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 is aware of the earlier problems Houston had with One Church, One Child, but he is not dissuaded. And while his perspective may not be as strident as Gilmore's, he's not letting black churches entirely off the hook. He's just a little more optimistic that they'll respond to the proper prodding.

"The church is getting back into the people's business and trying to get out of the entertainment business," he says. "When you look at a church's budget, you can see that 80 or 90 percent of it goes to two hours on Sunday morning. It's the entertainment business, that's the business they're in, no matter what they say. If all the money goes to buys robes and organs, and pianos, then that's the business that they're in. I know a lot of churches are changing, realizing the ministry is the people.

"Accountability is what the church should be about, what it does for people's lives. Does it change people's lives, does it enhance decency? Does it benefit the broken, the hurt? If we're not doing that, we're just another club or fraternity with no justification for existence beyond accountability to those people who come on Sunday."

Of course, even if he gets the churches to sign on, Bowie knows the concept can still falter. Even in the relatively successful One Church, One Child effort in Los Angeles, there were lessons to be learned. The Los Angeles County equivalent of Children's Protective Services offered the program an office in its building and even had county social workers working on the program. But a board of advisors turned out to include some ministers who just wanted the perks involved with being on a board, and weren't that concerned about doing anything. Eventually, people began to perceive the program as one that was run by the county without much participation by the churches or the community. That's one mistake Bowie doesn't want to make in Houston.

To succeed in Houston, he feels, the program needs to be seen as belonging to the ministers. It should have the assistance and cooperation of CPS, but not be run by the agency. Bowie believes he's gone a good distance toward pulling that off by accepting a $50,000 renewable one-year contract with CPS to cover the hiring of a director and support services, but by having the program offices housed at True Light Missionary Baptist Church, not at CPS. The contract is "seed money" to initiate the effort, with further support expected from fundraising and semi-annual collections at member churches. The performance yardstick will not be who's on the board of directors or how well the group has been able to project its image; it will instead be numbers oriented -- how many children are placed in homes. "In order to get a contract next year, we must speak to not how well organized we are or how we look in the press, but the kids who are adopted," says Bowie. "That's the bottom line, are kids being adopted?"

But to get those kids adopted, Bowie and his colleagues will have to sell Houston's black ministers on the idea. Nelda Lewis, adoption director at Depelchin's Children Center, remembers a meeting that was held for ministers during the earlier One Church, One Child effort. "It was difficult to get the ministers to come to the meeting," she says. "It was hard. We believe that the church is a natural place to get families, but the minister has to be supportive of adoption [and] adoption is not something that many people support. I mean, they feel adoption is not the way to go. If a young woman gets pregnant, they feel she should parent."

Meanwhile, eight years after the fact, Gilmore still gets riled when he recalls the earlier One Church, One Child program, adds to that how many churches are in the black community and then considers what might have been. "In Third Ward we got 52 [churches], you dig?" he says. "I've got 52 in Third Ward. I think it might be more. It's an indictment against all these churches that [they] have no commitment toward serious programs of support for issues that affect black children and families. I double dog dare any pastor in town to come to the table with a counter argument. The black kids up for adoption, we could wipe out the whole group. If you've got such a commitment to God, to Christ, or to Buddha, or to Hindu, why can't you make a commitment to make a difference in the life of one child?"

It's a hard question. Still, despite his bitterness about his own attempt, Gilmore thinks the new effort by the Reverend Bowie could work. But he remains cautious. "The churches did not make a commitment and they still haven't," he says. "They haven't been challenged."

To make that challenge, though, is to raise uncomfortable questions, such as why blacks account for half of the Houston area's adoption waiting list but only about 20 percent of its population. It's a question with many answers. Nationwide, there are about 850,000 children in foster care, about half of whom are black, whereas only 14 percent of the country's population is black. There's the standard sociological explanation that a history of job, education and housing discrimination and the resultant economic and self-image handicap put a serious strain on black family structure, increasing the incidence of child abuse, drug addiction and teenage parents. There is also a class-related factor when it comes to social service agencies' interactions with blacks, according to veteran CPS worker Odessa Sayles. The problem, she says, could be described as a bourgeois bias by some social workers when confronting poor black families.

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