She cowered in the darkness of the closet just as she had done on numerous occasions in the past. Her dark brown eyes reflected distrust and uncertainty. As I reached to stroke the curly, auburn hair that clung to her tear-streaked face, she recoiled as if expecting a blow. Softly, I began singing, "Jesus loves you, this I know ...."

God had prepared my heart for that moment since childhood. "Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all [my] days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began" (Psalm 139:16). When I was 12 years old, an article in Home Life magazine awakened a desire to minister to hurting children. Observations of my parents as they offered refuge to wayward teens and struggling families continued to shape my dreams. Each of these experiences became the fertile soil upon which a kernel of hope would take root, find nourishment and grow from dreams to reality.

God had also begun a good work in the heart and life of my future husband. Born with severe hearing loss resulting from German measles during his mother's pregnancy, he was determined to learn to speak correctly. His mother spent hours each week reading with him from the Bible. As he learned to pronounce difficult words, powerful biblical truths became foundational in preparing his heart for future pastoral ministry. He would learn God's purpose in designing him just exactly as he was, and that with God there were no mistakes.

When we married and committed our home to be a haven of happiness, we could never have imagined the journey with 25 special-needs children that would unfold over the next 25 years. It seems only yesterday ...

The phone rings and we immediately know the social worker is describing a boy who will be a new member of our family. Terry* is 4 years old. His arrival fills the house with mischief and joyous commotion. He eats from a garbage can in the neighbor's yard, triumphantly announcing, "There's plenty more if you want some." He takes up residence with us as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Perhaps he doesn't know how it feels to belong in one particular place.

Baby Dave has never had a place other than the hospital. He brings total delight to our family as he learns to roll over and sit up and discovers the flickering lights on his first Christmas tree. When he leaves, we grieve in ways never considered when his little life came into our hearts. The grief is deep and prolonged, and we want to quit being foster parents. But then, the phone rings again.

"Yes, of course he can come!" How can we refuse a little boy who has spent the first three years of his life locked up in a playpen with oven racks tied on top? He's deaf, profoundly affected by cerebral palsy, and has no communication. Four months later, he walks, signs simple words and smiles as he plays -- smiles that light the world.

The children came in steady succession -- some staying a day, others a month, some a couple of years. Regardless of the lengths of stay, God provided encouragement for our hearts through the lives of our extended families and church members where my husband served as pastor. Lasting, life-changing friendships were established as friends and family adopted "our kids" as "their kids."

When our adopted daughter entered turbulent times during her teen years, we heard hints from well-meaning friends and church members that we were spending too much time with "those foster children." In the midst of her struggles, our daughter emphatically declared, "No, you can't quit! What if you had listened to those people when it was me that needed a family?" We learn to ignore the occasional whispers and continue to love lavishly and unconditionally. Sometimes we hesitated to accept another child because we knew the pain in letting go. But we were reminded: "We are weak ... but He is strong," and so we continued ...

We meet 6-year-old Sam in the children's psychiatric unit. He has attempted suicide. After six months living in the security of a loving home, he races down the hall to tell us Jesus loves him and now lives in his heart.

Eleven-year-old TJ is sad and withdrawn. He stays only one summer. Three years after leaving our home he writes, "Sometimes I'm afraid, but when I remember how much you love me, then I'm OK again." Weeping and rejoicing intermingled throughout the ministry of our big "little family."

Tammy is emotionally disturbed.

Angel just happens to be "an unwanted extra."

Four-year-old Jen has nightmares because of sexual abuse.

Mark's recurring visions of "knives, blood and screaming" bring our 7-year-old son to kneel beside him, praying that the nightmares would go away.

Mikey was born addicted to heroin from his mother's abuse.

Four-year-old Les is deaf. Learning sign language to communicate with Les captivated the heart of our youngest daughter as she went about her play, singing joyfully, "I'm a missionary in my very own home."

Though foster children no longer live in our home, the ministry continues. Occasionally we hear snippets from one of our kids about how God used our lives to alter the paths of their lives. We rejoice. Other discoveries lead to sadness as we hear of the struggles some still face.

Once again the phone rings. It's my oldest daughter. Her voice is exuberant as she shares news of their home Bible study, her church work as director of human resources, and the latest antics of my grandchildren. Memories dance across time as I listen to this confident, compassionate young woman. I remember the look in those dark brown eyes when I stroked her auburn hair. I rejoice in the unfolding miracle -- a life transformed by the acceptance of the simplest of words, "Jesus loves me, this I know."


*All names of the children have been changed. Ritchie Hale is the wife of J. Sheldon Hale, pastor of First Baptist Church in Walton, Ky., where she teaches the 3-year-olds Sunday School class. This article first appeared in SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.

(c) 2008 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.