Prayer. Records reveal it was prayer that sustained Bettie Tyler, her sister Mollie, and the small orphanage they established in Middle Georgia in 1900 — the orphanage that came to be known as Hephzibah Orphanage.
In the book, “Touching Tomorrow: The Story of Hephzibah Children's Home,” Alberta Metz writes of a time not long after the sisters began taking in children that Bettie Tyler found herself in a common position: on her knees.
Metz writes: “As the months passed, Bettie felt the anguish of the lean times when faith was tested. Hearing the children cry for food and seeing the workers weak with hunger, she was driven to her knees, humbling herself before God with heartsearching and earnest prayers. Then help would come in a way that proved unmistakably that God had heard and answered.”
In 1904, the women and children were on their farmhouse-orphanage’s front porch shelling peas when they saw a tornado’s funnel cloud approaching. Hurriedly, they took shelter inside and in prayer. When the storm passed, they and the farmhouse were safe though smaller houses being built nearby for workers were destroyed.
“Those sisters plus prayer and God’s faithfulness are at the heart of Hephzibah’s story,” said Peter Bagley, executive director of what’s now Hephzibah Ministries. What was Hephzibah Orphanage is now Hephzibah Children’s Home. Hephzibah Ministries also operates other services such as Hephzibah Behavioral Services, a counseling center offering outpatient services like behavioral, mental health and substance abuse counseling to the wider community.
“Bettie and Mollie Tyler were spinster ladies of the late-1800s into the 1900s who were left with four boys to take care of following a relative’s death,” Bagley said. “They started their orphanage in a 500 to 600 square foot farmhouse they’d inherited in Bolingbroke. They just didn’t have the heart to turn children away. God kept bringing children and they ended up with a slew of kids, even children of various races.”
Bagley said though Hephzibah has changed how it operates through its 117-year history, its purpose and reliance on God and prayer remain unchanged. In fact, he said at the start of the new year friends and partners will engage in 40 days of prayer and fasting concerning challenges and opportunities in the ministry’s future.
“God has proven faithful,” he said. “Time and time again he’s proven faithful. A key instance was in 1903 when they were out of resources and wondering if God was done with the orphanage. They were at the point of having nothing to feed the children and prayed — then they did what we usually tell people not to do: they let their Bible flop open to a verse for direction. What they got was Isaiah 62:4. In the King James Bible is says, ‘Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the LORD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.’
“Hephzibah means my delight is in her and they knew the verse promised provision and protection from God. And right away, God miraculously provided food for them as he has ever since.”
Hephzibah’s story continues with the two women moving in bold faith to larger and larger facilities in Macon. Today, the ministry is located on 210 acres west of Interstate 475 on Zebulon Road.
Shirley Duncan arrived at Hephzibah as a resident in 1971 as a 13-year-old from a highly dysfunctional family. She tells her story in the book, “I Will Go On.” Duncan lived at Hephzibah, graduated Central High School, went to college, married and in 1989 began work with Hephzibah telling her story and assisting with public and church relations.
“It’s interesting talking about this now,” she said. “I’ve been thinking how I was 13 and it was my first Christmas at Hephzibah, and I’d never received a baby doll before. I also wanted a baseball glove and a guitar. I got my baby doll, guitar and a ball glove that even had my name on it. Quite an exciting day and such a different experience for me as a child. I got my first bicycle for Christmas at Hephzibah, too, the first one I could ever keep anyway. I remember as a child somehow getting a purple bicycle but also remember my alcoholic stepfather taking me and it down a trail to a creek and throwing it in. I don’t know why, but he was drunk. I remember it in the water. I wanted to go after it but I couldn’t.”
More joyfully, Duncan remembers caroling in Macon with Hephzibah children and taking treats to doctors, dentists and others who helped them throughout the year. She remembers being particularly thrilled seeing a giant Christmas tree that was always decorated on Vineville Avenue.
And she said she remember hearing about — and being part of — answers to prayer at Hephzibah.
“Right after I came I was in a room waiting for a physical while staff were over in another room praying,” she said. “I remember the director pulling out his handkerchief, wiping his eyes and saying, “We don’t have enough food to last the week.” That caught my attention. Then a phone near me rang and I answered it and got the director. People from Piggly Wiggly were calling and told our director their freezers had gone out overnight and they wanted to know if we could take the food before it spoiled. Can you imagine the impression that made on me?”
Bagley said he feels the impact of such a heritage.
“We still pray earnestly day to day ourselves, but I believe we’re still living and serving children out of the investment of all those prayers through the years,” he said. “That’s a crucial part of our heritage.”
He said added to prayer is the ministry’s simple desire to serve children in the best way possible in the time in which they live.
“We’re a Christian ministry and never ashamed of the gospel,” he said. “We and our partners — donors who give $2 and others who can give much more — are continually looking to God and seeing him multiply what we can do. Times have changed from Hephzibah’s early days, but God is the same and continues to give us ways to care for children in need.”
Part of the change is reflected in Hephzibah’s name change from orphanage to children’s home and the rise of terms like “true orphan” and “child needing services.” Bagley said with federal and state governments, regulations and agencies playing the predominant role in children, family and social services, most true orphans, those actually without parents, are in foster care. He said children needing services describes an array of kids needed help such as living arrangements and behavioral, mental health or other specific care. These children may come from the foster care system, court orders or direct placement. Bagley said in Georgia, children under 12 are not allowed in congregate care or group homes such as at Hephzibah so children there are primarily 12-18.
Hephzibah itself is an auxiliary ministry of the Wesleyan Church International and governed by a volunteer board of directors who elect a chief executive officer. Bagley said there are currently 34 at Hephzibah Children’s Home but that more than 100 have been in residential care throughout the year. Some return to families, which is always a goal, others have transferred and others have become too old to remain.
Bagley said in the eight years he’s been at Hephzibah there’s not been a time when there hasn’t been at least one child receiving care after having been involved in child sex trafficking.
Hephzibah also operates a young mother’s home where there are currently 12 residents.
“We’re pleased to honor young mothers and help in their choice not to have an abortion,” he said. “We care for them and work with them to develop personal, life and parenting skills. Some come having been raped, even raped by a family member. Others have been trafficked, even trafficked by a family member. Some have been kicked out of homes — they really come for all different reasons. Some here are expecting and others are with their babies. There are three newborns here right now. That helped it feel a lot like Christmas around here.”
However it happens, staff at Hephzibah are in place to continue the work started by the two sisters. Through prayer and through the best methods of care, Bagley said they remain committed to serving children through Christ’s love.
“However we provide care, whatever services we give, a lot of those we care for are just children who if they weren’t here, they’d be falling through the cracks and not getting the services, the love and the care they need,” he said. “I’m grateful to have staff and volunteers that see the importance of loving these kids as part of providing them services. Some kids may not have suffered intentional neglect or abuse, but may just have been in homes where there weren’t the skills or the resources to look after them physically or emotionally. Sometimes their struggles are insurmountable and there’s no family or friends to help. But we’re here. God has put us here to help them.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.
Hephzibah Ministries-Hephzibah Children’s Home
Address: 6601 Zebulon Rd., Macon, Ga. 31220
Leadership: Peter Bagley, executive director