Another Kind of Youth Ministry
Terry and Martha Witt have been in ministry a long time. Terry sang in a Christian band in high school, and they have served as youth pastors or pastors ever since becoming engaged in 1975. Since 2015, they have pastored Riverside Redemption Church in Olivehurst, California.
In 1988, youth ministry took a new dimension as the Witts became licensed foster parents. Their biological children, Tara and Coy, were 12 and 5 years old. Over the next 20 years, the Witts fostered more than 100 children.
At first they took both boys and girls, but later focused on teen boys, who are typically hard to place.
“At that time, there was less emphasis on stability,” says Terry, 63. “Kids could just complain and get moved.” The Witts not only accepted teen boys, but often kept them several years.
“We’ve had several who came at 11 or 12 and stayed until they aged out,” says Martha, 61.
The Witts say a key to longer stays involved ensuring each child knew God chose him to be there and he was wanted and loved. Also, as a youth pastor, Terry encouraged college youth to mentor younger kids. The same thing happened with foster care: older kids knew the family genuinely cared, so they encouraged younger ones to stay.
Another key was the couple’s two biological children, Coy and Tara.
“It was definitely family ministry,” says Martha. When Coy graduated from Los Angeles Recording School in 2007, he temporarily moved in with Tara and her family — bringing four foster brothers with him. The five later got a house together and have kept in touch even after careers separated them, talking online and gathering for holidays.
“They are my brothers and always will be,” says Tara, now 42.
Terry Witt’s sister, Michelle Witt, is a therapist who has worked with foster and at-risk youth, including at group transitional homes. She credits her brother and sister-in-law with helping her see not only the parent perspective, but also the difference Christian foster homes can make.
“Terry and Martha have had great success, but they’ve had some difficult situations, too,” says Michelle, 62. “They’ve done their best with whatever puzzle piece God has given them in kids’ lives.”
While pastoring small churches, Terry has worked at seasonal jobs such as construction to support the family. Martha has been a substitute teacher. The flexibility helped with the demands of fostering, such as court dates and meetings with caseworkers and teachers.
“You hear criticism about parents just being in it for the money, but the reality is, the money enabled us to do it well,” he says. “You might need a bigger house or car, in addition to the kids’ actual food and clothing. The system isn’t perfect, but the payments helped free us up to focus on meeting needs.”
In 2008, the Witts retired from foster care but continued in ministry. In 2015, they became pastors of Riverside Redemption Church on Riverside Drive, historically known as “Heroin Alley.” The church had been a Teen Challenge ministry training center which relocated to a new facility, leaving a small group to find new ministry methods in a neighborhood challenged by poverty and addiction. The church previously relied on Teen Challenge interns to produce major events, but now, with a few volunteers and a limited budget, they focus on relationships with neighbors and outreach to children and their families.
One family in particular captured the Witts’ attention: siblings living with their parents, who were in recovery. However, the father relapsed. Unable to sustain living accommodations, the mother took the children to a homeless camp. She also relapsed, and the children entered the foster system. The Witts quickly got recertified and took the children, and, for the first time, felt led to adopt. Miranda, 14, Hannah, 12, and Jaden, 9, moved to the Witts in 2016 and officially joined the family in January 2018.
Progress in the church neighborhood is gradual but steady. Miranda and Hannah attend youth group at a larger AG church, New Life Assembly of God in Olivehurst, learning skills which they use to help with kids’ ministry at Riverside. The children also are musically talented; they sing and play guitar, keyboard, and percussion occasionally for church. Martha marvels at God’s timing.
“I watch them singing and playing for the Lord and think, What if we hadn’t said yes?” she says.
The Witts encourage others to get involved in foster care.
“What better ministry than to have kids right in your home?” asks Terry. “By teaching them daily about Christ, you can really change the trajectory of their lives.”