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Bridge Over Troubled Children

Church-state partnership benefits troubled youth who learn positive outcomes.

When Bridge Church pastors David and Michele McLain asked a congregant serving as state associate commissioner for Child Protective Services (CPS) ways in which the Hutto, Texas, congregation could bless foster children, the commissioner had a challenging idea.

Texas had received onetime federal funding to help kids permanently removed from their parents’ custody and who were about to age out of the system. The deadline loomed for its use. These children without forever adoptive homes are at risk for crime, poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, and sex trafficking.

Could the church put together a special camp for these children?

With less than two months’ notice, pulling off a three-day event for 120 kids would be daunting, if not impossible. But beyond logistics, government funding meant that the camp couldn’t include worship, Bible study, overt prayer, or preaching.

But Michele McLain looked to the word she had tattooed on her wrist for such a time as this: Yes.

And as the McLains pondered the state requirements, they remembered Matthew 5:16, in which Jesus challenges His followers to show His love through their actions.

“For years I‘ve said when that verse is done right, it can’t fail,” says David, 50, lead pastor of the Assemblies of God congregation. “It’s light in a dark place, a sense of wonder and awe that moves the hearts of people. It challenged us to communicate God’s love in a different way without explanation, demonstrating His love rather than saying His love.”

Bridge Church reserved the North Texas District Lakeview Camp and Retreat Center in Maypearl Aug. 8-10. The center, which hosts church camps and retreats year-round, features ziplines, paintball, crate-stacking, a skate park, a climbing wall, a 30-acre lake with boating, and indoor/outdoor swimming pools with water slides. In 2015, a nonprofit humanitarian group that holds a contract to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in caring for unaccompanied migrant children used Lakeview to host 700 people.

Meanwhile, the McLains led 25 church staffers and volunteers who created the nuts and bolts for the “divinity-free” camp with the theme Words Have Power, derived from Proverbs 18:21.

“These kids have had so many things spoken over them that have shaped their identities and caused wounds,” David says. That’s why the opening session focused on the power of life and death of the tongue regarding negative, hurtful words the students have heard and spoken themselves.

Students wrote kind, uplifting, positive statements on boards, prompted by three phrases on signs posted on stage: “You rock!” “I’m awesome!” and “I was made for more.” The youth repeatedly declared the phrases aloud in group sessions. They wrote negative words on other boards, which they broke, representing smashing the power of old narratives and stereotypes.

“We called the sessions ‘services’ and hold group meetings and games,” Michele says. Speakers talked about mental health, identity, and letting go of unhealthy memories.

Students cheered each other on during team-building exercises, such as crate-stacking. Each student received camp and team shirts, a journal, a backpack, and a $20 gift card for snacks, all part of the $138,000 federal grant.

Forty-five state CPS caseworkers handpicked the 120 campers, ages 16-18, from throughout Texas and invited them; these caseworkers also attended the camp as counselors.

Mike G. Worley, 44, who grew up in a broken home amid drugs, violence, and gangs — and had lived on his own since age 15 — served as one of the volunteers. Worley’s chin-to-toe tattoos, many of which were inked before he put his faith in Christ 12 years ago, feature skulls, a wizard, and a dragon. His post-conversion tattoos include Scriptures on his hands.

“Even though we didn’t get to preach Jesus, these kids saw something different and let their walls down,” Worley says.

With ground rules on talking about spiritual matters akin to those of Royal Family Kids Camp, volunteers and staff may answer students’ questions.

“Some kids asked, What’s your background?,” says Worley, who shared with them events from his adolescence before he met Jesus. “I know where these kids are coming from.”

Michele believes the atmosphere allowed students to enjoy a fun camp, bond with peers and adults, and confide their stories. One girl shared that her dad and uncle raped her at age 8. Another said her mom didn’t want her because she had put her dad in prison.

In the closing camp session, David encouraged attendees to share what they’d learned and what had impacted them. One girl used the camp’s theme phrases to describe herself as others cheered. A boy whose parents had abandoned him said he had learned his parents’ choices don’t define him. Another girl said she felt loved.

A boy named Angel, who soon after arriving dropped his gruff exterior, declared, “I was made for more. I’m gonna get out of the ‘hood one day.”

Angel uttered it almost as a joke, but David leaned into that moment and spoke a prophetic word over him: “I want you to know I believe what you just said is true. We believe you can, and you will. I believe you’re going to get married and have kids and grandkids and have a different life because of what you just said.”

CPS official Deneen Dryden believes the three-day camp resulted in a positive outcome.

“Any time the Department of Family and Protective Services can partner with our faith-based community it’s a win-win,” says Dryden, 57. She notes that Texas has a Faith-Based and Community Engagement Division to encourage faith-based groups’ involvement with children and families in crisis.

“I think it was a success that benefited both sides,” Dryden says.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.