By CHRYSTELLE THAMES
“We now bid you an affectionate goodbye — but this is God’s work.
He inspired, built and directed. We were simply His instruments.”
– Rev. L. S. Foster upon his 1903 retirement as first superintendent of the then Baptist Orphanage
Today The Baptist Children’s Village (BCV) continues God’s handiwork, using hundreds of His people to accomplish His work — all in different ways, with various talents necessary for the ministry. The Baptist Children’s Village exists as a part of the Mississippi Southern Baptist church to take the good news of Jesus Christ to at-risk children and families. Throughout the 125-year history of the ministry, this foundational purpose has remained consistent.
From a dollar to a century
The written word was a useful tool for Rev. L. S. Foster in his efforts to found the Baptist Orphanage (later The Baptist Children’s Village). He served as associate editor of the newly formed Baptist Record in 1886 and published several books, including “Mississippi Baptist Pastors,” published in 1895. It was through his experience with the written word that he published his first inquiry to Mississippi Baptists in 1893 to determine the “desirability of establishing a home for orphans.” It was in The Baptist Record that he wrote, “If this thought is of God, He will put it into the heart of some person to send a contribution for this cause.”
It was in response to this writing that Mrs. Lou H. Moore of Tillatoba wrote on December 10, 1893, “With my prayers, I enclose this dollar for the institution. If it finds company enough to affect a movement, you will hear from me again.” That dollar did indeed find “company enough,” as evidenced by the ministry’s long and fruitful legacy. Even today The Baptist Children’s Village receives no government funding but is entirely supported by individual, church and business donations.
In early 1894, Rev. Foster mailed a letter to pastors and Baptist leadership and described what he saw as a great need. In July 1894, he and a group of interested men had garnered enough support to write and secure the charter and launch the Baptist Orphanage. Foster, along with the small group of men, spent the next few years preparing to receive children into care, securing a house on West Capitol Street in Jackson, where he accepted the first child on May 12, 1897.
The need quickly overwhelmed the small house, and a large property was purchased to build a more spacious campus. The ministry has continued to grow and change to meet the ever-evolving needs of children and families in Mississippi, but always with the support of Mississippi Baptists and other partners so that not a day passed where needs were not met.
Rev. J. R. Carter succeeded Foster as superintendent, providing this written statement in the 1903 issue of The Orphanage Catalogue, a newsletter started by Rev. Foster and supported by a healthy subscription list:
“I am fully conscious in accepting the superintendency of our orphanage, that I am taking upon myself a great and responsible work, but I enter it with enthusiasm and great confidence in its success. I believe in God and His people. With His blessing and guidance, and the cooperation of friends of the orphanage, I am sure of success … I trust you, brethren, to give me the same helpful and prayerful cooperation that you have given to Dr. Foster, and all will be well with our beloved institution.”
History would reveal that support for this “beloved institution” continued for over a century and continues even today.
Two great leaders
Since the pages allowed for this article are not sufficient to speak of each of the 11 executives whom God called to lead the organization, we will confine our writings to our current executive director and a bit about our founding father, Rev. Foster. It could be said of each CEO that they were called to lead at a specific time in history with specific God-given gifts to address a specific need. These are men who have served through times of war and disease, through evolving industry and technology, and in ever-evolving cultures that present similar but different challenges for children and families.
While they have each relied on their talents, gifts and experiences to make choices for the ministry, they have all held fast to two underlying principles: 1) The ministry exists to share the gospel with children and families. 2) It is the responsibility of the church, not the federal government, to care for widows and orphans.
Rev. L. S. Foster
While it is not found in the yellowed pages of historical writings, one must wonder what provoked Rev. Foster to, with such passion, pursue the idea of a home for children. Born in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, his father moved to Starkville while he was in college. His description of himself as “a wild and dissipated boy” might have contributed to his understanding of the need for guidance for children. Perhaps, too, the loss of his wife, which left him with two young children to raise on his own for a season. None of these experiences were wasted on his preparation for this important work.
Foster also served as pastor for several Mississippi churches, three of which he helped start, and authored multiple writings preserving the history of Mississippi Baptists.
Milner has many memories of his own time as a “Village kid” while Paul N. Nunnery, who became his mentor, served as BCV executive director after leaving a successful law practice in Hollandale. Nunnery served from 1960-1990, and Milner ultimately followed in Nunnery’s footsteps, leaving a successful law practice to accept the position as the ministry’s 11th executive director.
Milner shares often that he holds the record for living at The Baptist Children’s Village longer than any other child — from when he arrived with his siblings at age 5 to when he signed himself out upon graduating college and moved to Tupelo. The trials in his own family and his experiences at the BCV drive his passion to provide a safe place for children today and to share the good news with as many of them as possible.
Milner says it was that gospel, shared with him by a houseparent, that changed his life. “Changing one life at The Baptist Children’s Village changes generations” is not just a statement — it is something he believes because he has experienced it. Milner is also the only alumnus to serve as executive director for the ministry.
Milner’s experience in law has been helpful in his work to protect and enhance not only the ministry of The Baptist Children’s Village, but also residential childcare in Mississippi and throughout the country. He is president of the Mississippi Association of Child Care Agencies (MACCA), president of the Baptist Coalition for Children and Families (BCCF), and serves on the board of directors for the national Coalition of Residential Excellence (CORE). In this 125th anniversary of the ministry, our executive director has made and is making history of his own.
BCV staff and alumni agree that the singular most influential position at The Baptist Children’s Village is the houseparent. In 2018 the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) identified BCV houseparents as Mississippi Baptist Missionaries. Since that time, commissioning services have been scheduled for newly hired houseparents, who receive a certificate and lapel pin from the MBCB. It is understood that these individuals are indeed called to this unique work with children who come from varied and difficult places. They often leave family and career to devote their lives to sharing Christ with children and families who often find themselves in dark places without hope. They live in a BCV house filled with children from cultures unfamiliar, even foreign to them. They sacrifice and do all this because God calls them to take the good news of Jesus Christ to at-risk children and families.
Is it worth it? If you asked Executive Director Sean Milner, he would resoundingly explain it is the very reason he now makes it possible for children to be exposed to the gospel in his ministry at the BCV. Alumnus and North American Mission Board missionary Lee Davis would relate how his houseparent led him to the Lord and made it possible for him to share the gospel as a youth pastor, pastor and missionary with his family in Montana. Alumnus Cait May often shares how it was the genuine and consistent Christlike life that her houseparents lived daily that ultimately led her to a more intimate life with her Savior. Hundreds more alumni can give testimony about how God worked through a houseparent missionary to eternally change their lives and the lives of their families.
The ministry today
The Baptist Children’s Village serves hundreds of children each year in residential care on campuses throughout Mississippi, and through the Dorcas In-Home Family Support Program. Campus directors, case managers and houseparents serve children ages 1-20 in BCV homes where Christ is honored and family is celebrated. Case managers work to mentor at-risk families in their homes and work proactively to keep children together. When The Baptist Children’s Village cannot serve a family, appropriate resources are recommended to the family through the BCV’s Referral Services.
Former Executive Director Paul Nunnery wrote, “The survival and usefulness of any service agency is dependent, in large measure, upon its capacity and willingness to change.” The 125-year-old ministry has seen many changes. There will no doubt be more changes in the future as the BCV seeks to be viable and successful in its efforts to take the good news of Jesus Christ to more at-risk children and families. The BCV has proved to have the capacity and willingness to change to meet the current needs for the hurting; thus, the work that God “inspired, built and directed” continues.
Chrystelle Thames joined the public relations department at The Baptist Children’s Village in June 1982. She received her bachelor and master of science degrees in communications from Mississippi College. Chrystelle is a BCV alumnus and brings a unique perspective to her role as director of communications for the ministry. She has also served as an advocate for children in volunteer leadership roles in the Junior Auxiliary of Clinton, local parent/teacher organizations, and in the prayer ministry at her church.