POSSUM TROT, Texas – When a small-town pastor persuaded his congregation to adopt 72 of the most abused and neglected foster children in Texas, the church won praise and publicity from Oprah, People magazine and a reality television show.
A decade later, the families who took part are struggling to raise troubled children in a poor, rural town. And Bishop W.C. Martin is frustrated by the lack of support his black church has received from surrounding communities, which are mostly white.
"Do you think for one moment they recognized us?" Martin said, his voice rising like he's delivering a Sunday sermon. "For being the entity that brought the type of recognition to this town? Nothing. Not even a thank-you letter. It's pitiful."
In 1998, Martin exhorted his Baptist congregation of 200 members to adopt six dozen children from foster care. The kids had been abused and abandoned and would be a challenge to raise.
Two of the children had been found eating from trash cans in Dallas. Baths terrified one small boy who had been punished with scalding water. One 5-year-old girl had been raped by her mother's boyfriend.
Raising children with such physical and emotional scars would be difficult for any parents. But it presented special hardships in Possum Trot, a backwoods town of clapboard shacks and trailers about 160 miles northeast of Houston. Many of its residents earn meager paychecks carving up chickens at a nearby poultry plant.
"These parents are having a hard time with these kids. They come with some baggage that is unbelievable," Martin said. "It's not easy. Everybody looks at it and says, 'Ooh, you're doing such a wonderful thing.'
"Yes it is. But nobody knows how we feel on the inside. What is going on to make us sometime have to go somewhere and sit down and say, 'How did I get into this?"'
The last child was adopted in 2003. Although state officials have continued to hold parenting classes for adoptive couples, no new children have been taken in.
Martin's frustration is growing. Another area church leader said things "got a little ugly" at a meeting of ministers when Martin became flustered over how churches were spending their resources.
"He feels like he's the only one doing so much. But he's not the only one doing things," said the Rev. Michael Hale of First Baptist Church.
Meanwhile, the kids have turned out better than many people expected. Some steal and cut school, but so far that's the worst of their behavior.
"You can't stop them from acting out. This is what they've been through," said Ricky R. Cartwright, 44, who adopted three children. "What they've seen, we don't know. All we can do is read a file. But things trigger them. It's something they've been through in life."
When it began, the project drew attention from Oprah Winfrey, national news programs and Reader's Digest. Prominent religious leaders such as James Dobson and Pat Robertson toasted Possum Trot for its efforts.
Well-known visitors still stop by. Kay Warren, the wife of megachurch leader Rev. Rick Warren, is visiting next month.
The attention is gratifying, Martin said, but he gets no such praise from his own community.
A reality show titled "Renovate My Family" camped in frigid rain and wind for three weeks to build Possum Trot's adoptive families a gymnasium and learning center.
Four years later, Martin says, the church cannot pay the utility bills for the center.
Last year, Dobson's Focus on the Family ministry published a short biography titled "Small Town, Big Miracle" about Possum Trot. But some adoptive families say their own neighbors will not pick it up.
"I can to go to Nacogdoches and be talking about the book, and people don't know anything about it," said Diann Sparks, referring to a town 30 miles away.
Martin's wife, Donna, says God told her to adopt foster children after her mother died. She does not expect anything from the community.
"I meet people on the street. I greet them. I feel that people should give from the heart or respond to whatever means something to them."
The Possum Trot families have long been shadowed by whispers that they adopted the children merely to cash in on state assistance checks.
And county leaders say deep-rooted racism could also explain why some have not embraced Martin's church despite its national prominence.
Shelby County Judge John Tomlin, the county's highest elected official, called race a "big-time" issue. He agreed the area has not embraced Possum Trot, but he would not speculate why.
"If he sees he can take care of a child and make a little money on the side, I don't have a problem with that," Tomlin said. "I don't really believe that's his motivation. I think he's a man of God."
Martin said the community has "some good people." But, he added, "the racism is out on both sides, black and white sides."
He hopes his neighbors will reconsider their attitudes after Kay Warren visits town next month.
"I'm hoping through God she will help bring more unity in the county," Martin said. "If we get the love and compassion for one another, I think everything else will fall in place."