Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning

Home Sweet Home

Shirley J. Ross

These are the words I recall from the lighted sign that stood outside the gate to the Baptist Children’s Home at Northwest 63rd and Pennsylvania in Oklahoma City. I recall that the sign said “Baptist Orphan’s Home, Home Sweet Home.” As a very young child I looked at that sign many times and felt such disdain because I didn’t want to be there, but time, understanding, maturity, and God’s provisions for some wonderful houseparents at the Home all gave me an understanding of what a treasure I had been given to grow up in the Baptist Children’s Home.

I don’t recall coming to the Home. I recently learned from Mr. Browning that my sister, Barbara, and I came to the Home on October 12, 1949. I was not yet two years old, and my earliest memories are of the infirmary that was located above the nursery where Barbara and I were cared for by Miss Betty Bishop, known to all of us as “Mama Betty.” As I grew older, I learned that Barbara and I were taken to the Home at the suggestion of some neighbors who knew about the care given at the Home. Our mother had gone to a state hospital, and our older sisters and brother were unable to adequately care for two toddlers while they attended school and tried to run a household. Nine children were born to our parents, and two of them had died. I don’t recall many memories from the nursery except that Mama Betty loved each one of us, and we felt very secure as small children that we were in good hands. I recall a story Mama Betty told me about looking frantically for me one Saturday morning, and I was nowhere to be found. The linens were being changed on the beds in the nursery, and Mama Betty was trying to locate all the children. All the children were accounted for except me. She eventually found me behind her bedroom door where the candy jar was kept. I had both cheeks stuffed so full I resembled a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter. I’m sure I was punished in some way for that event, but I’m even more certain that the enjoyment of the moment was worth whatever price I paid! When I was about three years old, I had no church sponsor yet, and Mama Betty took me on the train to visit her relatives in Kansas or Arkansas. I don’t recall the train trip or the visit, but I do recall the tremendous love that was given to me by the person who served as “mother” in my life.

There are so many memories that flood my mind of my years in the Home. I recall being transferred to the Rinard Cottage after Barbara and I left the nursery. I secretly think Mama Betty could not bear to give us up, and she transferred to the Rinard Cottage with us to be our housemother. I believe the reality was that the nursery was being closed, and the Home would place pre-school children in foster homes. We enjoyed the swing sets and the contentment of childhood pastimes. Mr. and Mrs. Truman Maxey lived on the hill overlooking the Home, and occasionally we visited them in their home.

We knew as small children that Mr. James Browning and Mr. Maxey had offices in the administration building and had something to do with the daily operation of the Home, but most of all we knew them as our friends. One special treat we enjoyed was taking a nickel from our allowance money, kept by our housemother, and walking to the administration building on Sunday afternoon to get a candy bar from the vending machine. I still blame my love of chocolate on those Sunday afternoon visits. As I recall, we didn’t have desserts with our meals, so a visit to the candy machine was the highlight of the week. I remember visitors who came to the Children’s Home on Sunday afternoon to see the campus or visit some of the children, and the silent hope I kept that someday one of them would be there to take me home with them.

The Home seemed at that time to be such an oppressive and restrictive place. When we started to school we realized that classmates at school and at church had so many more privileges and opportunities than we had. I recall my resentment as a little girl who desperately wanted to live in a family like other children, but was resigned to a Home where we were “different” and ridiculed in many ways. I didn’t choose the Home, and I had no way to change my circumstances. The memory of going through the cafeteria lines at University Heights Elementary School and having someone always point out that our lunches were “free” because we were from the “orphan’s home” was so embarrassing and humiliating. The knowledge that we wore “hand-me-downs” and didn’t look like the other children only served to separate us all the more. In my little girl quest to find acceptance and worth to someone, I recall being the first to read in my class and always having to excel in whatever I did in school. I reasoned that I must not have been good enough or worthy enough because someone gave me up and didn’t want me as their child.

I remember the thrill of leaving the campus on a few occasions to attend a circus, the Lion’s Club picnic and to shop before Easter for brand new clothes! We were “Cinderella” in our new clothes for Easter. We attended public school and several different churches in the Oklahoma City area. Barbara and I went to church were Mama Betty attended, Trinity Baptist, which was not a coincidence, I’m sure. There were few opportunities for us to leave the campus, and at times it seemed to be a prison we could not escape.

When Barbara and I left the Rinard Cottage we transferred to the Spooner Cottage and shared the cottage with many young girls who became our friends. We had a long porch on the front of the cottage, and we spent countless hours playing jacks, jumping rope, playing with dolls and pick-up sticks. It was a good time, and although I recall the anguish of leaving Mama Betty, God provided a wonderful housemother named Cleo McDonald. She loved us and cared for so many little girls as if each one was her own. Every night after we had our baths, we gathered for Bible stories and had a cottage devotion together. Those are some of my fondest memories of Ms. McDonald. It was in this cottage that I made the most important decision of my life. I made my profession of faith when I was eight years old in Vacation Bible School at Trinity Baptist. Dr. Robert Scales was my pastor and baptized me. That commitment was very real to me, and I have never questioned the sincerity of my acceptance of Jesus as the Lord of my life as a very young child.

I remember sitting on the steps that led to the basement in the Spooner Cottage and learning my multiplication tables and playing for hours in the basement with paper dolls, stuffed animals and many toys we had available. While Barbara and I were in this cottage, we auditioned for a musical quartet and were chosen to sing on television in Oklahoma City. I’m sure we were promoting “One Day’s Pay” or some other program to ask for help for the Children’s Home. I got to take piano lessons and felt special because I had a privilege that not everyone else did.

  • Continued...

    The day I learned that my big sister was going to another cottage, and I was staying behind, I could hardly stand it. She and I had been together all our lives, and I couldn’t understand why she had to leave. Barbara was 13 months older than I was, and she was my emotional support. She was my best friend even though we had many arguments over whose hair was longer. Mine came past my waist, and I was sure it was longer than Barbara’s.

    It was also at the Spooner Cottage that my lifelong dream came true...a family came to take me home with them. I had been sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Maysville since I was four years old. I came to love and cherish so many families in that small town who opened their homes and hearts to me for two weeks every summer. A couple in Maysville who had never had children told me they wanted to adopt me and take me as their daughter. It was a consuming dream that I could hardly believe came true. I was really going to have a family like the other children I knew. I was nine years old and learned that Barbara was going to live with our biological dad, who had remarried. I had such ambivalent feelings about being “chosen” and yet leaving my older sister, whom I loved so much.

    Barbara went to Kansas to live with our dad, and I went to Maysville to enjoy what I thought would be the perfect family like everyone else enjoyed. I was given many material gifts and had beautiful clothes, a lovely room and a race horse of my own. But I didn’t feel loved. Something stood in the way, and I didn’t understand it, but I was with a real family, and I told myself that was all that mattered. My adoptive parents had no parenting experience, took a nine-year-old girl and did the best they could with the sadness and pain they carried from their past. It was a difficult struggle as I began to sense that I was resented for somehow getting the attention that Mother wanted and had been used to before I came.

    After I had been in Maysville for two years, a call came from my oldest sister, who asked my adoptive parents if they would consider taking Barbara to raise with me. Our biological dad had lost his wife to cancer, and there was nowhere else for Barbara to go. I recall feeling angry that she was going to “horn in” on my good thing, but once more, God made a provision in my life that turned out to be monumental. By the time Barbara came to live with us, my adopted mother and I could not seem to relate without conflict, and it was not a nurturing environment. Barbara’s coming seemed to help level the playing surface, and although I got most of the heat, and deserved it, because I was the outspoken one of us, it definitely helped to have my best friend, who could listen and provide emotional support. We went through junior high school and high school in the same grade and only learned when we were seniors that I should have started school a year later. I worked through high school to make straight A’s, still seeking approval and acceptance from anyone who would consider me to be valuable. I was valedictorian of my graduating class and continued looking for some achievement that made me “worthy” in other people’s eyes. I wasn’t mature enough to know the reality of having the greatest worth in the world because I was a child of God and an heir to His throne of glory! That realization came much later in life.

    After graduation, Barbara went to East Central State College in Ada and I went to the University of Oklahoma to study voice. My freshman year at OU I met a young man who was a senior and president of the Baptist Student Union at OU. He seemed to me to be the most charming man on campus, and I was flattered that an upperclassman would even notice me. He had given his life to full time ministry and planned to attend seminary after graduation from OU. My prayer had been that God would lead me to a devoted Christian man for a life partner and that his faith would be as important to him as mine was to me.

    We married the summer after my freshman year and attended OU one more year. He graduated from OU after my sophomore year, and we moved to Fort Worth, Texas to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. We checked into several universities in Fort Worth for me to be able to complete my degree, but they were all private schools, and since we had one car and were living on a newlywed budget, it was not possible for me to complete my bachelor degree program. Our seminary years were spent with my husband working evenings and attending classes during the day. I decided to audit the classes at seminary and have the benefit of the teaching just for the knowledge. I wouldn’t trade those days in seminary classes for anything. I had some of the finest professors and experiences and met friends, who are still close friends today. I learned so much about my faith and God’s goodness during those years.

    We were in Fort Worth for four years, and two wonderful blessings were given to us during those years. My oldest son, Brent was born in 1969, and my daughter, Leah, was born in 1970. They were not quite two years apart and kept me busy while they were toddlers. They were enrolled in the cradle roll ministry of Broadway Baptist Church and began to learn the same Bible stories I knew and loved from my days in the Home. When my husband finished his Master of Divinity degree we were seeking God’s leadership for an opportunity for a ministry or a church staff position, or wherever He would lead. My husband learned about a program through the Institute of Religion in Houston, Texas, that paid a very small stipend to ministers to train for the chaplaincy.

    We packed up our two small children and moved to Houston and spent a weekend with my sister Barbara and her husband to look for a place to live. We got an unfurnished apartment that took most of the monthly stipend that we received to live on. We began attending Tallowood Baptist Church on the recommendation of a fellow seminarian when he learned we were moving to Houston. Tallowood was having three worship services and three Sunday Schools at that time, and we wondered if it would be overwhelming. We felt very much at home at Tallowood and were loved and accepted by so many families. Brent and Leah were in some of the finest pre-school departments anywhere and continued their training in the stories and truths from the Bible. When a couple of ladies visited us from Tallowood, I have to wonder what they thought about this couple who was existing in such meager surroundings. We had no bed, no furniture and two small children. As God would have it, one of the ladies who visited us became our Sunday School director and regularly invited us to eat at her house and made sure that we had necessities. That was 1971, and God made provisions back then and has continued to do so throughout my life.

    My husband’s chaplaincy program was a year long, and once again we found ourselves wondering what we were to do as a vocation. A small church in northwest Houston called my husband to be the youth minister, and we bought our first house and moved away from Tallowood. We stayed at that church for a year and a half, and it was a very difficult experience, and yet, a very rewarding one. Many of the church families took us in and loved us as warmly, but it seemed that many could not be pleased regardless of what was done for their teenagers. About the time we felt we could not stay in this church any longer, a search committee from Tallowood came to visit with us and asked my husband if he would consider coming to Tallowood as minister of junior high students. I found myself so ambivalent about the invitation from the search committee because I wanted to know that we were returning to Tallowood because it was God’s place for us and not because it had been a place of nurturing and love for a struggling small family.

    We moved to Spring Branch area of Houston which is about five miles from Tallowood, and Brent and Leah were in Tallowood’s pre-school weekday program and bloomed with their loving teachers and enriching experiences. While our family was at Tallowood my husband served as junior high minister, senior high minister, college minister, recreation minister and finally single adult minister. There had been a recognition on my part that I didn’t know my husband any more, and I felt like I was living with a stranger. There was a sense of grief and loss. I couldn’t reconcile the man I saw at church with the man who lived in our house. Our lives revolved around church activities and school activities with our children, and it appeared to the church family that we were the perfect staff family. I tried to be the best wife and mother I knew to be, but I still couldn’t seem to get any real sense of caring from my husband. I failed many times to be the wife and mother I should have been, but I wanted to know how to make it better. I went to a counselor to try to sort out my feelings or rejection from childhood, and after a period of time, the counselor suggested my husband and I come to therapy together to work on issues within our marriage. We attended counseling together, and for a brief time in our marriage, things improved drastically.

    That time was short lived. My husband had begun counseling in his office at the church, and I saw even less of him than before. During this time I learned that I was pregnant with our third child, and it was difficult to be excited about another child with our current situation. It was not that I would not and did not love this child, but under the circumstances it was a strain on our struggling marriage. I had not worked since we were married because I hadn’t finished college, and now the year that Leah started first grade, I had thoughts of going back to school, but I was starting all over again. The year was 1977, and God gave me a son, Landon Austin, who became the delight of my life and our entire family.

    The next five years were consumed with a toddler who stole everyone’s heart. I began to work two to three half days a week for a friend of mine who needed some light office help. I only worked when Landon was in pre-school, but it gave me some sense of worth and accomplishment, particularly since there was very little of this feeling at home. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel that being a full-time mother and homemaker were not important and rewarding, it was just that I needed some adult to give me some sense of caring, value or worth. I treasure the opportunity I had to be home with my children when they were young. As I learned more in the work place, I soaked up everything, and as Landon moved toward kindergarten and first grade, I began working part-time several days a week.

    In the summer of 1983 I was asked to come to work as a legal secretary for three attorneys who had an office behind Tallowood Baptist Church. One of the attorneys attended Tallowood, and I knew him slightly. I didn’t really want to work full time, and I resisted initially, but they extended an offer that was very appealing. I worked about 10 minutes from home and left work every day at 4:30. The offer also included training in the legal field if I chose to stay with the firm and enjoyed the work.

    That summer proved to be the beginning of the end of my marriage. My husband had opportunities to interact with people that he had not taken before, and by the fall I suspected there was someone else in his life. I didn’t want to believe it and actually believed him when he told me otherwise, but by Christmas of that year, there was seemingly no hope for the marriage. I prayed, struggled and argued with God only to come to the understanding that reconciliation is not possible when only one of the partners is willing to try to put it back together. I was desperately afraid of what would happen to me and the three children. I didn’t have the financial means or emotional energy to go through a traumatic divorce, and I didn’t see how I could manage to keep our house and try to disrupt the children’s lives as little as possible. I knew the divorce would alter their lives forever. Emotionally, I lost all hope and didn’t know how I could endure much more pain and rejection. I spent many hours needing an answer to the question “why” and felt God wasn’t listening or didn’t care about my pain. I couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t change the situation and heal the marriage. Nothing could have been further from the truth about God and His provisions. Through many friends, much prayer and support, God revealed to me that He will not change the free will of someone who does not want their will changed. I was divorced in 1984 and felt my world had come to an end.

    There was a real desire to leave Tallowood Baptist Church, the only church my children had known, because of the memories there and my ex-husband’s staff position there for 10 years. Reluctantly, I stayed at Tallowood because it was my children’s’ church, and I didn’t want to disrupt their lives anymore than had already occurred. Our church became the family we needed to get through the hard times, and God used so many people at Tallowood to minister in ways they will never know. My children were nurtured and taught the truths of the Bible by people who truly loved and cared for them, and they continued to bloom into God’s beautiful creations in spite of their deep emotional wounds from the divorce.

    Knowing my children needed a mother was the strongest motivation I had to keep going, and ironically, I saw them less than ever. I still hurt from the void of not having a real mother in my life, and yet I had to find a way to support my children as a single mother. The next several years were an uphill struggle trying to balance a new job as a paralegal, going to school at night to become a certified paralegal, and working as many as 65-70 hours a week. I received my paralegal certificate in 1986 and was able to get into a job that paid more and gave me much more satisfaction with my work. In 1987 I answered a newspaper ad for a paralegal, and unknown to me, one of the partners in the firm was a member of Tallowood. I know God provided that job when I needed it, just as he had made provisions for me and my family all along. I learned so much about the legal environment and became fascinated with the litigation area of law.

    During this time my children were God’s gift of encouragement and inspiration to me. There were many mornings I would awaken at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. only to find my older two children already awake and reading their Bibles and having quiet time with the Lord. My own relationship with God began to grow as I learned that I was precious and valuable because He chose me, and I was an heir to the Kingdom of God. There is no greater standing or worth than to have been chosen by the King of Kings, and that understanding gave me all the worth and value I had longed for an entire lifetime. My self worth no longer had to be based on any human choosing or lack thereof. I was special in God’s sight, and that was what He wanted me to know all along.

    God blessed in so many ways in the next few years. I began teaching single adults at Tallowood and found opportunities for ministry that I had not known before. I understood the brokenness and the heartache when someone came to the single adult department and could hardly function because of the pain of a divorce or broken family relationships. I taught children at Tallowood for 10 years while I was married, and while I loved working with the children, I needed something different from what I had done as a staff wife. The single adult ministry became a special part of my life. Many special friendships were formed, and the bond we shared as fellow strugglers was blessed by Bible study and sweet fellowship. I remained a single mother for eight years after my divorce and saw Brent and Leah grow up and leave for college.

    In 1991 I sat for a two day CLA exam and earned my designation as a Certified Legal Assistant. That same year I met a very remarkable and spiritually mature man on a single adult retreat that was sponsored by the Union Baptist Association in Houston. He had two children, was divorced and teaching single adults at his church in Houston, across town. We began dating and discovered a real spiritual hunger and an awareness and understanding of God’s work in our lives. As we learned about each other, became friends, and fell in love, we had a sense that God wanted to use us together in ministry. We dated about a year and married in March 1992. It was a special treat for me to have both my sons sing at our wedding and to have my beautiful daughter sit on the front row in full support of our union.

    Tom and I had both taught single adults at our respective churches while we were single, and we felt a definite call to the single adult ministry at Tallowood. We began teaching in the same single adult department at Tallowood and gained so many cherished friendships and blessings each week. We have been at Tallowood together for five and a half years and are still expectant and excited about what God has in store for us.

    He has blessed our lives tremendously, and I am so grateful for all the trials and the tough times that provided the opportunity to come to know Him better. I learned time and again through experience that He never leaves us and ultimately works out our lives for His purpose if we remain faithful.

    In 1994 the first board specialization exams by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization were offered to members of the Legal Assistant Division of the State Bar of Texas. I sat for the board exam in civil trial law in Austin, Texas, and received my board specialization in that field in 1994. Then in 1997 I sat for the board specialization exam in personal injury in April and was notified that I had passed the exam and received my personal injury trial specialization in July. God has provided a challenging and fulfilling career for me, but most of all, He has taught me to trust Him for every need.

    This chapter would not be complete without my expression of gratitude and absolute thanksgiving to the Oklahoma Baptists who have been a part of the child care ministry for so many years in Oklahoma. You will never know the impact your giving has made on the lives of legions of children who have come through the doors of the Baptist Children’s Home. Especially do I thank Mr. and Mrs. Truman Maxey, Mr. and Mrs. James Browning, Mama Betty, Miss Mildred, Mrs. Stinson, Mrs. McDonald, and so many others who helped shape one life for God’s kingdom. Most of all I give praise and thanks to my Lord and Savior for loving me more than anyone ever could and teaching me the value of one soul saved and used in His work. God is so good!

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