Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Lynette Ezell: Welcome back to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Today, Tera and I would like to welcome Jenna Marie O’Brien. Welcome.
Jenna Marie O.: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Lynette Ezell: We’re so glad you’re here. Jenna Marie and her husband, Brad, have three girls, right? Ages seven, five, and two. And we here at the North American Mission Board have the privilege of partnering with the O’Brien’s so we’re really excited to have you. Jenna Marie, tell us what Brad and you do in the Baltimore area.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes. My husband is a pastor of a replant church. We started probably as a church plant five years ago and have a replant for three and a half now. I am a stay at home mom with our three little girls and, as you know, why I’m here is because we have started the fostering process.
Lynette Ezell: Right, right.
Tera Melber: So Jenna, tell us how you all came to the decision to foster.
Jenna Marie O.: Orphan care and foster care have always been kind of on our hearts even before we got married and we kind of knew the need internationally. I was a teacher in Durham, North Carolina and saw just the need of some of the children who came from our backyard. So my husband and I just started praying about what that would look like for us, and we actually had some friends in New York City who actually went through the adoption process through foster care. And that just kind of realigned our hearts to what would it look like for us to make an impact in our own city that we’re actually having to church.
Tera Melber: So you started working through the state, did your training through the state in Maryland, and got your first foster placement in April. Is that right?
Jenna Marie O.: Yes, April 19th.
Tera Melber: So tell us about your placement, because it was pretty significant.
Jenna Marie O.: It was. So we do have three biological girls, seven, five, and two. So on Wednesday night, April 19th, after waiting several months, Brad and I got the phone call. Brad was actually in Atlanta with [inaudible 00:02:17]. On his way back home, we got the phone call for a five year old and a two year who needed immediate placement. And then we went to court the next day, which is required, and they showed up with the three year old sister or the four year old sister. So overnight, we went from a family of five to a family of eight.
Tera Melber: Wow.
Jenna Marie O.: And it has radically changed our lives. I’m still processing all that the Lord has done in my heart.
Lynette Ezell: Well that is … Just to get that phone call and then to show up at court and go from two to three, a major jump there. You had shared with us that through this process, you called it a sanctifying process.
Jenna Marie O.: Oh my, yes.
Lynette Ezell: And so you learned to daily rely on the Lord’s grace through that. Just share with us maybe what a day looked like.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes, it was absolutely crazy. Everything you can think of of having six kids under the age of seven-
Tera Melber: Six girls.
Jenna Marie O.: … for that matter.
Lynette Ezell: Six girls.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes.
Tera Melber: Wow.
Jenna Marie O.: Yeah, six girls, three coming from trauma and just being placed in our home literally overnight. So the life in the day of was starting for me, I needed to be up before the girls. So for me, I just had to be on my face very morning-
Tera Melber: Absolutely-
Jenna Marie O.: … before the girls woke up and just my prayer every morning was that through the Holy Spirit, I would have more compassion and more love for these girls. The same love and compassion that Christ have for me in my sin and in my brokenness. I think it’s often in fostering, we feel like oh, we’re here to be the savoir. You’re here to fix. But God radically changed that mindset for us because we really could not do it on our own strength. We could not take care of six girls. We could not take care of six girls and meet all of their needs physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and just needing to rely on the Lord every moment of the day and truly had to confess my sin of before thinking in could do it on my own.
Tera Melber: Oh yeah. Been there.
Jenna Marie O.: And then just being like, “Oh my gosh. Lord, I cannot do this, but you can. And I know that you can because you would not have called us to this if we couldn’t do it.” It’s actually been a really neat testimony of our neighbors.
Tera Melber: I bet.
Jenna Marie O.: Because they look at us and they’re like, “Oh, praise you.” I’m like, “If you could see what was going on in my walls, you would not feel that way.” And it’s just been a really beautiful picture for us to say, “You know what, we can’t do it either. We can’t. On my own strength, I can’t make it from five a.m. until eight p.m. and when we put them to bed.” But with God’s sufficient grace, we made it every single day with lots of love and lots of laughs and giggles and some hard times too of lack of patience and needing to repent of that. But yeah, that’s totally changed us.
Tera Melber: Wow. I think in the sanctifying process of all that when you realized that you’ve come to the end and you have the illusion of control but you don’t have control, and then in those moments when it reveals things in your life that you knew were there but you really didn’t realize how much they were there and … Recently, a dear friend of ours who’s struggling through struggling through something with their children, she said, “You know, I was reading Philippians 2 this morning and I was reminded on the kindness of our Lord to humble himself and take on the likeness of us and to serve. So who am I to resist so great an opportunity to be like Him in this way?”
Jenna Marie O.: Yes.
Tera Melber: Just reading that from her and what I’m hearing you say is every single morning have to wake up and saying, “This is an opportunity for me to serve the Lord in this way,” and it’s really humbling because you realize, “Oh, this is way harder than I thought.”
Jenna Marie O.: Oh yes.
Tera Melber: Do you feel that as believers, that we tend to not necessarily mean to be we kind of over-romanticize some things then you get to the nitty gritty of the day to day walk of it and you think, “Oh, I really want to help these girls who’ve been through so much trauma,” and then trauma parenting’s way different than parenting your biological children.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes, it is.
Tera Melber: So I just think it’s a really neat opportunity that the Lord gives us … It’s painful, but-
Jenna Marie O.: It is painful. And I just remember that there’re times that you guys have spoken before on the podcast about what it does look like to parent a child from trauma. And in those moments when my gut send for reaction, I immediately have to say, “Oh gosh. God, please just be in this moment and let me have more patience and let me care for her as you would care for her.” But my sin doesn’t want me to go there. My sin wants me to be angry or my sin wants me to be frustrated and lose my patience. But at the end of the day and in those moments of just being like, “God, you can give me what I don’t have to make it through these parenting moments.”
Tera Melber: And those lessons can’t be learned unless you go through the fire.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes.
Tera Melber: They can’t.
Lynette Ezell: Yes.
Jenna Marie O.: I remember when it hit me that God’s grace does call me to submit, to submit to where he’s put me in life, to my circumstance, to what he’s put in my hands. And I needed that lesson and I think I’ve got that lesson through my children-
Tera Melber: Yes.
Jenna Marie O.: … over and over. I’d like to say I’m passed it like, “Okay, I got. I can move on.” I’m not there yet. But it’s so encouraging to do these podcast together and to hear your story because there’s so many listening. I hope that it’s encouraging to them, but to know that it is God’s grace-
Lynette Ezell: Yes, absolutely.
Jenna Marie O.: … and it is the Lord just chiseling and Michelangelo did. He chiseled away the stone until he could show the angel. And that’s the way God’s doing in our lives and in our families and a testimony to our neighbors.
Lynette Ezell: Yes, absolutely. Well, you talked about too how this kind of … You saw the Lord working in your girl’s lives through this process.
Jenna Marie O.: Yeah, it’s one of those things that you try to prepare your children for what’s going to happen, the reason we’re foster, what does this look like. The best explanation that we had for a seven, five, and two and a half year old is they need a mommy and a daddy and a family to take care of them for this time and they may or may not stay with us. But for this time, we’re going to do what God has called us to do. And that was the pretty side of it before we had children in our home. And I remember in those first nights, one of our daughters just was really, really having a hard time. And as a mom and my mom heart, it just broke my heart that I even questioned, “God, is this really what you have for us? It feels like it’s taking such a toll on our biological kids. This can’t be your good will.”
But the beautiful transformation of that was those first nights where one of them was like, “Why do they call you mommy and daddy? You’re not their mommy and daddy. You’re my mommy and daddy,” and getting to just kind of talk about what they looks like and we had prayer night one night and one of our girls prayed for our nuclear family and I asked, I was like, “Don’t you wanna pray for our foster girls?” And she just looked at me and said, “No.” And I was like, “Oh gosh.” I was like, “What am I doing to them?” But over the four months, they became the best of friends. The one who had a hard time praying for the foster girls would cry when they would go to camp in the morning just because she would miss them. And then just last week, we actually dropped these three foster daughter to their permanent placement and our seven year old just prayed. “God, we just pray that you would give us more foster kids-
Tera Melber: Wow.
Lynette Ezell: Wow.
Jenna Marie O.: … and God that you would give us who needs a home and who needs a place.” That’s where I could just rest and say, “Okay, God. You’re gonna take care of my children more than I-
Tera Melber: Right.
Jenna Marie O.: … ever could.” And if we can grow compassion and love in our children, even in the hard things, even when we have to have hard conversations-
Lynette Ezell: Right.
Jenna Marie O.: … it’s good.
Lynette Ezell: It is good.
Jenna Marie O.: And we thank the Lord for that.
Lynette Ezell: It is completely, I think, terrible to agree. But, because we have older children now, it is life altering-
Tera Melber: It is.
Jenna Marie O.: Oh yes.
Lynette Ezell: … when they learn to give and love beyond themselves. And like I said, I’m still learning it. But when they do that, it changes the whole course of their life, of their future.
Jenna Marie O.: And I’m so thankful for that at a young age!
Tera Melber: And they’re lessons.
Jenna Marie O.: Right, they’re lessons we want our kids to know and learn but sometimes, we’re not necessarily willing to desire to put them into situations that squeeze them a little bit to help them learn those lessons. We want them to learn the lessons in a very sterile environment.
Tera Melber: Yes.
Lynette Ezell: Out of a book.
Tera Melber: Yes.
Jenna Marie O.: Out of a book would be awesome, but that doesn’t happen. We have to go through the difficulties to be able to learn the lessons that we really desire for children and for ourselves to be able to grow in the likeness of Christ and that’s what’s hard. It hasn’t happened in the churches. And it’s such a process. When we moved to Baltimore city, we thought that was a huge transition of teaching our children that life is not about you. Life is not about living in the comfort … of whatever the comfort would look like and knowing that we would have to have hard conversations with our kids at earlier ages because of our city and because of the things happening in our city.
But we still want to protect them. But we also want them to learn and we don’t actually want to shelter them as much as we think we do. I want them to learn these hard things and I want them to learn these hard things early so that they’re not foreign to it at 16 or 21 or whatever the age is.
Lynette Ezell: Really, it trains their heart to say, “Yes Lord.” Because they kind of get a bigger picture than a lot of kids their age or young adults. When your girls grow to be young adults, they’ll get that. My girls had conversations with their future spouses that, “I feel called to this. So can this be part of our plan?” This is kind of what we do. I know not everyone will do that, but it taught a lesson I never could.
Tera Melber: So you said that the girls went to their permanent placement last week.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes.
Tera Melber: That’s pretty fresh.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes,-
Tera Melber: So-
Jenna Marie O.: … I’m a little tender.
Tera Melber: I am quite sure. So as far as people out there that might be listening and say, “I’m not sure I could ever do that because it’s too hard, because the lessons are really difficult for me and my children and it’s too hard to send them back when you’re not 100% sure it’s gonna be good.” So what word would you say to those people?
Jenna Marie O.: Yeah, I think the same thing that I’m telling my heart and I’m telling my children is that God has ordained their life. God is walking with them. On Sunday, we sang … Sorry. I’m getting a little teared up over them.
Tera Melber: It’s okay.
Jenna Marie O.: Amazing Grace.
We sang Amazing Grace at church and it was the song that I sang to the girls every night before they went to bed. And, of course, my mind just goes into tailspin, what if they never know the amazing grace that the Lord has for them. But I can’t. I can’t hold on to that and I can’t continue just to … I need to rest in the Lord knowing that he’s going to care for them and he’s going to walk with them and just pray for them and that’s our job. That’s our job and it is hard. It is hard. There’s a piece of me that is in North Carolina and not in Baltimore with us and the word “mom” is much more complex to me than I ever thought it would be. But I am forever their foster mom.
Tera Melber: That’s right.
Jenna Marie O.: And I take joy in that and truly just trusting that the Lord is going to care for them just as he’s going to take care of our hearts as we mourn. And it’s healthy to mourn, but it’s worth it. It is totally worth it.
Lynette Ezell: We’ve heard from so many that we’ve had on that had foster children for a small amount of time or a lump. At least they had that time with them to just teach them about Jesus, to pray with them, to sing Amazing Grace over them, and just to begin to guide their hearts and their desires toward the Lord.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes, and actually it was really neat. By the time that these girls left, they asked every night for their Bible story. And even one night, our biological girls were not home for dinner and I was throwing dinner on the table and doing to the next thing and they were like, “Mommy, we haven’t prayed.” I just took a moment and said, “Yes, you’re right. We do need to stop and pray.” And just so thankful that in the short four months that they have that has totally impacted my life, it’s a short amount of them, but maybe this is what has totally changed my life.
Lynette Ezell: Jenna Marie, I love your transparency. You’ve been using your home to help equip others. And I like this. You shared that with Tera and I. I’d like to hear more about that and how you’ve been doing that.
Jenna Marie O.: Yeah, so over the summer, we kind of take a break from our normal routines when it comes to Bible studies and discipleship. So over the summer, Brad and I actually have led a book study on Adopted for Life by Russell Moore. And it was so neat. It was open up to anybody in the church. We had few couples that came that either didn’t know much about it like, “Why would we even consider this?,” all the way to single women who came and said, “I feel like this is a call.” Just like your daughter. “I feel like this is a call of mine. But what if I’m not going to get married? What does this look like? How do I help care for orphans and be passionate about this knowing that it’s the gospel call for us. What does this look like?” And so it was great. For nine weeks, we just had dinner and basically a book study and hard conversation and good conversation. What does it look like to be the leaders in orphan care?
Lynette Ezell: Well, I like what you said. Sometimes if they showed up and you were putting the girls to bed …
Jenna Marie O.: They just jumped right in! “Grab a glass of water. We’ll be down in a couple of minutes,” or “Grab a book. Go read to one of them ad we’ll be down in a little bit.”
Lynette Ezell: I love that.
Jenna Marie O.: It was great.
Lynette Ezell: I love that.
Tera Melber: Doing life together.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes, absolutely. I just want to share a little bit-
Lynette Ezell: Go ahead.
Jenna Marie O.: … about … I talk about how hard it’s been. It was hard. I will not pull away from that. It was the hardest thing. But Brad and I will both say it’s one of the best things that we’ve done. A lot of people say that, “Oh, you’re doing such a great job for these kids.”
Lynette Ezell: Oh yeah. Pat you on the back.
Jenna Marie O.: “You’re doing something good for the girls.” And I’m like, “I don’t think you understand, it is actually my heart that has changed. It is me who has been transformed from the inside out.” And so Paul in 2 Corinthians just says, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power’s more perfect in weakness. Therefore, I’ll boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Y’all I am not fit for this. I am not. It is one of those things-
Lynette Ezell: Join the club.
Tera Melber: Right!
Lynette Ezell: We all need teachers. I’m not fit.
Jenna Marie O.: Exactly! Exactly. But it’s one of those things that I see more and more that God does choose the weak and I am one of them. But yes, His name’s going to be glorified through my weaknesses just by following in obedience to what He’s called us to do.
Tera Melber: Absolutely. I love it. Jenna Marie, we’re so thankful you came today. I’m really glad that you are in Atlanta this week.
Lynette Ezell: Absolutely.
Jenna Marie O.: It’s so nice to meet you and to be here. I’ve loved your podcast and it’s been so encouraging to me. So thank you for having me.
Tera Melber: Thank you. I appreciate it. So Jenna Marie, since the girls did leave just last week, you had them for four months, what’s the plan for you? Because your home is open to a sibling group. So I’m sure you could receive a phone call every single day.
Jenna Marie O.: Yes.
Tera Melber: So have you all discussed what your plans will be for a next placement, just knowing that you’re going through a grieving process now and that your girls are going through a grieving process? So how does that look for your family?
Jenna Marie O.: Well, it’s really interesting because no one actually talked to us about this. This was not something that we feel like we were equipped and trained in when we went through the process. We believe that we have a lot of processing to do. Brad and I and my girls are totally changed by what has happened in the last few months. So we will. We’re going to take some time off. We’re just going to just kind of trust the Lord to bring into our family who He has. But we do realize that we need to take time to heal and to process and it would not be healthy for us and our family or for another placement to come in right away.
The greatest needs in foster care are teenagers, sibling groups, and actually newborns. And so we’ve had a sibling group and it’s been good and beautiful and we’re so glad we can keep these sisters together. And so we kind of said the only thing that would kind of change us taking a couple of months off is if there is a newborn. As a stay at home mom, I can easily accept a newborn and be able to do that. And so that would change things. But still just case by case and trying just to feel the Spirit’s lead on when to say yes and when to say no. But our social worker does know that we just need some time. Because our broken hearts and the compassion that we have, it would be very hard to say no if we were presented a group. So we just told them that we needed some time just to process and heal-
Lynette Ezell: That’s so wise.
Jenna Marie O.: … more.
Tera Melber: Yes, it really is. Well, we’ll be praying is the Lord leads your family to the next placement and see what he does from there.
Jenna Marie O.: Thank you.
Tera Melber: Thank you.
Announcement: You’ve been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast, a ministry of the North American Mission Board and funded through the Cooperative Program. This month and through the end of the year, we would like to ask you to consider giving to the Minister’s Adoption Fund. This fund provides grants to Southern Baptist ministers and missionaries who are adopting. By giving financially, you are able to be a part of seeing many children become beloved sons and daughters. For more information, visit sendrelief.org.