Showing the Father's Love to At-Risk Children

Recent studies have found that nearly 19 million children in the US are growing up with only one parent, and that over one fourth of these single parents are wrestling with poverty. Today, we’re joined by guests from Father’s Love, a ministry who work primarily with children from low-income, single-parent homes. They are following a great calling to help families connect with each other and God.

Recent studies have found that nearly 19 million children in the US are growing up with only one parent, and that over one fourth of these single parents are wrestling with poverty. Today, we’re joined by guests from Father’s Love, a ministry who work primarily with children from low-income, single-parent homes. They are following a great calling to help families connect with each other and God.

Gary Wilkerson: Hey guys, welcome to the Gary Wilkerson Podcast. I'm here today with some family and good friends of ours from Father's Love Ministry down in Jacksonville, Texas, not Jacksonville, Florida. I just returned from Jacksonville, Florida last night and not to be confused with Jacksonville, Texas, but Brett and Melissa Wagner, right? The Wagner's from there and a longstanding world challenge leader and aficionado in making all things run well and also happened to be my brother-in-law, Roger Jonker. We're glad to have you guys here with us today. Thanks for joining us you, appreciate you guys coming.

So, you guys run Father's Love. So, Roger why don't you tell me what is Father's Love? What kind of ministry is it and who does it serve?

Roger Jonker: It's a ministry really to what we call at-risk kids, we focus in on kids that are 10 years of age, all the way up to about 18 years of age. It's a place where we try to teach them about the love of Christ. A lot of them do not have fathers or they do have fathers that are not involved in their lives. We try to tell them that there is a loving Father that cares for them, that loves them. We try to disciple them. We try to teach them about the things of God and train them in the ways of God.

Gary Wilkerson: It's a great need that you guys are working in the ministry as well. That youth culture seems to be getting further and further from God, further and further from the church, further and further from the family. So, you're seeing a lot of that like kind of a fatherlessness in the area because you guys are more it's kind of an inner-city ministry as you were saying, but in a rural context a little bit. How long have you guys been with the ministry?

Brett Wagner: So, we've been there since it started in Jacksonville.

Gary Wilkerson: Which was when?

Brett Wagner: This was 12 or 13 years ago.

Gary Wilkerson: Well okay. So, you guys have been faithful, consistent, and so I'm just curious in a rural context, in kind of East Texas countryside, do you see the same kind of addiction to the iPhone and the gaming and things like that?

Brett Wagner: Yes, can't imagine that it would be any worse in a big city than it is as far as we have 10-year-olds that have phones like their phone and they're on it all the time. We have a policy where when they come, we take it because we don't want it getting lost or stolen or broken. Plus, we don't want them to be distracted while they're there. But I mean we have kids all the time that are trying to keep it on them and not give it. But yeah, I've heard that this is like the first generation now that's grown up with a supercomputer in their pocket and addicted to video games and social media. I mean, that's their world.

Melissa Wagner: Exposed very young to pornography.

Brett Wagner: All the dangers that come with that.

Gary Wilkerson: Yeah. It just ruined hearts and minds and making it almost impossible to have a healthy relationship between, excuse me, a young man and a young woman.

Roger Jonker: We actually have a security wand we used to use. When the kids would come in, we'll take their cell phones away and a lot of times they'll try to hide them and didn't want to let us know that they had them. So, we take the little wand and it would go off and confiscate it. You know? We want to be able them focus in on what we're talking about and be able to relate to them and engage.

Brett Wagner: One of the things, and I remember when we got that, it was in response, not to cell phones, but it was, we had a young man. He's maybe 15 at the time and his mom found a gun in his jacket one day, and she told us about it. This kid was getting into trouble at school and he was getting into fights. So, she was worried that he was going to use it. When he came, it was a cold day, and our gym it's just a covered gym. There's not like heat in it, but the kids still love playing basketball, even in the cold.

He came in with that big puffy jacket and we had a lot of kids there and so we ended up using that wand. Thankfully he didn't bring it, but that was kind of what spurred it. But the cell phone part of it definitely is the kids all the time trying to keep it.

Melissa Wagner: In Father's Love when we started, we did that and that was like, I mean a decade ago. So, taking a kid cell phone up at the start of a lesson a decade ago was not as big a deal as doing it now, but that we started that so early on I think was really helpful. They're used to that culture. They pass them in at the start and that's just the way it is. I don't think we realized how important that would be down the road.

Gary Wilkerson: What are some of the main difficulties these young people are facing in your context in East Texas there? That's real middle America to some degree, so what kids are facing, they're, they're facing in Kansas City and in St Louis and then Phoenix, Arizona, Jacksonville, Florida where I was just probably the same kind of thing. So maybe some of the contexts like LA, New York, Chicago might be slightly different for a 10 to 18-year-old, but what are some of the things that are facing a 10 to 18-year-old in the ministry you're working with at Father's Love?

Roger Jonker: There's this statistic I read recently and talked about, it talks about the United States as a whole, but it says 900,000 to a million kids have experienced either abuse or neglect. That's a large number. That's in the United States. We have a prayer box where we ask the kids to put prayer request in and probably the two most frequent things that we see are the same things. Neglect or abuse. We have kids that they come in and once we develop a relationship with them, they share. One of the things that one girl shared just recently that she was raped by her mother's ex-boyfriend on several occasions.

Roger Jonker: There's never any healing that took place. So, when something that happened is kind of pushed under the cover, but she's dealing with this. Then hopefully because of the relationship that we develop with them, they open up and they share and then we're able to share Christ with them and you see a healing take place. But neglect and abuse is a big item.

Gary Wilkerson: We talked about it on this podcast before, Christian counselor talk about two different types of trauma and one being something that should never happen to a child that did happen. That's where being hit, being sexually abused, being called a name, and that creates trauma in a child's life. The second type of trauma is less pronounced, but sometimes more difficult to deal with. That's things that should have happened to you that didn't happen to you. That's where you have a father speak into your life.

You have a full family unit, so you have a mother and father there to care for you in the unique ways that masculine and feminine can do. They're speaking into your life, helping you have courage, helping you have direction and stuff like that. So, I think that's what you're speaking about. Abuse is the physical, sexual harm and then neglect is, and there's even that emotional unavailability. So like, even if the mother's there, may be a single mom, which I'd like to talk about that in a moment, they might be under such anxiety and stress and pain and suffering themselves, or having gone through trauma themselves that they're not emotionally available to their children.

So even if there's a mom or dad in the house, it's sometimes hard for them to do that. So, what percentage of the kids you're working with are from a single-family home?

Roger Jonker: I don't know if we have any numbers, but I would say at least 50%, maybe 75% does that seem like a fair?

Brett Wagner: Maybe more.

Melissa Wagner: Yeah, most of the kids that we work with come from-

Brett Wagner: My guess is at least 75%, maybe up to 90.

Melissa Wagner: Yeah, it's a lot. What's rare, what's more surprising is to see a kid from a home with a mother and father in the home. That's very uncommon and you can see a difference between those kids. They do much better.

Gary Wilkerson: Do you have a why behind that? Why those numbers skew so high?

Brett Wagner: Well, I mean, one, one thing is that, that's kind of who we're targeting. I mean that's who we want to minister to. So unfortunately, in culture that's the socioeconomic ramifications like there are certain neighborhoods that you're going to have a high percentage of kids that are coming from single parent homes. Those are the neighborhoods that we're mostly in. I mean, we're open to all youth in Jacksonville, but that's kind of who our heart is to go for. So that's probably the main reason why our numbers are that high. I don't know the statistics on just the whole population, but more and more kids are coming from either divorced, separated homes or never got married in the first place.

Melissa Wagner: I would say that a lot of the families start from a single parent home. There's never a father really in the home. They don't even split up half the time. There's so much teen pregnancy.

Brett Wagner: That's the main thing. I mean, the main group of kids that we work with predominantly come from mom who never got married, so there was never that unit. Oftentimes, I mean, and we're seeing it more and more over the years, you see how vivid it is that you have a mom or a young lady that becomes a mom at a young age. So, she's raising a kid with no experience. She didn't have a dad at home. She maybe did not have mom at home or whatever. So, she's-

Melissa Wagner: Very much a kid herself.

Brett Wagner: That just perpetuates all the issues that come with that.

Roger Jonker: Jacksonville itself, the city that we work out of the statistic is in Jacksonville. You talked about teenage pregnancies, it's got the highest rate per capita is in Jacksonville. Not with just one child, but you have a teenage girl that gets pregnant, has a child, and then she has another child and another child. So, it's multiple children that a single mom is trying to raise.

Gary Wilkerson: Sometimes you see grandmothers that are like 32 years old, 35 years old. It's kind of makes for a pretty rough life. So, if you've got trauma, you've got abuse, you've got teenage moms who maybe aren't prepared for raising kids, so these kids grow up in an environment. What results, what are you seeing when the kids come to you? What are they like?

Brett Wagner: A lot of kids they don't know how to deal with authority figures and it's kind of a natural result of that.

Gary Wilkerson: So you're the authority figure, how do they treat you?

Brett Wagner: It depends. We try to always... Part of our program is we have a gym, so we play a lot of games and so I'm out there playing with them. To get them in order, we get them on a line and if I give them 10 seconds to get on the line, if they can't do it, the whole group does pushups. I'll do pushups with them. We'll play basketball, doing whatever we can just to kind of relate with them. So that always helps. I know when we first began back in my former life before kids and everything, I would stay up late and play basketball till, I mean all hours of the night. That group of guys and then their friends and then their friends, they just knew me as kind of like coach, like I would get out there and play. That gave me a lot of I think the kids call it street cred.

Gary Wilkerson: Street credit.

Brett Wagner: A guy who I never met would come in and know me because I play basketball with him.

Gary Wilkerson: So, they kind of respect you to then?

Brett Wagner: Yeah. So, there's a little bit of, you're starting off with that. But if a kid doesn't know me from anybody and they come in, it depends on the personality of the kid. But for example, the phone thing, if we say, "Hey, we have a policy," and a lot of kids will kick back against that. They might reluctantly give it, or they might say, "No, I got to call my mom or "I'm not giving you my phone."

Gary Wilkerson: So, authority, what other things do you see happening? Are any of the kids at that age starting to experiment with drugs or?

Brett Wagner: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean we have tons of, especially late middle school, maybe in high school is where they're really starting to experiment. I had a young man just tell me his family which is pretty rough kind of a family kind of almost set an intervention for him because they saw some things in his life that he was going in the wrong direction pretty fast. So mostly it's marijuana that they start off with. But we know of several kids that got into cocaine and meth.

Melissa Wagner: It's kind of you start to learn it's like a self-medicating thing. There's depression or neglect or-

Brett Wagner: Loneliness.

Melissa Wagner: ... loneliness and then they're coming into adolescence and don't really know what to do with that. So that could be a coping mechanism that they turn to drugs. I know a lot of the kids you have, they're promiscuous. If there is abuse, like sexual abuse in the past, it makes it even worse. The young girls will grow up with not a sense of their body being private, and they just become promiscuous at a very young age and that causes all kinds of trouble and heartache.

Roger Jonker: Another thing Gary would be the poverty that they live in, the school district that's a North of us, Tyler, Texas, it's a bigger city than Jacksonville. But we had the president of the independent school district, the trustees mentioned that 75% of the kids in the school system are in poverty.

Gary Wilkerson: In Tyler or Jacksonville?

Roger Jonker: In Tyler. Jacksonville is probably very similar to what I'm assuming, that happens to be the big city that's close to us. Said that statistic, which kind of surprised me. That's three out of four kids are living in poverty.

Gary Wilkerson: I think the area you mentioned is actually fairly more affluent than Jacksonville, or at least the neighborhood you're working in. So, yeah, that's probably pretty out there statistic compared to the rest of the nation, but not unlike a lot of cities as well.

Roger Jonker: When you live in any poverty, you're talking about a single mom usually trying to try to raise kids by herself, trying to pay the gas bill on minimum wage, trying to pay the food bill, trying to take care of herself, her job. There's a lot of stress. There's a lot of doing it by herself and it's a struggle. We had a young girl, a teenage girl that came and shared her prayer request with one of our staff members and she said, "Can you pray that I can get a job?" Our staff person, "That's neat that you're trying to get a job, but you're only 14 years of age. Why?" "I want to help my mom. I see her struggling. I see the emotional turmoil that it takes. I want to be able to help her."

I got to thinking, a 14-year-old girl should be enjoying her teenage years and here she's concerned. No thank God that she is concerned, but she's trying to help her mother with the bills and everyday living.

Gary Wilkerson: Wow. That's tough stuff. It's hard to see. It must be a taxing on you guys day in and day out, you're working with these poverty and addictions and brokenness.

Melissa Wagner: Lack of education.

Gary Wilkerson: Speak for a moment about the parent, whether it be a dad. I don't know if there's any dads raising kids there at all or a couple of dads? So, a single dad or a single mom or a couple that's living in poverty that are low income, kids are same age, 10 to 18, and they're starting to get out there on the streets. Maybe get a little violent or have a gun or starting to do drugs. Do you minister to the parents as well or is it all just the kids? Do you ever have conversations with mom?

Brett Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's kind of an extension of our ministry is to work with the parents. Just recently, actually Saturday before we came up here, I had a mom call me because we had to kind of kick her son out just for that one day.

Gary Wilkerson: How old is he?

Brett Wagner: He's 15, 16. He's a 10th grader.

Gary Wilkerson: It's got be heartbreaking for her.

Brett Wagner: Yeah. She loves our program and she wasn't mad, but she wanted to know why obviously. I just talked to her and I just told her like, "Hey, you know he was kind of picking on a seventh grader when I told him to stop. He wouldn't stop whatever the issue was." There is a dad around, a stepdad around. But I know that family's been through a lot. But I mean we always are trying to keep our ear open for anytime that a kid comes and shares something that's family related. I don't know if it was the same girl that you were mentioning, but she had said that they had been without hot water for about two years.

Gary Wilkerson: Oh, my goodness.

Brett Wagner: We didn't know, and she has five kids, four of them either come or have come to our program and so we were happy to help. So, we ended up putting in a hot water heater in.

Gary Wilkerson: I'm glad you guys did that. I almost didn't catch that you put the hot water heater in for them. That's [crosstalk].

Roger Jonker: Once you're talking to the kids, you'll see these physical needs that need to take place and we pray about it. We see if we can actually do it. If it's a major renovation, we're not able to do it. But if it's something simple, like you're saying, put a hot water heater in. We try to do that for them. That gives us a rapport with the family.

Gary Wilkerson: I love that. Just keeping us under your family. I want to ask all three of you this question, just pretend we put another chair here and one of your moms from your program, or maybe somebody who's listening came into our studio today and she's like, 32 years old. She has a 15-year-old son. He's starting to experiment with drugs. He's running around with the wrong crowd. She's worried, she's anxious. What do he say to her? I'll start with you, Roger, if you don't mind.

Roger Jonker: Probably try to encourage her to have her child come to Father's Love. Usually we ask the mom to come as well, so she has a better idea of what we're about and we can try to describe it to her. But actually, being there, seeing what we do kind of gives her a comfort feeling. Then once the child gets there, hopefully a lot of times when the child comes, they'll see friends of theirs from school and it kind of encourages them to come. If they come, to me, that's the seed that we've got. They're there. We can expose them to Christ at that time. So really just getting them to come into our facility well, we try to get the parents to do.

Gary Wilkerson: That's good. So, as you trust the work that God's called you to do, that you can help people. For those who don't live in Jacksonville that maybe they're listening to our podcast today and they have this, again, son or daughter who's troubled. So, what I hear you saying then just like, if it's not Father's Love in Jacksonville, it could be the youth group at your local church or Awana's is another type of thing. I remember going to Royal Rangers. Do you remember that?

Roger Jonker: Yeah, [crosstalk].

Gary Wilkerson: That was kind of cool. We made these wood cars that were racing cars that went down there anyway, we get off subject here. I mean those are good influences. There are so many bad influences out there. I think your advice is well taken that it's important to get them in an environment. Because whatever community you're in, you're going to become like, I've heard people say like, "Introduce me to your five closest friends and I'll tell you what you're going to be like?" You're going to be like that. So how about yourself, Melissa, what would you say to this?

Melissa Wagner: Especially with teenagers, I would say it's just all about relationship. So, if there's a breakdown in relationship with the mom, doesn't feel like they can communicate well with the kids, we could try to come in and help bridge the gap or encourage them to go to counseling. Try to figure out why is the teenager taking the drug? What are they trying to heal on their own or medicate? I would say try to build that relationship and understand what's going on in the young person's life that they're turning to that substance. For sure, we would pray with them or encourage them to pray for their son or daughter.

Gary Wilkerson: Anything to add to that?

Brett Wagner: I mean definitely think that the teenage years is a time where they're breaking away from mom and dad, relationally and authority wise they're making their own decisions. So, keeping that relationship open and not just being the authority figure all the time, is difficult to do for a parent. But it's a natural break that needs to happen. Or I wouldn't call it a break because it's not instantaneous, it's a process. But keeping the airways open as far as what's going on in their life might be some things that the mom or dad need to apologize and ask for forgiveness for.

Because there might be some ways that, surely, they're not encouraging that type of behavior, but at least there's that relationship there is so crucial. That being able to ask for forgiveness might bring down some walls. Then like Melissa said, kids need relationship not just with peers but with other people outside of their parents as well that can speak into their lives. We always are wanting more mentors to be a part of our program. So, having somebody who's older, grounded, hopefully knows Jesus, but even if they don't know Jesus, somebody who is mature enough to help the young man or woman, see their choices and just to be a big friend, big brother that they can guide them through. But it's a such a tough situation for a single mom or single dad to see their kid make bad decisions. I mean, it's heart wrenching.

So, the more adults there is involved in a child's life, the better chance they have of success. If you had a single mom, there's only one adult. But if there's a dad, even if it's a deadbeat dad or just somebody that's there but not really involved in the kid's life, that helps. Then you have a coach, or you have a Sunday school teacher or a neighbor, a Christian that would take an interest in that child, the chances of that child doing well and succeeding is increased tremendously.

Gary Wilkerson: I couldn't be more in alignment with what you're saying. The idea of sort of I think parents, and maybe even a single parent ministry that I've been involved with helping people like that in that situation. They want to see their kids have relationships. Because sometimes there's a difficulty adjusting, so maybe like you talked about earlier, the mother is not prepared to be, mothers that kids growing up and maybe hasn't learned social skills. So, they're having a hard time fitting in. That's why they go to gangs and drugs sometimes. So, the mother or the father's like, "Oh, I'm so glad you found friends."

They made the worst friends in the world. So, you're kind of abdicating your responsibility to train up a child and giving it over to kids thinking like, "That's good. They finally found some friends." Like, "Hey mom, I'm going over to so and so's house." You don't check. You don't think, you don't say no ever. I'm with you that the parent really there's this word in counseling called attachment, that kids are going to be attached to somebody and they're meant to be primarily attached to mother, father and that's where they get their wise counsel and wisdom.

If the mother and father are not giving that to them, then they're going to attach outside of that usually to peer group. As you know to your primary mentor, a form of attachment being another 14-year-old who is also gang banging and doing drugs, they're not going to get a whole lot of wise counsel. They're not going to like, this girl said this to me, "What should I do?" "Write this on Facebook." They're getting the worst kind of counsel, whether their life is spinning more out of control. I always encourage parents to really care about that issue. You are more important than they think you are. Your time with those kids, even if the kids are sort of like, because the kids go through that age where they're starting to say like, "I don't want to be with you, Mom." It' like, "Oh no, what keeps me going to be my friends?"

Just to protect that and say, "Nope," put some discipline down. Say, "No, you and I, we're going to go for a walk now." That keeps that you may not know it and the kid may fight against it, but it keeps that sense of attachment towards the parent. Because that speaks a whole other, I don't mean to ramble on here. You're my guests, I should be asking you this. But that speaks to the parent that's being attached to have something good to say. That's where the discipleship of the parent is important too to do that.

Roger Jonker: That's a key thing cause all through the Bible, it talks about train a child in the ways of God, diligently teach the word of God. But if there's not a Christian parent or there's not a Christian father, someone's going to step up to the plate. It's going to be that 14-year-old peer, that's going to give them advice and tell them to do different things.

Brett Wagner: I wasn't part of youth group growing up, but now being a parent, realizing that church is not a place where I drop my kids off to go get discipled, or to share the gospel with. Like my first ministry is in the home. Like you said, I mean, I'm training my children about who God is and who is Jesus and what is sin and all of those things. That's where it begins. The church is a facilitator of that or is an encourager of that. Instead of just thinking, "Well, taking them to a place can only do so much." But like you said, the parental influence is so much greater than I think we realize.

Melissa Wagner: That's speaking for kids who are growing up in a home with a Christian mother and father or parents who care. When you're talking about kids that we interact with at Father's Love, sadly many of them are coming from homes where there's so much neglect and there isn't that love and relationship. So that's where we come in. That's where the body of Christ and what the Bible says, that is our responsibility, those children. The kids that are coming from homes without a father, and sometimes not a mother present. It's our responsibility to mentor them, to reach out, to look outside of our comfort level, of our world or our box and pick up a kid to go grocery shopping with us or take out to lunch and you begin a mentor relationship with them.

Melissa Wagner: Through that relationship you open up their eyes to see a different way of living. So that's Father's Love. Those are the kids that we really look out for and care for. That really gets stuck in your heart and that's who God calls us to look out for. As Christians, that's what we're responsible for, those kids that are coming from so much less than what we're blessed with or what our own kids are blessed with in our home. What about the kids who have abuse in the background or who have been taken by CPS and are hopping from home to home? Who's taking care of them? Who's looking after them? That's our responsibility to reach out.

Gary Wilkerson: That's so true.

Well thank you guys for the ministry you're doing and thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. This could be helpful for whether it's parents or somebody in ministry or even a teenager listening that they know. I think one of the big takeaways is there's hope. Thank you, guys.

Roger Jonker: So, thanks for having us, privilege.

Melissa Wagner: Appreciate.

Gary Wilkerson: God bless.

Key Questions from the Podcast

  • What is Father’s Love ministry?
  • What are the issues that inner city youth are facing?
  • Are young kids starting to experiment with drugs?

Notable Quotes from the Podcast

It's a ministry really to what we call at-risk kids, we focus in on kids that are 10 years of age, all the way up to about 18 years of age. It's a place where we try to teach them about the love of Christ. A lot of them do not have fathers or they do have fathers that are not involved in their lives. We try to tell them that there is a loving Father that cares for them, that loves them. We try to disciple them. We try to teach them about the things of God and train them in the ways of God. – Roger Jonker

…this is the first generation now that's grown up with a supercomputer in their pocket and addicted to video games and social media. – Brett Wagner

There's this statistic I read recently and talked about the United States as a whole, but it says 900,000 to a million kids have experienced either abuse or neglect. That's a large number. That's in the United States. We have a prayer box where we ask the kids to put prayer request in and probably the two most frequent things that we see are the same things. Neglect or abuse. – Roger Jonker

Resources Mentioned in the Podcast 

About Gary Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO. 

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