Over the past thirty years, Paul and Peggy Hennek have shared the journey of raising three natural children, two adopted children and twelve foster children. Longtime members of Mercy Street, their foray into fostering began more than twelve years ago when a fellow congregant broke her parole and had to return to prison. The woman wrote a letter to Peggy to see if there was anyone from Mercy Street who could take care of her son in order to get him out of “the system”. Paul and Peggy made the brave decision to dive into uncharted waters and take the boy (whom they had never met) into their home.
The transition was difficult, but a Valentine’s Day card from the then 15-year- old boy became a pivotal moment for the couple. “I thought there was something wrong with u cz no 1 ever want me at all.... Yall saw me as some 1 worth something... I love yall and want to thank yall for changing me and showing me the true person I’m.” Upon receiving this card just before the adoption was finalized, Peggy says, “I thought, man... We could do this for another kid.”
From that point on Paul and Peggy seemed to attract kids in need like a bird feeder attracts squirrels. They took in a 22-year-old young man from church who tried to claim, “I’m not homeless. I’m just between houses.” Each new kid brought other kids with them. One boy found another boy sleeping in a field and brought him home to Paul and Peggy, who cared for him until he was 18 and able to get a job. Paul says, “We realized we have a gift for caring and guiding. While we can empathize with the children’s predicament, our goal is for it not to define who they are.”
With each child comes a brand new set of challenges, and a brand new, individual heartbreak. Instead of telling a child to “deal with it”, the children are told that God is not happy with the situation either, and it is okay to be sad. Peggy affirms their feelings by telling them that God’s heart is broken too because they aren’t with their family.
When asked how they handle the inevitably tough times, Peggy says, “We pray, cry, eat, and consider giving up. After the pity party, I have an attitude adjustment with a friend or sometimes alone. Then I dust myself off and get back to it.” Making small goals is also helpful. Paul says, “The first six months of fostering a new child is like re-directing a charging bull. When I get discouraged, I note the small successes.” Successes like getting the 9-year-old who currently lives with them to wear her glasses. From pre-K to second grade, she had been in eleven different schools, and had never received the services she desperately needs. Now that she has glasses (which she cannot see without), there is the new challenge (and success) of getting her to wear them.
Church is a vital part of life for Paul and Peggy. Not only has Mercy Street provided for the children’s needs (such as glasses), but also with camps, youth programs and, most importantly, people who pray for and encourage them. Paul says, “The kids all love going to Mercy Street. They feel at home there more than any other church. They don’t feel uncomfortable there. For me, I think being still is the start of it. I have to be reminded that God’s in charge even though I’m running around and taking care of stuff. No matter what kind of burden I go in there with, I’m able to release it.”
Paul and Peggy have come to believe that God’s work is about the small things, stopping and asking what you can do for people, and going slowly enough to be able to talk to people. They resonate with the song “Dream Small” by Josh Wilson which says,
These simple moments change the world.
Dream small. Don't bother like you've gotta do it all.
Just let Jesus use you where you are, one day at a time.1
“I used to think God had something really ‘important’ for me to do”, Paul says. “I think now that it is probably doing a lot of small things without drawing any attention is what is important.”
A touchstone Bible verse for Peggy is Matthew 6:34, which the Message Bible translates as “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
For Paul, Jesus’ teachings are all about people who are marginalized. “That’s what our primary focus is supposed to be – on people that get overlooked. People often say, ‘I couldn’t do what y’all do.’ I reply, ‘But you could do something.’ Maybe this just happens to be something that comes easy for us – we just like to be around children.”
Whether it comes “easy” for them or not, Paul and Peggy are living out the gospel of Christ, one day at a time. From the lows of watching a child’s heartbreak over the emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a birth parent, to the joy of a Valentine’s Day card that speaks to a wholeness never before felt, God’s love is ever-present in each situation. Father Gregory Boyle says in his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, “As misshapen as we feel ourselves to be, attention from another reminds us of our true shape in God.”2By responding to God’s tender voice, Paul and Peggy have reminded so many children of their true shape in God. Children who will no longer be defined by life situations beyond their control, but instead by a loving Father who wears skin in the form of two unassuming, unprepared-but-willing, people.
1Josh Wilson. Dream Small. Black River Christian, 2018. CD.
2Boyle, G. (2010). Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press.