Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

 
James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning


A Life That Honors God

Dennis Blackwood


As I have contemplated writing this for the past few months, I have had many mixed feelings and thoughts considering what to write, and how to write this story. Without candy coating and overly dramatizing the different events that occurred, I will try to write this with the mindset that God will use it for His glory.

I was born in a small town in Colorado called Leadville. My mom was 17 and dad was 26. My father has most of his roots in the Oklahoma City area, but because of different choices and trying to run away from his problems, he ended up in Colorado. He married my mom who was 16 at the time. Mom grew up in a relatively lower-class economic situation. I imagine that my dad’s charms swept my mom off her feet and also paved a way to get out of her somewhat depressing situation in life. I have two sisters, one of whom is three years younger and the other six years younger.

Spiritually, my parents were not the greatest influence on me through my first seven to eight years. Mom is basically a non-churched, self-proficient, self-reliant person who really has little to say about God, but had a lot to say about my father’s “religion.” Dad grew up in a solid Christian home and he had excellent influences around him, but also, he felt a lot of pressure to succeed. Dad had a hard time sticking it out when things got rough. Dad was used to success athletically, academically, and enjoyed girls being attracted to him. When things got rough in his college years, he ran away. Another contributing factor to his impulsiveness was that Dad was manic-depressive, but wasn’t diagnosed as such until many years later. He was very up and down and had quite a temper. Dad preached a God that loves you, but he also lived an often selfish and hot-tempered life with my mom. Mom and Dad experienced friction from the beginning and had several separations that eventually led up to a divorce when I was seven years old.

I will never forget my mom saying to us one morning to get our stuff, that we were leaving our dad forever. Of course, this was a devastating blow to a young child. Eventually Mom had Dad sent to jail and he later wound up in an institution for the mentally unstable.

Mom, my sisters and I started a journey of about 18 months or so where we moved in and out of towns like a carnival. We even lived in Las Vegas two different times for several months each time. My mom was also in and out of relationships with other men, tried to get a business college degree, and worked hard to make enough money to get by. The state caught wind of us children being home and neglected while Mom was at work. She was urged to put us in some type of children’s center/home for a time until she got her life back together.

To be honest, I don’t really know how and why things transpired over the next year, but eventually through some relatives in Oklahoma, one of my sisters and I ended up in Oklahoma, and then in the Baptist Children’s Home.

How did I feel? It is hard to explain, but I know that for months, if not years, I felt unloved and abandoned. I didn’t know why or understand much of the “what fors,” but this was the ultimate rejection in my mind for a long time. Later, I just accepted the situation and anxiously awaited the day I would be back with one of my parents.

Honestly, I often felt that the Baptist Home was sort of a jail without walls. Yet even with those thoughts, I sensed a stability that I had not had at any time in my life. There were a lot of routines and rules that had to be followed, but it is easier to understand with so many kids. (I think the way the child care homes are run now, in more of a smaller family-style setting, is a lot better than the large campus-style that I was a part of in the 1960’s.) Yet in those routines of chores and other responsibilities, I learned a lot about discipline and doing a job well that I probably consciously don't even realize to this day. I found that doing a job well, obeying, and working hard at getting good grades always made things better. Later, I found out that doing these things were a way of honoring a God who loves us.

I generally excelled academically and athletically and mainly obeyed my houseparents. I found many rewards in such a pursuit, but I also knew that doing well at what we attempted pleased my houseparents, other adults, and especially God.

The Home also provided us with the opportunity to attend church, hear about His love in devotionals, and join in special retreats such as RA camp, Falls Creek, and other things that helped us understand about Jesus Christ and His love and sacrifice for us.

Yet, the biggest impression for Christ came mainly through my aunt, who was able to visit me a few hours each week on Sundays, and a Sunday School teacher at the church the Home took us to—First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. Paul McKowan was my Sunday School teacher and I only remember him as one of the most unconditionally loving people I had known up to that time. To me, my Aunt Martha and Paul McKowan were Jesus in the flesh to me. Their love and acceptance drew me heavily to Christ, and during a Falls Creek retreat, I gave my self to Christ. I guess you may wonder if my houseparents like Mrs. Swearingen, Mrs. Laging, and the Purdues had an impact on me for Christ—I’m sure they did, but I also look at them as the sort of “wardens” during my stay in the “wall-less prison.”

One of my most enjoyable responsibilities during my stay those four years in Baptist Children’s Home, was the job of putting the flag up and taking it down everyday. I think that one of the main reasons I took this job to heart was that those adults at the Home gave a “big task” to a little kid who often felt unloved.

  • Continued...

    One of the most enjoyable aspects that happened a few times each year was going to the town of the congregation that sponsored us in the Home. It was a great time, especially during the summers when I would go to Sulphur, and stay in different families’ homes. It was always fun to get to play and do things with other boys my own age—like having another brother or two. I was always thankful for this time of the year and looked forward to it with great eagerness.

    Other fun events were RA camps, Falls Creek camp, and other off-campus events. One of the most memorable was a group of OU students coming to the Home and “adopting”me for the weekend and taking me to OU campus to eat with other college students, attend a party just for kids from the Home, watch an OU football game on TV, get escorted all over the college campus by a group of the students, and play games with them. In fact, it was so memorable, that when I worked as a vocational minister to college students some years later, I gathered together a bunch of college students to do the same kind of fun activities with several kids from the Children’s Home. I thought it would be great to give some of those kids the same good memories that I had years earlier.

    When I look back at Christmas while at the Home, I remember lots of special attention and many fun Christmas gifts. Before we left for our vacations with relatives or our sponsoring groups, we would eagerly wait with great anticipation to see what we might get. I really don't remember any specific gift, except one—a pocket watch that I thought was one of the “neatest” things a kid my age could own.

    Of course, there were other good memories on campus at the Children’s Home. I had some very loving houseparents at Scott, Hodge, and Lucas Cottages. I’m sure it was very difficult for the different adults to take care of and nurture a large number of kids who probably were all going through some difficult time for one reason or another—especially the feeling of rejection. I know that we probably didn’t give much respect towards the houseparents, but looking back at it now, I sense a lot more of their acts of love and compassion to kids that were probably often very hard to love.

    Some of the funny memories I have were the summers of the great “locust hunts.” We would take steel mesh from the screens of the window wells around the cottages (shhh, don’t tell), and make little v-shaped missiles to shoot with a rubber band. We would to go look for locust clinging on limbs in trees and shoot them with our little weapons—the big “King Locust” was always the great prize catch if we could get one. Another fun thing we did during our play time was catch tarantulas and tie strings around their mid-section and walk them around like little dogs. We named two of them Mr. Browning and Mr. Coffman, another funny example of kids showing their way of getting back at the authority figures, I guess.

    I think one of the hardest things I experienced while at the Children’s Home for the nearly four years after I became a Christian, was not being able to see my mother and constantly wondering if she was ever going to know Jesus and be able to go to heaven. For a child, this was a very frightening part of my life, and the Home was able to afford a counselor/psychologist to help me through this time. I’m sure that was a very helpful aspect to dealing with my nightmares and sad episodes.

    There are many things I can be thankful for that I don’t remember, but some that I do remember are piano lessons, viola lessons, having a swimming pool to swim in all summer, the Purdues’ giving special times out on the town when we did well in our schoolwork, being able to live in the same cottage with my sister when I was moved to Lucas Cottage. And being able to be involved in many of the church activities that helped me in understanding my relationship with Jesus Christ.

    About four years after my sister, Tammy, and I arrived at the Children’s Home, my mom came to take us back to Colorado. That was great news for us and we were very excited to be back with our own mom, though we can be very thankful for the experience and stability the Home provided.

    I left the Home when I was 13 and the following years were pretty rocky years with virtually no support for my spiritual growth, but the Lord protected me in many ways. The sad thing is that to this day neither my mom or my two sisters have made a decision to follow Christ and I learned quickly that it is difficult to persuade your own family to give their lives to the Lord.

    I graduated high school in Alaska and was greatly influenced by my uncle to attend Oklahoma State University. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go back to a flat, windy state, where I had some difficult memories, but because I couldn’t afford other schools in Colorado or anywhere else, I decided to go to OSU because I could get in-state residency since dad (who I hadn’t seen in over eight years at the time) now lived in Oklahoma. In reality, the four years at OSU were the best years of my life up to that time, and my sophomore year was when I really started growing in my relationship with Christ.

    By the time I graduated in 1979, I had a strong desire to minister to young people and within a year, I started ministering with high school students. After three years of high school ministry through Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Youth for Christ, I had a strong desire to work with college students. I was counseled to attend seminary as preparation for student work and soon attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    During the last year of high school ministry, I had met my future wife, Susan, on a blind date that a few friends had set up. We were married a few weeks before we moved to Fort Worth for my seminary training. During seminary, I actually gained much of my vision for my life’s purpose and mission while being a part of an innovative church called Hope Baptist Church. During the years we were part of Hope Baptist, both my wife and I were mentored and befriended by some very godly friends who have had a substantial impact on our spiritual and marital growth.

    One of our continuing desires is to be part of a ministry to impact people, not only to know Christ, but to live their lives in the arena to lead and mentor others for Christ through their family, community and beyond. We believe that often the best way to accomplish this in our society with the younger generation today is to adapt our methodology without compromising biblical principle. Jesus and Paul were great innovators in the way they did ministry, and often to reach younger people today, we must be innovative and meet people on their own turf. One of the ways that God has used us to make an impact has been through vulnerable and transparent lives, character building, and striving to move into the deeper aspects of relationship, rather than spreading people’s time through program-centered ministry. We generally go about this through small group and person-to-person relationships that include encouragement, care-giving, accountability, spiritual mentoring, and brother-to-brother and sister-to-sister in Christ sharing of our lives.

    Susan and I have experienced this paradigm of ministry and lifestyle through several different stages of our life together. Our first adventure in our mission after seminary was working with college students at Oklahoma University in Norman, with the Baptist Student Union and a great mentor of ours, Max Barnett. We spent four years with the ministry there, discipling college students to strategically adjust their lives in their family, careers, community, and beyond with a vision toward joining God to help fulfill the Great Commission. Susan and I went about this methodologically by discipling teachable and available students, who in turn would disciple freshman through small groups and one-to-one relationships.

    Our next stage was taking the vision we had in a para-church ministry, such as the Baptist Student union into the local church. We moved to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia, to help three other families plant an innovative church with a primary purpose to reach the unchurched. The most difficult part of this five-year adventure was being bi-vocational raising part of my support and starting a new business to meet the rest of our financial needs. I think God used this time to teach me more about dependence on Him than any other time of my life. Coming from the broken type of family life that I did, I had learned to rely on myself for any kind of success and it would be an influence even into my adulthood. An often-quoted statement is that “God helps those who help themselves,” but such a statement is not altogether true. God gives mercy where He desires, and it isn’t always to those who are helping and can help themselves. The five years in the DC area provided an opportunity for me to be crushed and rebuilt to the point where God used my failures to help me be more dependent on Him. I am thankful for what He did in our lives, even though He worked through our lives in ministering to the unchurched.

    The current stage of life we are in brings us back to Oklahoma to be a part of a fairly new church with an innovative approach to ministry strongly based on small groups. It is exciting to be back in Oklahoma close to relatives and friends, plus part of a very family-friendly community that is Bartlesville. There are a lot of positives here, but one of the biggest challenges after being in more unchurched areas is trying to discern where people are spiritually so as to help them come to Christ or to grow in Him. One of the great aspects in the DC area was that it was easy to know where people were spiritually since many were very up front about their relationship or non-relationship with Christ. The challenge in the Bible belt is that most people have a church background though they may or may not have a real relationship with Christ. It takes time, patience and relationship to know where people really are spiritually. We look forward to where and how God uses us here in Bartlesville. Another new aspect for us is that I will be a full-time layman as I work toward making my business (Lord willing) self-supporting financially without raising support.

    God has blessed Susan and me with three wonderful children: Brittany, age 9; Erin, 7; and Daniel, 5.

    In perspective of my experience in the Baptist Children’s Home from 1966 to 1970, I imagine there was a lot more of a positive impact than I actually may realize. There is also a lot to say for stability, structure, and responsibility given to a child who has gone through a major family breakdown and a loss of relationship with his own parents. But, the greatest thing that happened in my life while at the Home was I decided to give my life to Christ. For many things I am grateful to Oklahoma Baptists for assisting financially and other ways to help a little boy like me who felt very unloved and rejected get back on his feet and headed toward a productive and hopefully, God-honoring life. Thank you.

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