By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
LENOIR CITY — When Phil Holmes became director of missions in Loudon County Baptist Association 10 years ago, the association owned a missionary house.
It was a good idea but in the past 10 years it was used about four times, he said. “It was vacant more than it was occupied,” Holmes recalled.
In the Spring of 2018, Holmes and some members from the association’s churches met with some elected officials and discussed what some of “the ills” were in the county and how the association could respond, he said.
The discussion revealed that the breakdown of the family was a major concern, Holmes said. He and others in the association began to determine if the association could find a way to minister to that need.
Holmes had heard about a ministry in Elizabethton called Isaiah 117 House, based on Isaiah 1:17 which says, “defend the cause of the fatherless.”
The ministry “provides physical and emotional support in a safe and loving home for children awaiting foster care placement,” according to the association’s website.
The DOM also knew of at least one other church in the state that had a similar “safe house” so they “borrowed” the idea for a similar ministry in Loudon County. But they decided to expand the ministry to not only provide a safe place for children awaiting foster care but also to find a way to intervene in the lives of the parents, he said.
The association gave permission to convert the mainly unused missionary house into “The Immanuel House,” a safe house for children who are removed by the Department of Children’s Services from their home due to neglect or abuse.
Immanuel House also has a family visitation room for DCS to schedule supervised visitations where families can come to a calm environment to visit with their children. The room is stocked with movies, games and books so the parents can bond with their children, he noted.
“There needs to be a focus on parents who are qualified to get their children back,” Holmes said. “We want to help them find another path so they can find a new way of doing life so their children won’t have to be taken away again,” he added.
The name for the house was chosen because Immanuel means “God is with us,” Holmes said. “We want to share that God is with the children no matter what they’re going through.”
Volunteers from the association provided “tons of manhours” to renovate the house. County businesses became involved and assisted with donations for the $55,000 renovation project, Holmes said.
The pandemic actually helped the Immanuel House ministry, Holmes said. “We had to cancel many of our ministries and mission trips last summer,” he noted. “It allowed us to work on the renovations.”
The safe house is a partnership with DCS, Holmes said. “We prayed our people would see this as a ministry to children,” Holmes said. Approximately 60 volunteers from Loudon County churches went through a certification process offered by DCS in order to volunteer at the safe house, Holmes said.
Teresa Wood, ministry assistant for the association, serves as the director of Immanuel House while Bethany Koppel serves as volunteer coordinator and Terra Caldwell serves as clothes closet coordinator.
When the need arises, Koppel arranges for volunteers to come and sit with the children while they await foster care placement, Holmes said.
Volunteers, who serve a four-hour shift when called upon, are able to rock babies and play games or watch movies with the children, most of whom have just been removed from an abusive environment, he added.
“We are ministering to them during a traumatic experience,” said Holmes’ wife, Leslie. “Though they are taken from abusive situations, it is the only experience they know,” she said.
In addition to providing a safe environment, the association also provides a new outfit of clothes, shoes, backpack, blanket, and toiletries for the children to take with them to their foster home. While there, the children have access to a fully stocked kitchen stocked with food, snacks and drinks.
Since opening last August during the midst of a pandemic, approximately 150 children have found refuge at the safe house. The home has ministered to not only children from within Loudon County, but surrounding counties as well, Holmes said.
The DOM is grateful for all who have helped make the ministry successful. “We have a lot of good people here,” he affirmed. B&R