…But now I see
How the Heart Gallery is Opening Eyes of Faith to Children in Foster Care
The response is almost always the same. When everyday people in churches in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of Texas, where I live, first hear about the realities of children in foster care, the bewildered response comes quickly – “I had no idea.” There is little doubt that far too many people simply do not know about the realities that face hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. And people seem to equally have “no idea” that there are so many different ways to love, serve and positively impact the lives and futures of these precious children.
Turning Numbers into Faces
Whether we are talking about the over 500,000 children in foster care nationwide, over 100,000 of whom are waiting for an adoptive family, or the fact that 20,000 kids turn 18 and ‘age-out’ of foster care each year without a permanent family, the numbers and statistics are staggering. But honestly, I am not altogether sure our minds or our hearts can really process numbers like these. After all, we are not really talking about “numbers” â€“ we are talking about children. And yet these children we know only as statistics are so “close” to us and their most pressing needs (such as protection, safety, love and permanency) are so basic that it seems for many they have become all too easy to overlook and ignore.
Where I live, however, there is the beginning of a movement that is turning “numbers” back into “faces” â€“ the faces of real children with real needs and real hopes and dreams. Since September 2006, 16 churches have prominently displayed a Heart Gallery exhibit as a way to open the eyes and hearts of people in their congregation.
First started in 2001 in New Mexico, the Heart Gallery is a unique professional quality photographic exhibit of children in foster care who are waiting to be adopted by loving, permanent families. Heart Gallery exhibits have proven to be a valuable and effective tool in raising awareness of children in foster care and motivating people to foster, adopt and serve these children in other important ways. The Heart Gallery can now be found in nearly every state in the U.S., and the exhibits have predominantly been displayed in art galleries, court houses and shopping malls. Only recently has the Heart Gallery begun to make its way into churches.
The churches in Dallas-Ft. Worth that have hosted the Heart Gallery in the past two years represent various denominations (including Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and non-denominational churches), range in size from 300 to 15,000 and are located in communities all across our area. By opening their doors and their hearts people within our churches are responding to the call to be a voice for some of our community’s most vulnerable and hurting children â€“ and they have the potential to make a tremendous and lasting impact in our foster care system.
Penny Cook, director of The Faith Connection, an effort in Dallas-Ft. Worth that has been instrumental in helping many churches host the Heart Gallery, describes well the potential impact the Heart Gallery is having in churches:
“The Heart Gallery has provided congregations a valuable connection to children in foster care by giving them an opportunity to see their faces and look into their eyes. The exhibit gives people a connection to these beautiful children and truly opens their hearts and minds to the possible ways they can serve. In many churches, families have stepped forward to become foster or adoptive families, volunteer advocates or mentors. Some churches have even formed ministries to help support foster and adoptive families. And one of the greatest benefits of the Heart Gallery in churches is the incredible number of prayers offered on behalf of these children. The Heart Gallery serves as a catalyst and is planting seeds that are resulting in wonderful expressions of service.”
Churches Making Children in Foster Care a Focus
The church where my family attends, Irving Bible Church located in Irving, Texas, has experienced firsthand the impact of the Heart Gallery. It was one of the first churches in our area to host a Heart Gallery exhibit when it did so in 2006 as part of church-wide focus on children at risk. Even though the exhibit at the time was quite simple and relatively small (only 18 photos featuring 24 children), it made an impact on a number of people who saw it. The seeds that were planted resulted in an increased awareness of the children’s needs and several families moved forward to become foster or adoptive parents or got involved in other ways. In addition, the adoption and foster care ministry at Irving Bible Church (called Tapestry) began making foster care and foster adoption a more significant focus and is now providing ongoing support and resources to foster families throughout the community.
Following the month long exhibit in 2006, our church we reached a simple and obvious conclusion: if hosting the Heart Gallery was a positive experience for our congregation then it was likely to be equally positive for other churches. So we began looking for other churches in the area that would be willing to host the Heart Gallery and, equally important, offer various ways for people in their congregations to become involved. The results were amazing. Within six months five additional churches hosted the Heart Gallery exhibit, each for several weeks, and several more churches were making plans to do the same. It was clear that something was happening â€“ something that both Texas Child Protective Services and many churches in our area were genuinely excited about.
At that time we decided to give a name to this growing effort to “help churches help children in foster care” â€“ and The Faith Connection was launched. From day one Penny Cook has led this church-based, volunteer effort. As a result of her efforts and the cooperation and support of many others, the Heart Gallery of North Texas has now grown to include over 80 photos including over 100 children â€“ and is still growing. Because churches are making foster care a focus, dozens of new foster and adoptive families from various churches have been recruited and many advocates and volunteers have also stepped forward to serve children in foster care.
Taci Kistler, Director of Congregational Care at Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, led the effort at her church to host the Heart Gallery in October 2007. Taci recalls the impact at her church, “The Heart Gallery touches everyone who sees it because it does more than simply put a face on the foster care system â€“ it puts heart into the matter. The children reach out to you through their beautiful smiles and loving eyes and remind you that we are all God’s children put on this earth to care for one another.” Following the Heart Gallery exhibit at Custer Road, Taci organized an information meeting where people could learn more about foster care, adoption and a variety of volunteer opportunities. As a result, six families from the church have become licensed to foster or adopt.
Similar results are being experienced at many of the other churches that are hosting the Heart Gallery. Most recently, in April 2008 Irving Bible Church once again welcomed the Heart Gallery. The exhibit, complete with over 80 photos and artwork created by local children in care, opened with a Saturday night reception where people from Child Protective Services, local foster agencies and children’s community organizations, dozens of churches and over one hundred foster and adoptive families were invited. The focus at Irving Bible Church continued the next day during each of the Sunday services, and after each service people were presented with various ways that they could become involved. As we have consistently done for over two years now, foster care and foster adoption training classes are again being offered to those who want to move forward â€“ and slowly but surely we are becoming a church that is experiencing what it means to fully embrace children in foster care and the families that love and serve them.
Overwhelming an Overwhelmed System
Despite these exciting “successes” there is still so much more that churches can and should do. Increasingly, many states are becoming open to the idea that the church is a tremendous source of hope and help for children in foster care. In 2003 the Texas legislature created a formal faith-based program called CHILD, which reaches out to faith communities and invites them to become part of the team dedicated to serving and caring for children in the foster system. Many other states have formal and informal faith-based initiatives, all of which are aimed at getting churches ‘back in the game’ when it comes to addressing the needs of children in care.
It is no secret that in many ways the foster care system across the U.S. is overwhelmed. While there is much that can and should be changed within the system itself, the reality is that far too many churches have allowed children in foster care to go overlooked and ignored for far too long. But it is never too late. I am convinced that people in our churches, motivated by their faith to put “love into action,” can overwhelm an overwhelmed system. With their nearly endless supply of creativity and resources and their passionate desire to selflessly serve, many in our churches can confront the stark realities that face so many children with ‘soul force’ and in so doing change the futures for thousands of children.
The great British abolitionist John Newton is probably best known for his hymn, Amazing Grace. Written in the latter years of his life as he was gradually going blind, the hymn speaks of the power of grace to open the eyes through which we can truly see â€“ the eyes of the heart. Throughout our community we are seeing “the eyes of the heart” opened as people literally come face to face with children in foster care.
There is something truly unique about seeing the faces of children in foster care – faces of every age, shape, size and hue. These faces communicate far more than any statistic ever could. They almost seem to be staring back as we gaze on them as if to ask – “How much do you really believe? How much do you really care?” In churches located where I live we are encountering many who reply “I had no idea… but now I see.” And now that their eyes have been opened, neither they nor the children they are called to serve will ever be the same.
Originally published in the May/June 2008 issue of Fostering Families Today magazine.