Biatriz Larez knows what it’s like to struggle to feed her family.
A few years ago, the single mother and her three young children made do in a crumbling, two-bedroom mobile home.
She worked an hourly, low-wage job as a custodian.
“It was paycheck-to-paycheck living,” said Larez, who was born and raised in this Eastern New Mexico town best known for its peanut and dairy farms. “It wasn’t great.”
But her economic — and spiritual — outlook changed when a friend introduced her to Hope Haven, a faith-based duplex community built by New Mexico Christian Children’s Home.
For up to four years while single parents go to college or develop careers, the ministry associated with Churches of Christ offers free rent, utilities and internet.
The families receive canned goods, nonperishables and meat through the children’s home’s commissary. They have access to a clothing closet.
Donors shower the children with birthday and Christmas gifts.
“Who doesn’t like that?” said Bill Marshall, the program’s director. “It relieves them of financial pressure to the tune of $18,000 to $22,000 a year.”
But with those benefits come expectations: No smoking or drinking. No physical relationships. No guests of the opposite sex, except for relatives.
And for many, this is the big one: The entire family must attend church services three times per week.
That includes Sunday morning and Wednesday night assemblies at the Southside Church of Christ, within walking distance of Hope Haven.
Plus, New Mexico Christian hosts a Sunday night gathering specifically for the 39 single mothers and their 73 children. The program is at capacity and has a months-long waiting list.
“We don’t judge these ladies. We take them as they are,” said Marshall, a minister for 30 years and a former group home houseparent with his wife, Judy. “However, they sign an agreement that they are going to live a different standard here.”
Since the ministry accepts zero government funding, no regulations preclude that mandate.
“You can’t force anyone to believe in Jesus and be baptized,” Marshall said. “But we can ask them to come to church where they’re going to hear about that.”
Since 1954, New Mexico Christian has specialized in residential group care on its rural campus eight miles west of Portales.
The single-parent program’s roots stretch back to 1983. However, the major expansion did not occur until the construction — completed last year — of 30 duplex residences at Hope Haven.
In addition, the children’s home maintains nine single-parent apartments split between Portales and the main campus outside town.
Donors gave $6 million in three years to build Hope Haven on seven acres behind the church, which has a playground that the children enjoy all week.
That fund-raising timeline amazed Executive Director Rod Self, whose office is in a long building where — decades ago — New Mexico Christian housed 24 boys and 24 girls at opposite ends.
“It just sounds to our donors like what the New Testament church did,” Self said of the single-parent program.
The original Greek wording of James 1:27, Self noted, refers to pure religion as caring for widows and “the fatherless” in their distress.
“We waited for the Lord to provide the money first,” he said of building Hope Haven. “I’m not sure how much faith that is. But we were just amazed to see what God wanted to do through his people.”
The program allows single fathers as well as mothers, but all but one participant so far have been women.
Often, high-paying trade jobs like carpentry and sheet-metal work might be available to men, Marshall said. But women typically require higher education to advance.
“I’ve had many who have left with their degrees in nursing, education, accounting or whatever,” he said. “I know that many of them make a whole lot more money than me. And that blesses me.”
In many cases, the children’s fathers have no role in their lives.
Some have abused the mothers.
Others are in prison.
The women’s ages range from 18 to 50, although most tend to be in their 20s and early 30s. The majority are Hispanic, in keeping with New Mexico’s overall demographics.
The southwestern state’s poverty and teen birth rates both rank among the nation’s worst. Four out of five New Mexico teens who give birth are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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Source: Religion News Service