come in and out of their life.”

To protect children in foster care, Geyer designed Foster the City to follow an everyone-can-do-something model. Saturday’s event, held at the Washington Convention Center, featured three tracks beyond just fostering and adopting: mentoring, support, and advocacy. More than 400 people attended to how they could get involved.

Part of DC127’s goal is to help broaden church and community mindsets about how to care for children in need. Churches, says Geyer, can do more than just pray and offer support of meals and babysitting when a new foster child enters a home. Foster families need better access to legal resources. They need consistent “respite families,” peers who are licensed to care for their foster children when they need a break. Churches are uniquely poised to partner with agencies who are already focusing on these issues, so that families can get stronger support from their communities.

The Christian, and particularly evangelical, adoption advocacy movement has gained increasing attention, positive and negative, in recent months. In October, Davion Only, a 15-year-old orphan in Florida, made headlines when he visited St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church and asked any parishioner to adopt him. More than 10,000 families around the country offered. Critics meanwhile have questioned evangelical adoption as a disguise for proselytization, especially in the wake of journalist Kathryn Joyce’s book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption published earlier this year. But there’s a difference between raising a child in a Christian home as the outflow of one’s faith and as the motivation for adopting, explains Charles Johnson, president of the secular National Council for Adoption that has worked closely with faith groups like DC127. “I don’t know of any other area where someone is eager to help where we would question their motives to the same level that we have here,” he says. “I think that is wrong and I think it is unfair and I think it should stop.”

Other “127” organizations have cropped up across the country. Geyer grew up attending Colorado Community Church in Aurora, Colorado, which launched Project127. There’s also Arizona127 and Oklahoma127. Virginia has a parallel project called Change Who Waits, a similar partnership between the Virginia Department of Social Services, foster care agencies, and area churches. All have similar goals of connecting churches and adoption and foster agencies to increase stability for children.

All the partners at Foster the City—churches, government agencies, and independent agencies—are in the movement together for the long game. Each group has a slightly different angle. The National Council for Adoption hopes to use the Foster the City event to launch a three-year study to track what keeps families engaged versus what makes them leave the system, and to use the findings to put forward new policy recommendations. The DC Child and Family Services Agency hopes that more families in the District proper will become foster certified so that they can keep more children in their communities instead of having to send to them to neighboring suburbs. District Church hopes to better train area churches so they can better partner with agencies and organizations already focusing on this issue.

They all hope their three-pronged approach increases stability for children. After all, to quote a Biblical phrase, a cord of three strands is not easily broken. “By far, this is the most far-reaching and productive partnership we have had with faith-based organizations in a really long time,” says Mindy Good, communications director for CFSA. “The way Aaron thinks, he’s a big thinker, and he has put this on a scale that is something we have not experienced before, and it is really wonderful.”