By TJ & Karly Pancake
Karly and I had both recently turned 26 when our first child arrived for a weekend visit. A few weeks before, I was driving home from class at seminary when I got the call from our agency about a nine-year-old boy. We picked him up from the home he was staying in before and we drove him 45 minutes to our house. Bruno Mars came on the radio and he sang along. Karly looked at me and mouthed, “He’s really good.”
We didn’t know then that he’d be our son forever. We were open to adoption, but although we hadn’t yet come to a fuller understanding of the importance of family reunification and the complexities of adoption, we wanted simply to be a home and a family as long as that was necessary. We didn’t know then how funny he is, and how smart and how kind. We didn’t know how difficult it would be for him to communicate and how often he disassociated. We didn’t know that we’d eventually have four more children arrive in our home in the next four years or that we’d adopt our daughter too or how hard it would be to see three of them go home somewhere else.
The first conversation we had about foster care was in college. We sat at my tiny kitchen table for lunch and Karly started telling me about her desire to foster kids in need of a home. I hadn’t considered this before then. Perhaps I’d had a naive, romanticized version of international adoption somewhere in the back of my mind, but foster care—that was a new concept. Her passion spoke to me, and the need spoke for itself. 400,000 children in the system at any given time. 100,000 awaiting a forever family. We tried to wait for the right time, but after two years of marriage, we felt like we’d burst if we didn’t start the process.
It took nearly a year to get a license. We attended training and watched videos and filled out files and files of paperwork. There was and continues to be so much learning and unlearning. I have learned about trauma, attachment, sensory disorders, TBRI-parenting, racial history and cultural competency, developmental stages, and TikTok. I have learned how to follow Jesus by immersion, in the way a foreign language student learns when they leave behind the books and jump off the deep end to swim in the language in another country. I have unlearned my preconceptions about birth parents, about other cultures, about discipline, and about what a kid really needs. I am still learning so much about my kids, about myself, about God.
Being a foster and adoptive father is indisputably the hardest thing I have ever done. Sometimes I reminisce about married life before our kids came, about how peaceful it was, how fun, so devoid of drama. I got so much more sleep then. I know that this is wrong. I know that, deep down, I don’t want that life; I want this life, the one God has blessed me with, and the wonder of knowing my children.
In 7th grade, I heard my mom on the phone with someone, discussing a situation about a family we knew. The young girl was going to enter into foster care. I’m not sure what rose up within me as a 13-year-old, but I blurted, “Can we take her?” My mom responded, “Maybe. I’m checking.” My mom’s “maybe” turned into a “yes,” which sowed a seed of passion for foster care in my soul and eventually led to TJ and I saying “yes” to becoming foster parents.
When you’re becoming a licensed foster parent, you have to fill out paperwork, have your entire past scrutinized, and take classes informing you about connected parenting, the trauma of abuse, neglect, and foster care itself, and the basics of being a foster parent. Throughout all of these classes, I remained confident in my ability to be the best temporary or permanent parent for any child that walked through the doors of my home. I had Jesus on my side, didn’t I? It wasn’t until we dealt with our first meltdown that I panicked and realized that I, in fact, did not know what I was doing. I’ve been learning ever since.
I’ve had children stay forever and children go home. I’ve felt the weight of their suffering because I’ve carried it with them. I’ve experienced the provision of God and the generosity of others in ways you wouldn’t believe. I’ve walked through blissful seasons of memory-making and horrible seasons filled with meltdowns, anxiety, and fighting. I’ve learned how to parent a child who lives in constant fear and has experienced significant trauma. I’ve seen my children grow and learn and play basketball and dance and make new friends and overcome. It’s been far more heartbreaking and far more wonderful than I could have possibly imagined.
Becoming a foster parent has opened my eyes to injustice I never knew existed. As I’ve grown closer in proximity to injustice, I’ve grown closer in proximity to Christ. If you’re looking for Him, you can be sure to find Him in the eyes of a precious baby who misses her mama, or in the hands of a biological parent at a visit who is holding her babies and hoping to be reunited with them, or in the smirk of a teenager in the foster care system who has never known what it means to belong. Foster care and adoption have brought me to the end of myself, which is a beautiful place to be. The end of ourselves is where we find Christ, kind and open-handed, awaiting us.
God is an adoptive Father. He is a God who considers the neglect of those in need in our communities to be offensive to His being. Following God in our context means caring for children who have nowhere to go other than a CPS office. We believe that churches all over this country were instituted by God and placed, like Esther, “for such a time as this.”
But first, we must prepare. There has been a surge of churches interested in foster care: signing people up, hosting classes, bringing in speakers, etc. This is wonderful. However, at least in our experience, Christians have a tendency to assume “Jesus fixes everything.” Which, in the end, is true. But if we get to be a part of building His Kingdom, we need to know how to best serve this unique community of biological parents, adoptive parents, adopted children, and foster children. They have specific, often overwhelming, needs. If churches are going to encourage people to dive into foster care, then they need to be informed about trauma, about how to serve vulnerable families in order to prevent foster care in the first place, and about how to sustain foster and adoptive parents and prevent burnout.
We can be a Church, working through everyday people in ordinary local churches who step up for children and families. We can get licensed, make a meal, buy boba for or go bowling with a foster teen in the church, pay to clean a foster family’s home, help a biological family get a vehicle or medical care, and on and on. There are a million ways to serve, if we open our eyes and listen to the Spirit. Kids, parents, families—what they all really need is a team of people who love Jesus enough to see him in them and act accordingly.
It is often cited how the early church was known for its orphan care, for protecting the vulnerable and caring for the poor. We believe the church can have that witness again and that we can truly worship God by caring for children who need a home, whether temporarily or forever. We cannot save these children, their souls or their brains or their bodies—that’s Jesus’ job. Our job is love. It’s showing up. It’s saying yes, even when it’s the scariest “yes” you’ve ever said, even when it turns out to be harder than you imagined, because God said yes to you, because He’s saying yes to a child in a CPS office right now, because you are His child, because what is the gospel, if not a place to belong in God’s family? What better expression of the gospel than making a home that is a beacon of belonging?
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common