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

Bowie was content in Los Angeles, but then his father fell ill, and someone was needed to take over True Light Missionary. Bowie returned to Houston with his brother, who's also a minister, simply to search for their father's replacement. The congregation, though, wanted one of the Bowie brothers, and after much cajoling, John Bowie was convinced he should come home again. He didn't really have it in his mind to transfer his One Church, One Child work to Houston, at least not right off the bat, but when the folks at Harris County's Children's Protective Services received word that a minister instrumental in L.A.'s program was headed to Houston, that was all they needed to hear. Bowie got the call from CPS. And in keeping with his "applied Christianity" philosophy, he answered it.

In truth, he feels a bit like he was drafted for this duty, swept into it by the forces at hand. As of last August, there were 233 children under Harris County care awaiting adoption, with black children accounting for 135 of the total, or 57 percent, a disproportionate share of the group. That number is a 37 percent increase from December 1992. When black children from private, non-profit agencies are factored in, the number of black children waiting for adoption in Harris County is closer to 200. Since CPS processes about 50 adoptions per year, the backlog is likely to continue -- and to have a more pronounced effect on how long black children stay in foster care, since they're adopted more slowly than whites.

With Houston's One Church, One Child, Bowie felt he might be able to change that. And indeed, since the 15-church Houston group was formed last May, seven children have been placed, though their adoptions are not final. An adoption festival, where prospective adoptive parents and children up for adoption mingle, was held in November. From that event, preliminary adoption applications have been started for 15 children.

It appears to be a good beginning. But Robert Gilmore knows that good beginnings don't always lead to good finishes; he's been where the Reverend Bowie is going, and he's more than a little ruffled from the ride. Gilmore, then minister at Barber's Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, was part of an earlier Houston effort to start a One Church, One Child program. The time was the mid-'80s, and Gilmore was optimistic about what became a statewide effort. But over a year or two the effort fizzled, surviving only in Dallas.

Disillusioned by that failed effort, among other things, Gilmore has since left the ministry so he could work in a school-based program that directly addresses community issues. He now says that the main reason the earlier One Church, One Child effort didn't work was two-fold: a lack of interest among Houston's black ministers, and a lack of flexibility, personnel and funds on the part of Harris County's Children's Protective Services.

That latter charge is one that Odessa Sayles, CPS' lead program director for adoptive and foster care at the time, doesn't deny. "We didn't have the resources," the now retired director says. "It was an addition to the duties of the staff already there at CPS. We didn't have a staff person free to dedicate all their time to working with the process." So with nobody free enough to devote sufficient time and effort to the church-based program, miscommunication and confusion led to inaction and, finally, abandonment of the project.

Gilmore contends that there was an increase both in the awareness of the need for adoptive families and actual adoptions during that period, but that CPS never shared that data with One Church, One Child. Gilmore also thinks that the long and tortuous process a person has to go through to be approved as an adoptive parent was something that needed to be addressed, but never was.

But the familiar CPS refrain about lack of funds was only half the story, according to Gilmore. The religious community failed as well. Gilmore is willing to put much of the blame on the churches involved, churches that, he says, either ignored the program's concept or didn't stick with it. As Gilmore sees it, there are more than enough black churches to solve the problem of black children waiting extraordinarily long times for adoption if they truly believed in the One Church, One Child concept. To Gilmore, the challenge seemed clear, but there weren't many who rallied to the cause. He was incredulous that more churches didn't open up to the idea. "You don't have nobody in your church, hello, who has a house with some extra rooms in it?" he says. "Nobody that has a car with nobody else riding around in it, and activities at your church, and families at your church with children who could show these children how to be?"

If the churches had truly believed in, and acted on, the One Church, One Child concept, he says, "we would have automatically accomplished the goal in one year." But the other ministers involved weren't particularly anxious to accept Gilmore's assessment. "They didn't want me to say that," he recalls. "But Father Clements named the organization -- hello -- One Church, One Child, right? And the whole point is to have one family sponsored by the church to adopt one child."

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