Beloved Children of God
At Redeeming Life Outreach Ministries’ maternity home in Sanford, Fla., pregnant women in difficult situations learn that they, too, are saved by the blood of Jesus.
The converted duplex across the street from the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Sanford, Fla., is neatly kept, clean and warm, and filled with pictures of babies. There are nearly 30 different children pictured on the entryway wall, representing the 37 women who have successfully transitioned through this maternity home. The wall is a work in progress, with more beloved children to be added.
Redeeming Life Outreach Ministries (RLOM), a Recognized Service Organization of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), provides a safe and stable home where unwed, pregnant women learn the self-discipline to provide a better temporal life for themselves and their families (whether they ultimately choose adoption or raise the child themselves). Most importantly, the women learn that they, too, are beloved children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus.
The idea first took root in the minds of the Rev. Edward and Sheryl DeWitt in 1992, when they attended a Lutherans For Life event during Edward DeWitt’s time in seminary. They imagined a place where single, pregnant women would find forgiveness in Christ. The seed of the idea waited quietly in the ground for almost two decades, when in 2009 their unwed daughter confessed to her parents that she was pregnant. She then made the decision to tell the church.
“She was sitting right over there,” Edward DeWitt explained, pointing to the back corner of the sanctuary. When, at the end of the service, he asked the congregation if anyone would like to speak, his daughter stood up and made her announcement. “I’m not asking for forgiveness — because Jesus forgives me,” she told her church family, “but I am asking for your support.”
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including me and her mom,” Edward DeWitt continued. “That’s when we knew this little congregation … had enough love in its collective heart to care for people like our daughter. It doesn’t matter how big you are — these women just need people to love them.”
The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer has just over 100 on its rolls and worships 45–50 on a Sunday morning. Though the church serves as the maternity home’s sponsor, it is neither legally tied to nor financially responsible for the maternity home. It couldn’t be; the maternity home’s yearly budget is significantly larger than that of the church.
A lot of moving parts — and a lot of people moving those parts — came together to bring the maternity home into existence. For the first few years, from early talks in 2011 to the formation of the Steering Committee in 2012 to working through the logistics of a maternity home, the project was run by volunteers. The LCMS Florida-Georgia District office suggested the names of people who could help. Lutheran Church Extension Fund provided a loan to buy the house across the street. An attorney worked pro bono to get it off the ground, while a board member did the real estate work. Two generous donors — one from the church and the other from a local family foundation — offered the first significant donations.
“Money started coming to us,” Sheryl DeWitt explained, even though neither of them knew how to fundraise. “And that was another indication that we were doing what God intended us to do.” After a significant renovation, the maternity home received its first resident in 2013.
Centered on Christ
As in most organizations, the ministry’s greatest asset is also its greatest expense: personnel. RLOM employs three full-time staff members: Executive Director Sheryl DeWitt; a house mother to supervise up to six residents; and Deaconess Elizabeth Borth, director of Program Ministries. Borth first came into the picture at a 2010 district pastors’ conference, when Edward DeWitt stopped by her foot-washing station and asked if a deaconess could run a maternity home. “Absolutely!” she answered, not knowing that she would be that deaconess in the not-too-distant future.
When asked about her primary duties, Borth laughed. “That’s a good question. My duties are primarily for the women. They need a lot of nurturing and caring and compassion — that’s natural for a deaconess to exude. We also address their spiritual needs. Everything else flows from that.”
Along with daily devotions, weekly church attendance, house cleaning, employment (or work on their educational goals) and turns cooking the evening meal, the residents are expected to complete weekly assignments. These lessons teach self-esteem, time management, finances, parenting and home care. “But Christ is also in there,” Borth added. “Scripture is entwined into everything we teach.”
The ministry’s attachment to a congregation keeps it pointedly Christ-centered and Lutheran, without the limits that come with government aid. As such, it is neither a social-service agency nor a handout program.
“A lot of our moms don’t get that,” Borth explained. Many of the women feel entitled. Instead, they’re expected to follow rules for self-discipline in the home. “[The program] does require change, and that’s very, very hard.”
‘Not Ashamed of the Gospel’
Like St. Paul, the people that serve RLOM are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). These mothers move in by choice and stay voluntarily, knowing the ministry’s emphasis on the Word of God and the salvation of Christ. “We focus on making sure the girls hear the Word of God on Day 1,” Sheryl DeWitt explained. “It’s so central to what we do. Christ is at the center of everything.”
Edward DeWitt takes the maternity home residents through a 12- to 14-week instruction class. “So often they claim Christian faith, but they don’t know Christ,” he said. To these women, Christianity is a list of do’s and don’ts. “They don’t know grace — that’s not the world they come from. They come from a world where you do and you get. Sometimes what they have to do is not all that wonderful.”
Borth and the DeWitts have the same overaching purpose: If nothing else, the residents will have heard Christ. “The women are going to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the fact that we’re saved by grace alone,” said Edward DeWitt. “It takes so long for them to understand that — that there’s nothing they do. … It’s a religion of freedom. We are not slaves to the law. It’s all through Jesus.”
The maternity home doesn’t wink at sin; it doesn’t need to. “They come to us having been judged,” Borth said. But neither does it glorify single motherhood. One resident admitted that she came to the maternity home because she knew it was the only place where no one would make fun of her. “Every day we pray that these women will be touched by God’s grace, that they will see they are loved, that even in discipline they are loved,” Borth said. “They are real children of God, and He loves them.”
Christ’s Love Prevails
Staff and volunteers also have to learn not to take any insults personally, because the women often seek to hurt others because they are hurting. “This is not for the faint of heart,” Sheryl DeWitt said. “They’re tough, they’re injured, they’re mean.”
In the end, patience and love in Christ pays out. After a year, one resident was able to tell the deaconess: “I’m so glad I don’t live in darkness anymore.”
“We talk a lot about the world being a dark place, and how God will give you the light,” Borth explained. “When we see what we have taught coming from their lips and their actions, that gives you the goosebumps and keeps you moving every day.”
And what of the impact on the church? “I would never tell someone it will pack the pews. Because it won’t,” Edward DeWitt said frankly. It has, however, made a huge difference in the lives of the congregation and the volunteers who minister to these women and their children. “[The maternity home] has shown them that they have a reason beyond just worship on a Sunday morning. We’re here to build up and strengthen the Body of Christ. … It’s just wonderful to stand up here and see one of the babies over here in the arms of one of the members, and mom’s back over on another side of the church. They take these babies and mommies in their arms and love them. I have seen a change over the years in their desire, not only to serve the women in the maternity home, but to serve the community as a whole.”
The women also are expected to volunteer at the church, often as choir or hand chime members. “They serve in the congregation,” explained Marge Freeman, who volunteers as director of worship and music. “They’ve blessed us too.”
Many of the women and children are baptized at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Some become confirmed members, and others reach out years later with joyous updates: stable employment, weddings, more children with a husband in a safe and happy home. And yet the lost remain. “Spread seeds,” Borth said. “That’s all we can do.”
Sheryl DeWitt believes that all congregations should be involved in life ministry, which is not just an opportunity to save babies. In the church, these discarded women learn they are dearly loved and deeply valuable. “They see the love of the world, which isn’t love. We bathe them in Christ’s love in everything we do. If we didn’t do that, we would simply be a social-service agency,” she said.
There is opportunity to support life ministry work everywhere across the nation. While the work continues in Sanford, Fla., the wider vision for this ministry is now a Redeeming Life maternity home in every district. “I know we’ll find like-minded people across the Synod,” Sheryl DeWitt said. Plans are currently progressing for the establishment of a home in the LCMS Northern Illinois District.
Lutherans are blessed with a clear picture of the work that God has prepared for His people: to serve the needs of the neighbor not only in body but in soul, attaching mercy care to Word and Sacrament ministry. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18).
- Learn more about LCMS Life Ministry at lcms.org/life.
- Through the 1 John 3 Initiative Million Dollar Life Match, the LCMS will offer $1 million in matching grants to LCMS congregations involved in beginning-of-life mercy work in their communities. Learn more at lcms.org/life-grant.
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