Florida Church Offers Hope to Addicted Babies

Fighting drug addiction became a way to give new meaning to a congregation that was searching for its niche in society

WHEN crack dealers and prostitutes took over a vacant house directly behind Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church, members faced a serious problem: what to do with the condemned church-owned residence, where vandals, drug addicts, and termites had wreaked destruction. Calling in a wrecking company would have cost more than the dwindling congregation could afford. And calling in the fire department to burn it down - a solution Tampa's mayor had used on other crack houses - seemed too dangerous in this case.

Encouraged by their new minister, the Rev. Michael Lewis, members searched for a positive solution. ``We began to pray to find a way we could get involved in the war on drugs,'' says the Rev. Mr. Lewis, who honed a sense of activism when he owned a weekly newspaper in Gainesville, Fla. Soon the congregation decided to mortgage the church for $25,000, then transform the house into a foster-care center for babies exposed to drugs.

Today, a year later, a sign on the newly landscaped lawn reads: ``Faith House Inc. - Serving the total family of central Tampa.'' What the sign does not say is that in this three-story white structure with blue trim, 55 babies affected by cocaine have been placed in foster homes since June.

Nor does any sign announce that on Feb. 2, President Bush named Lewis a ``Point of Light'' for establishing Florida's only licensed placement center for drug-addicted babies.

``Two things the Bible clearly states that the church is supposed to be about are taking care of the widows and the orphans,'' says Lewis. ``Knowing that we're fulfilling that obligation of taking care of the orphans is very rewarding.''

Inside the renovated 14-room house, a playpen shares space in the former living room with desks and filing cabinets. A front parlor serves as an office for Curtis Marshall, the coordinator.

Faith House is a color-blind agency (``we have black babies, white babies, brown babies''), Mr. Marshall says. ``Our primary goal is to try to get the natural moms back with the children. Once we locate them, if they're on drugs, we want to give them counseling and treatment.''

Until that happens, babies are placed with one of 16 licensed foster mothers. Ten women who have completed 21 hours of training are waiting to be licensed; another 24 are in training. Each licensed foster parent receives $300 a month per child from the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).

One of the program's first foster mothers, Naneita Redrick, cares for a 12-month-old girl who tested positive for heroin at birth, a 13-month-old girl who tested positive for cocaine, and her three-year-old brother, who also tested positive for the drug.

Needed: lots of love

``You have to use a lot more love and be very patient with these babies,'' Mrs. Redrick explains. ``They have periods when they're irritable and extremely nervous.'' Yet already she sees progress. ``In the beginning, at the least little noise, they would tremble. Now it doesn't seem to be bothering them.''

Dr. Robert James, director of counseling notes other victories. ``I've seen some complete turnarounds where the cocaine babies are responding marvelously.''

For the babies' biological mothers, progress is far less evident. Their ages range from 19 to 31, and many do not know who their child's father is. ``We're finding the natural mothers are not as concerned about their babies as I thought they would be,'' Lewis says. ``That's a breakdown morally for a woman not to be concerned about her baby.''

Tracy Jordan, a supervisor at HRS, offers another perspective: ``On some level, the mothers probably all do want their babies, but just are not able to follow through.'' When they come out of a drug program, they return to their housing project. ``The dealers give the drugs out free at first. They'll put it in your mailbox and under your door. It's like trying to be on a diet and having a cheesecake in the refrigerator.''

Even so, one mother ``has licked drugs and alcohol and is almost ready to get her child back.'' And although Ms. Jordan emphasizes that Faith House has not been operating long enough to know how successful it will be in reuniting families, she calls it ``a step in the right direction.''

That is the attitude echoed by others in the area. What began as the vision of one minister, the dream of one church has expanded into an ecumenical effort.

Last fall, hearing that Faith House was running out of money. Members of Bayshore Baptist Church donated materials and labor. During the Christmas season they made ``pamper baskets'' for the foster mothers, filling them with lotions and bubble bath. And three weeks ago 25 members provided a ``mother's evening out'' for the foster mothers, caring for their children for five hours.

``It generated a lot of excitement,'' says Penny Oliver, a church member. ``Part of the ministry of Christ is reaching out to other people.''

Elsewhere in Tampa, members of Congregation Kol Ami took a special bus to Faith House one Sunday afternoon. So impressed were they, according to Dee Guarrine, secretary to the rabbi, that congregants began donating baby clothes, formula, and ``thousands of diapers.''

``The response has really been overwhelming here at this congregation,'' Ms. Guarrine says.

Across Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Faith House is also serving as a preliminary model for a Roman Catholic foster-care program for drug-addicted babies, to start later this year.

Ecumenical effort grows

``The drug problem is so massive that it has to be a goodwill ecumenical effort, says Msgr. John McNulty, vicar of service ministries. ``Even though there's a built-in reluctance to say things have changed, I see a rising interest ... that it is going to involve all Christians and people of goodwill as a national effort.''

Already that kind of participation is evident at Lewis's church. ``We see the excitement in members' eyes when they get involved,'' he says, noting that membership has risen from 40 to 300 since establishing Faith House.

``No longer can we expect the world to walk through our front doors on Sunday morning,'' he adds. ``We need to reexamine the role of the church in society. Our doors need to be opening for social problems and dealing with the social ills that affect our community. The church needs to become very active in taking part in the healing of the total person.''

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