The Children's Crusade

The Reverend John Bowie is trying to unite Houston's black churches into a single purpose to take care of their own

If the Reverend John Bowie should feel at home anywhere, it should be where he is right now: in the pulpit of the True Light Missionary Baptist Church on North Main. This is the church his father built, in the neighborhood in which John Bowie was raised. It was where Bowie's character, his personality, his morals, all the various elements that go together to make a person a true person were developed. And it was a shaping, he knows, that came not just from his family, but from the community that his church provided. It's a community to which Bowie is aware he owes much. But it's also a community from which he's preparing to demand even more.

The bearded, 54-year-old Bowie is in the pulpit today only because his hospitalized father, the 90-year-old William Bowie, has taken on the role of pastor emeritus after heading the church for 54 years. And he does appear at ease as he preaches to a congregation that fills about half the sanctuary. He's talking about how God is with everyone, every day, in every situation. He leavens his sermon with humor, but the stocky former tuba player of the Wheatley High School Marching Band is not reluctant to use his considerable lung capacity to belt out his message, making sure no one naps through his sermon. "Isn't it nice to know God is with you?" the black-robed Bowie booms, receiving a "Yes, sir," from the front rows. "What about on your job? Isn't it nice to know God is with you when you're stressed? How about when you're in the mall, maxing out your Mastercard and Visa? Or when you're at Luby's and looking at that banana pie, that you shouldn't even be thinking about, God will give you the strength not to fool with that pie."

Comfortable sentiments; not the sort of thing that's likely to ruffle the occupants of the pews facing him. But these comfortable sentiments are only the prelude to a notion that's less likely to receive such casual acceptance. Behind Bowie, stretched along the wall for everyone to see, is the slogan of a group called One Church, One Child that Bowie founded in Houston last May and still leads. The slogan is a translation of an ancient African proverb and reads, "It takes an entire village to raise a child. We are the village and these are our children."

The village, in Bowie's eyes, is the black church; and the children are not just the offspring of the various churches' congregants, but all black children, and most specifically, the close to 200 black children that are awaiting adoption in Harris County.

It is the contention of Bowie and his group that none of those children should have to wait for caring families, or bounce around from foster home to foster home. Each church should scour its ranks to find a family who can take in at least one child; and if each church did that, then the problem of black children needing permanent homes would be solved.

Like most simple sounding notions, One Church, One Child finds its devil in the details. The details in this case are dealing with the Harris county bureaucracy and overcoming a certain ingrained religious complacency among Houston churchgoers. But the timing, in the view of some black leaders, could be crucial. A little over a year ago, the state legislature passed House Bill 196, which was aimed at easing restrictions on transracial adoptions. (See "The Race Matter," facing page.) For all its good intents, the bill was seen by some as a slap in the face of minority communities. It said, basically, that they had proven incapable of taking care of their own, and the sad number of unplaced minority children made that a hard argument to refute. But the Reverend Bowie's One Church, One Child aims to reopen the discussion, and come to a different conclusion: that the village can indeed raise its own children.

Enthusiasm exudes from John Bowie when he talks about the need for black churches to step forward and find homes for black children up for adoption. It's an enthusiasm he comes by naturally: he began working with children almost immediately upon his graduation from Texas Southern University, moving to Denver to teach and eventually becoming an elementary and secondary school principal with a reputation for solving problems. But then he felt the ministry's call, first working part-time at a Denver church and moving from there to take over the pastorship of Calvary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles, an area that has become synonymous with violent urban life. Los Angeles became a test for what Bowie calls "applied Christianity," an approach to religious faith that stresses the church becoming involved in its surrounding community.

It was also in Los Angeles that Bowie encountered One Church, One Child, a concept that was begun in 1981 in Chicago by a black Catholic priest. In L.A., One Church, One Child was among the organizations that Bowie took to heart, not always to the pleasure of his congregation. "Change is difficult," Bowie says. "There was a feeling that 'we're already a great church, already a great people. Ask anyone in churchdom.' Other churches knew, but [the surrounding] community of people, some of whom were hungry and needy, didn't know."

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