By Renee Croitoru
Orthodox Christian visitors to Wichita, Kansas are often surprised by the visibility of Orthodoxy in this city on the Central Plains. However, they are typically unaware of another surprising fact. Wichita is known as the "abortion capital" of the United States, as several abortionists ply away at their grisly trade there. One of them performs abortions without restrictions, including the infamous partial-birth procedure.
One of the most beautiful sights in Wichita is the St. George Orthodox Cathedral, a neo-Byzantine structure located on a main thoroughfare. Yet on any given Sunday, parishioners may be greeted with the sight of protesters chanting slogans, quoting Scripture, and hoisting graphic images of aborted babies. Wichita's most notorious abortionist is a member of the Lutheran church next door. The protesters are there to decry this church's acceptance of his barbaric and murderous practice.
Wichita is thus on the front line of the abortion struggle in the United States. It was the site of Operation Rescue's highly publicized "Summer of Mercy" campaign in 1991, where pro-life and pro-abortion forces battled in the streets. For this reason, a number of positive efforts have also sprung up in Wichita to offer support and positive alternatives to women experiencing a crisis pregnancy.
With the battle over abortion literally at the doorstep of St. George Cathedral, it was crucial that the Orthodox community respond. The Dean of the Cathedral, Fr. Paul O'Callaghan, pondered the issue and affirmed the Orthodox stance on abortion from the pulpit. But the question remained as to how the Cathedral congregation could provide an Orthodox witness outside the Cathedral. What shape would such a witness take? Unbeknownst to most of the Cathedral membership, the Holy Spirit was in the process of providing an answer.
To explain the nature of that answer, I must first describe a little of my personal journey. Even as a young girl, I felt the tug of God calling me to serve Him in some form of ministry. Being raised Roman Catholic, I was inspired by the example of Mother Teresa and her sisters. For a time, I longed to join her order and participate in the good works that they were performing. However, I also had an equally deep desire to become a mother and have my own children. Ultimately, I chose the path of becoming a mother and have been blessed with a beautiful family. I continued to pray, though, that God would someday use me to serve others with the same love that Mother Teresa so graciously offered at all times. Since becoming Orthodox, the inspiration I received from Mother Teresa has been reinforced by the examples of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and St. Maria of Paris.
So while I finished college, married, and had a family, I stayed active in parish life and tried to volunteer where I could be of help. I also participated in Bible studies, classes, and fellowship groups from time to time. In early 2000, a friend and I were studying the book of Acts in the St. Athanasius Academy correspondence course. Fr. Paul, our priest, would meet with us occasionally to guide us. We noted the fire of the early Christians to do good works and take care of each other and asked, "Where is that fire in our church today?"
My friend and I started discussing the formation of a social service ministry as a parish outreach. In particular, I was interested in the idea of opening a home for unwed mothers. I approached Fr. Paul with our ideas. He was favorable, but didn't see how it could all come together at that point. He recognized that such an endeavor would be a huge undertaking.
About six months later, in November 2000, International Orthodox Christian Charities held it's a board meeting at St. George Cathedral. Prior to arriving, a board member contacted Fr. Paul, and in the course of their conversation, asked him if we would be interested in cooperating with IOCC to open an unwed mothers' home in Wichita. Fr. Paul just about fell out of his chair, but after he recovered, called me immediately, remembering our conversation.
I told him that I had had the matter in prayer and thought that this had to be a signal from the Holy Spirit. So while the IOCC meetings were in progress, I accompanied the board member and several interested parishioners to a local crisis pregnancy center. We talked with the director about the possibility of such a project.
This conversation convinced us that it was time for the Wichita Orthodox community to go forward.
Photo left: a Treehouse family
From that point on, Fr. Paul and I continued visiting various unwed mothers' homes, crisis pregnancy centers, and related agencies throughout the city. After we completed our basic research, he then persuaded me to make presentations to our Strategic Planning committee and the Annual Parish Meeting. Although we had not settled on a final concept, the parish unanimously passed a resolution supporting my proposal to begin a ministry to mothers in need.
With our confidence bolstered, we intensified our research. Our goal was to find where there was a gap in existing services. Conversations with agency directors made it clear that there were enough beds available in existing homes for unwed mothers. A new home would be redundant. We also saw that services were readily available for women experiencing crisis pregnancies. We did discover, however, that there was a lack of supplies and services for women after they had had their babies. We realized that we could form an agency whose mission would be to carry forward the work of the crisis pregnancy centers after the birth of the baby.
A conversation with the director of one of the crisis pregnancy centers really helped to clinch our concept. She sketched an image of how we could help new moms with basic supplies in a setting that was warm, informal, and friendly. Afterwards, Fr. Paul and I agreed that we had hit on the approach that was right for us. We would help the new moms with a layette gift immediately after the birth of the baby, run a thrift store to provide quality items for their children at extremely low cost, provide a warm, non-clinical atmosphere where they could find genuine personal care, and offer fellowship groups and programs to foster their personal and spiritual growth.
Thus we arrived at a vision for a viable Orthodox witness in the abortion arena. We knew that Wichita was an ideal location for Orthodox Christians to perform benevolent deeds for new mothers in need. Thus we would seek to demonstrate the integrity of the Church's teachings by actively supporting women who opt to complete their pregnancy rather than abort. Such a ministry would be peaceable rather than contentious, and show the Church backing up its teachings with the requisite good works. This is the witness we believe the Holy Spirit guided us to implement - a positive and life-affirming contribution in the midst of the abortion struggle.
The result is known as The Treehouse, a social service agency founded by Orthodox Christians from St. George Cathedral and its sister parish, St. Mary Church.
The Treehouse seeks to transform the lives of mothers and children with God's love and genuine personal care.
Photo right: Treehouse director Renee Croitoru in the center,
Treehouse volunteer Verla McCullogh to the left and, on the right, Fr. Paul
O'Callaghan, dean of Wichita's St. George Cathedral.
The Treehouse fosters the well-being of women and their newborn babies by supplying their basic necessities and programs supporting their growth and development.
Women are referred to The Treehouse primarily from several agencies that deal with crisis pregnancy and family issues. Typically, a woman who comes to The Treehouse has recently had her baby. We conduct an initial interview, introduce her to our facilities and services, and give her a layette gift containing essential baby supplies. The mom then is eligible to return and shop in our thrift store up to three times a year. Moms are also invited to participate in one of our weekly fellowship groups, which combine Bible study, inspirational material, sharing about personal problems, and practical information about babies and parenting.
The Treehouse is a safe, peaceful, warm and comfortable place for those whose lives are often caught up in chaos. Moms come there sometimes just to spend time. I'm also personally available to offer our moms support and encouragement on a one-to-one basis. Thus, many of the moms return often to visit with me and share about their lives.
I presently hold the position of Executive Director of The Treehouse, which, like many positions with non-profit agencies, is a full-time job with part-time pay. We recently added an "Operations Manager," another part-time position, to run the thrift store and all inventory related activities. Other than that, our operations are run by our volunteers. We draw on a base of about 60 women, made up of women from local parishes, clients, and women doing community service time.
Our moms and their babies are the life-blood of The Treehouse, of course. An important aspect of our ministry is upholding them in the midst of their tremendous struggles. Drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, abusive relationships, legal problems and incarceration, financial hardships, unemployment, and spiritual poverty are all too common. Besides agency referrals and the material assistance we offer, we support them with prayer, heartfelt listening, and godly counsel.
I must say, however, I have been amazed by the faith, strength, and perseverance that our clients exhibit in the extremely difficult circumstances that they face on a daily basis. What has truly astounded me has been the way our clients give back to The Treehouse. Moms will bring extra formula and baby food, clothing and other baby items to us as their way of saying "thanks" for The Treehouse. At The Treehouse, we seek to affirm the dignity of all whom we serve. They respond by showing their appreciation. Many of our moms really have the sense that The Treehouse is "their place," and they show their care for it.
The groups we sponsor are an important feature of our work at The Treehouse. Currently, we have three: our regular "Moms' Fellowship" group, which ranges from being a bible study to covering a wide variety of important issues, from hygiene and nutrition, to basic baby care, substance abuse, abusive relationships, financial responsibility, spirituality, and more. We also have a Spanish-speaking group that works on the same format. Our third group is a more intensive group therapy program run by a professional counselor to work on major problems our moms are facing in daily life.
The Treehouse ministry began in January 2002. We are celebrating our third anniversary, having assisted over one thousand mothers! We are deeply thankful to our good God for blessing us to serve others in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and for abundantly prospering the ministry He has granted us.
Mrs. Renee Croitoru is a member of St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, Kansas, the mother of four children, and the Executive Director of The Treehouse Treehouse has a web site: www.wichitatreehouse.com.