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."

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."

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.

"A lot of black families who come to the attention of CPS don't have the financial resources or sophistication to deal with the system," Sayles contends. "A lot of children throughout the county are picked up simply because they are poor." Young, inexperienced CPS workers sometimes misinterpret a spanking as a beating, and consciously or subconsciously view poverty as unacceptable. And they remove the children to foster care, when the focus should be, says Sayles, put on training or counseling for the parents in an attempt to save the family. If the children aren't getting three meals a day, she insists, it would be better to make it clear to the parents the importance of providing three meals a day instead of plucking the kids out of the home and putting them up for adoption.

But if some see the problem as having an element of class conflict, others, such as Pat Lee, director of adoptive services for CPS, say that race is also a factor. "Many times the case worker assigned is not a black case worker," notes Lee, and as a result, they may not have much sympathy for the problems of the families being investigated. Which returns Lee to the question of class. "Sometimes I have to help them look at their middle class values, as to whether or not we're penalizing the family because the family is poor," she says. "Is [a mother] not able to provide food because she spent the money or didn't have it in the beginning? Sometimes we have to look at ourselves, black and white, to look at the middle class values that frequently interfere."

A further problem is that many of the black children caught in an adoption limbo don't fit the profile of the preferred adoptee -- they're not necessarily cute, gurgling infants. The children waiting to be adopted simply don't fit any one stereotype. Some, like 14-year-old D'Aundre, were abandoned. D'Aundre is a good student, likes to play baseball and is described as "very artistic." His CPS profile says he needs some stability and a patient, nurturing two-parent family. Eleven-year-old Cornelius is described as likable and very protective. A single parent home could work for him. Jonice is a seven-year boy who came into care due to medical neglect. He has cerebral palsy but is described as a "happy, active" boy who enjoys playing outdoors. Jimmie is in sixth grade and is in special education due to slight mental retardation. Siblings would be good for him, since he interacts well with other children. These four are among a number of older, harder to place children. There are others who are younger and perhaps easier to place, but the sheer numbers tell the story: too many children waiting too long for what everyone agrees they need -- a family. And if One Church, One Child is going to find them those families, then it will have to do more than challenge Houston churches; it will have to teach them what modern day adoption is really about.

The Reverend Bowie says he has an approach, if not necessarily an answer, to those issues. Part of his program will go beyond adoption to "family enrichment." In the next three or four years, Bowie hopes to have a counseling program started to help prevent children from being taken from their original home unless it's absolutely necessary. "Most people who go into court and lose their kids have problems with decision making, problem-solving. They need parenting skills," Bowie says. In Los Angeles, judges could refer parents to a counseling program that was part of One Church, One Child; a similar arrangement might be helpful in Houston. "If you can fix the home where the kid is," Bowie notes, "you don't have to go through the process of the problems that go with adoption and foster care."

This would be a way for Bowie's church-based program to provide services that some blacks may be reluctant to accept from CPS, since there has been a historic -- and too often justified -- suspicion of public agencies within the black community. "People think very negatively about CPS," says Lee. "What we have to do is dispel some of those myths they have about us, that we're baby snatchers, that we're out to break up families."

On an overcast December morning, John Bowie is out once more trying to spread his message. He has been invited to guest on KYOK's morning Community Hotline call-in talk show; the topic, in keeping with the charitable side of the Christmas season, is how to find African-American homes for the growing number of African-American children awaiting adoption. Along with Bowie, Pat Lee of the Harris County Children's Protective Services has been invited to the discussion. Lee has arrived on time and sits in the glassed-in tenth floor studios at Weslayan and the Southwest Freeway, looking out over the upscale terrain of Greenway Plaza. The top of the hour is filled with commercials, an introduction by Rayna Davis, who's subbing for regular host Leroy Patterson, and a few opening remarks by Lee.

The Reverend Bowie has trouble finding the studio, but once he lands in front of the microphone a few minutes late, he has no trouble launching into his spiel. It's the same one he's been spinning to fellow ministers, to strangers, from the pulpit to his congregation, to anybody within earshot who'll sit still for a minute. It's that he wants black churches and black churchgoers to come forward and join One Church, One Child's effort.

"Adopting children, making sure they are in places of love and security is what makes a good child into a good adult. And the absence of it can make him into an adult we'll have to take care of later on in life," the preacher says as he leans into the mike. "Here we have children who are waiting for love. That's a great opportunity. If we miss it we really can't complain about the crime and violence that's out there. If a child is continuously exposed to rejection, neglect and a lack of love, we know what the consequences are. Here's a chance for the church to encourage those who have the love, space, time and commitment to take a life and love it into maturity."

As Bowie gets deeper into his subject, his talk begins to sound a bit like the prevailing don't-depend-on-the-government message coming from Washington. Indeed, much of Bowie's spiel isn't all that far from what new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich might say. When this is pointed out to him later, Bowie laughs a hearty, deep-chested laugh. When he lets up from the laugh he admits that, yes, some of what he says may indeed sound like Gingrich, who in one memorable sound bite proposed orphanages as a possible solution for children in the limbo of foster care.

Bowie's approach may not include orphanages, but some of his rhetoric is positively Newt-onian. Try this: "You actually find more churches referring people to government when government should be referring people to churches." Or this: "The difference from Reagan-Bush is that this time the Republicans are not talking about trickle down, it's where there are problems, let's put the money there instead of allowing a bureaucracy to continue to address this. When you see every day the corruption of those in power, the closer you get the resources to the problem, the better."

Make no mistake; Bowie was supportive of many of the efforts of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but he thinks the wheels have fallen off some of its programs. He voted for President Clinton, but he admits "disappointment" at his performance. He understands the call for welfare reform, but it worries him.

"Theoretically, the Great Society was a product of healthy, wholesome, decent people," he says. "But when you put a bureaucracy together and you haven't converted people, you are subject to get disastrous kinds of things in the system. Much of the bureaucracy began with the idea of helping people, but since we've tried it for a while, we know that sometimes even among our own people you can get caught up in the greed and the other kind of agendas that destroy the program."

If such comments go against the grain of what some liberals might think black ministers should sound like, the Reverend Bowie doesn't particularly care. He's got a problem to solve, and a message to get out. And as he rolls on at KYOK about the need for the black community to show it can truly take care of the weakest of its own, no one else can get a word in edgewise. Nor do they try. Though Bowie is now working as a pastor, when he speaks he's more reminiscent of the teacher he studied to be. Bowie is a teacher, and he has a lesson. And homework to assign.

"We're not just looking for Ozzie and Harriet families," Bowie tells the KYOK radio audience. "There are competent single people who would make beautiful parents. There are some things about the requirements for adoption that are mostly rumors. We want to make sure the truth gets out."

When the radio show is over, Bowie and Lee are all smiles. Everything seemed to go well. There was no dead air, no slips of the tongue. The message appeared to be delivered well. And yet there remained the nagging question of whether the message was truly heard. As Bowie was being eloquent, as Pat Lee was being understanding, host Rayna Davis was time and again giving out the number for the question and comment line. But for all her coaxing, one thing lays heavy as John Bowie gets ready to return to his church and his mission.

Nobody called.

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