When Barb Hernandez, director of client services at West Shore Pregnancy and Family Support, attended Life Matters Worldwide's Summit in Muskegon, Michigan, last May, she was hunting for lasting solutions to her clients’ repetitive cycles of pregnancy crises.
Only 30 minutes into a workshop led by Family God’s Way founder Stuart Carver, Hernandez knew she had found her answer.
In Carver’s Birth of a Family, a platform facilitating round-table discussions among clients and family coaches about biblical family life, Hernandez recognized the missing link her center needed.
“It was the whole male piece of the family circle that we were missing," she said.
Inspired to implement a program that would increase male involvement and strengthen families, Hernandez went to work. By the end of July, she had raised enough funding to run a 12-week Birth of a Family pilot program. A major portion of that funding came from a local restaurant owner who also signed up to participate. In September, Carver traveled up from his headquarters in Florida to train the “key operatives” Hernandez had assembled to implement Birth of a Family in her Michigan communities.
Those operatives included visionaries like Hernandez, willing to spearhead the platform’s implementation; coordinators to arrange venues and promote activities; and funders—all operating in the background.
More visible operatives included the facilitators trained to initiate discussions, and family coaches—community members trained to participate in discussions as role models and mentors.
Hernandez’s operatives committed to run the platform for 12 weeks and then re-evaluate. Looking back now, Hernandez said, none of them expected “something so life-changing.”
By October 2017, the trainees were ready to begin. They launched two weekly groups: one meeting at Prayer and Praise Church in Ludington and one at First Baptist Church in Hart, two of the communities in which West Shore Pregnancy and Family Support serves clients.
Soon each site had attracted five or six regularly attending clients—including single parents as well as married and unmarried couples. Around their tables, clients mingled with the family coaches, sharing experiences and interacting around each week’s topic. It looked like simple, low-key discussions. But profound changes were brewing.
Within four weeks, Hernandez could see a difference. “There was something happening we couldn’t really explain,” Hernandez said. “All of us were asking, ‘What’s going on?’”
Carver had a ready explanation. “The social table is really leveled in the [Birth of a Family] activities,” he said. “In other words, there aren't people with special badges or anything like that. It's just all of us working on the thing it's geared to: a family through the perspective of the Bible.
“Family coaches have been trained to ‘show up and be nice.’ But they've also been trained to be ready for what naturally happens. We put those two kinds of people in the same room, we talk about family, and we talk about how the word of God fits with all that. The actual relational discipleship, by and large, is just a natural outcome of that.”
Hernandez could hardly believe what she saw happening. When coaches and discussion facilitators would “show up and be nice” every week, she said, they made an impact.
“That changed everything for clients,” she said. “Typically most of them don't have anybody to be nice to them, let alone showing up every week to support them.”
Then the participants started acting like friends. When one client tearfully expressed her wish to have a stable home with a white picket fence, a construction worker across the room stood up and offered to build her that fence.
For a wheelchair-bound woman, her pregnant condition made her apartment increasingly hard to access. Members of her group raised funds and made plans to build her a ramp. It was installed at the end of April.
“This is a great example of the Body of Christ coming alongside our clients in need,” Hernandez said.
She added that the groups have changed how community members see the center’s clients.
“Our family coaches’ eyes have been opened wide,” she said. “First of all, I don't think they realized that there were those kinds of people in the community. Second of all, they're starting to understand how our clients struggle with day-to-day activities. They think, ‘Go get a job, get an apartment, and it'll all be good. Make sure the kids go to school and go to church on Sunday.’ They're starting to see that's not easy.
“One family coach works with the sheriff's department. One night we didn't have any clients show up. So everybody was saying, ‘Why are we doing this? This isn't working.’ He said, ‘Do you guys not understand that for them to make a commitment to get here one night is a big deal? They have so many things that are pulling for their time, their thoughts, everything.’”
At the end of 12 weeks, the groups took a break for the official evaluation of their pilot program.
“It was very apparent that God was doing something, changing the lives of clients we'd seen for two, three, or four years,” she said. For the first time, Hernandez heard clients say:
“My view of what healthy marriages/relationships look like…has changed. The couples that are in here show me that what I want in my future is possible.”
“The way I parent my kids has changed a lot. I have more patience with them and discipline differently. Now I watch what I say in front of them.”
“My relationship with my parents has been challenging, so some of the conversations we’ve had have helped me get along with them and respect them better.”
At the same time, family coaches shared their own epiphanies:
“Birth of a Family has allowed me to evaluate my values/principles and how they relate to my beliefs. I am getting to know and make friends with strangers. I am opening up in front of others.”
“I am more sympathetic to single people and their problems. I see how important it is to have a strong supportive family, and without a foundation in Christianity it is very difficult to sustain a solid family.”
Building on success
After the team made a few changes—shifting meetings into time slots more convenient for families, moving the Ludington group into a public meeting space, and providing supper, for instance—clients and coaches resumed meetings after Christmas. Immediately, attendance more than doubled.
“Most of our referrals right now are from our other clients,” Hernandez said. “They'll be sitting in the lobby of our center waiting to be seen and say, ‘You're looking for classes? You should come to Birth of a Family. It'll be really good for you.’”
“Birth of a Family provides this underlying change in what people actually believe,” she said. “It's really powerful for them to see that person sitting across the room, and they know about their kids and their grandkids.”
Clients whose beliefs have changed, she said, come back to parenting classes at the pregnancy center primed to make positive behavioral changes.
At the same time, Hernandez’s groups are also forging stronger ties between the pregnancy center and local churches. Carver explained that’s because Birth of a Family is designed to enlist, equip, and engage the Body of Christ with life-affirming ministries, breaking down the common misperception that they are merely ministries “to women run by women.”
“The idea that you're going to promote the founding of biblical households is something pastors are going to take a little differently,” he said. “Birth of a Family opens up meaningful venues for new volunteers to serve life ministry.”
In fact, Carver said, centers who have implemented Birth of a Family groups are seeing their volunteer numbers double.
Reaching dads, healing generations
For Hernandez, even more exciting than expanding her center’s community support base has been seeing more fathers get involved with their families.
“We already had great connections on the female side,” she said. “This is allowing us to have that same connection on the male side. Sometimes they're the dads who used to come and sit in the parking lot and wait for their wives or partners to come out.”
In addition, the effects of reaching today’s parents are rippling outward to grandparents and children.
When a client’s mother started attending Birth of a Family, Hernandez said, “Her perception of how things should be are looking different. So you can imagine that now there are two generations seeing how families should run.”
“If they can change generationally now, that could change four, five, six, seven generations,” she said. “That changes it back to the way it was when people thought family was important, that people should look to God for their guidance, and that the church community supports those who need support, rather than the social agencies. I can just see that it changes everything.”
Hernandez said the leadership team is considering launching a Spanish-speaking group in the fall. At the same time, they are working to keep the current groups sustainable—enlisting and equipping new key operatives while also attracting more client referrals from the community.
At this point, she expects to continue achieving the platform’s stated goals: significant increase in male involvement, fewer children with absentee fathers, more children with married mothers, and greater engagement with the Body of Christ.
“I'm going to tell you it hasn't been without its little bumps in the road,” she said. “But it's been so powerful.”
This article originally appeared in Heartbeat International's Pregnancy Help News (5/29/18) and was reprinted by permission.
Karen Ingle is a freelance writer who serves as Manager of Online Communications at Choices Pregnancy Center in Redwood Falls, Minnesota.