By Crystal Kupper
The word grandma used to be very scary for Jayme Walker Hill’s foster daughter.
“Any time I would talk about my grandma,” said Hill, her foster daughter would share from her own life experience, saying, ‘My grandma was mean.’”
“We would try to avoid that word, but she would still cry and be very fearful around older women.”
Hill and her husband soon learned that their new foster daughter had been abused by her former adoptive parents, an older couple. The girl, now 19, operates at about the mental level of an 8-year-old.
But this isn’t a sad story about abuse and neglect. It’s a story about how Hill’s foster daughter—and hundreds like her from around the state and world—have found their healing and their families in a small town in western Oregon.
This is a story about Creswell, a dot on the map but a giant in the history of international adoption. And the more you study Creswell and its current ties to orphan care, the more you’ll run across Creswell Church of Christ, an oddly shaped church at the top of Holbrook hill.
This is a story, then, about a country congregation that lives out its orphan-centered history and faith in the biggest ways possible.
Nestled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Creswell is a growing city of about 5,400. It’s known as a basketball town; uber-successful Gonzaga University men’s coach Mark Few grew up here, as did Luke Jackson, a first-round NBA draft pick in 2004 (the Jackson family, coincidentally, are longtime church of Christ members).
But before Creswell was winning high school basketball championships, two seminal events occurred: Creswell Church of Christ was founded in 1903, and Bertha and Harry Holt moved into town 34 years later.
The Holts were farmers from South Dakota who opened a sawmill in Creswell and farmed a few miles south with their six children. After the Korean War, the couple, who were already in their 50s, saw a documentary about abandoned war orphans in South Korea. It devastated them.
So they made a big move, adopting eight of those orphans. But before that was possible, both houses of Congress had to change federal law. Finally, in 1955, it all came together, as Congress passed the Bill for Relief of Certain War Orphans, or the “Holt Bill.”
Before long, four Korean boys and four Korean girls became Holts and American citizens. The nation couldn’t get enough of the 16-member farm family, with Look and Life magazines among the horde constantly clamoring for photos and updates.
Just like that, Creswell’s reputation for caring for the parentless was born. It only grew when Bertha and Harry founded Holt International a year later; today it is one of the most established and well-known adoption agencies in the country. The organization has placed more than 40,000 children from Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe with adoptive families. It also works worldwide through child-sponsorship opportunities, family-preservation services and child homelessness-prevention efforts, affecting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children in total.
As the years passed, spurred on by the Holts’ legacy, everyday joes taking care of kids without families became a normal part of Creswell life. The town’s residents started adopting, fostering, volunteering for orphan-related causes, and doing whatever else they could to help the parentless.
Creswell Church of Christ soon fell in step, with blended families filling the pews each Sunday.
Dave Stram became pastor at the church in 1982. A few years in, a family who adopted through Holt International started attending, giving the Strams an up-close look at what life with an internationally adopted child might look like.
The connection grew stronger when one of the Holts’ “original eight,” an adopted daughter, began attending Creswell Church of Christ. The Strams were moved to action, and in 1995, they brought their daughter Kayla home from Thailand through Holt International.
Bertha, the matriarch of the Holt family—she was known as Grandma Holt—had seemingly boundless energy, Stram recalled, and a never-ending love for Christ’s littlest.
“She wrote all these letters to children every day, and she got up early in the morning and went for a jog,” Stram said, noting that Bertha set a 400-meter dash record as a nonagenarian. “She also had an amazing discipline for reading the Scriptures.”
Harry passed away in 1964 after a heart attack, but Bertha remained active in the adoption world until her heavenly homecoming in 2000. Stram prayed at her bedside the day before she passed, and Kayla, alongside other Holt adoptees, placed a rose on Grandma Holt’s casket.
The legacy of orphan care weighed heavily on Stram when he retired from pastoring in 2012 and became Creswell’s mayor the following year. When visitors came to City Hall, he always made a point of showing them a gigantic quilt depicting scenes from Creswell’s history.
“One corner featured Harry and Bertha Holt, and I would talk briefly about their legacy of adoption and how the international adoption movement really began in Creswell,” Stram said. “I would take the opportunity to talk specifically about our spiritual heritage of reaching out to children around the state and world.”
Creswell Church of Christ’s next (and current) pastor kept up the tradition. Pastor Doug Allison and his wife have adopted all four of their children domestically. To them, it just made biblical sense.
“You have the [Great Commission] of go and teach and baptize, and you have the [Great Commandment] to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Allison said. “You also have James 1:27: ‘Pure religion is to take care of orphans and widows.’ Taking care of children who have no parents is too obvious.”
Blended families were a part of Creswell Church of Christ each Sunday, but Allison knew his church could do more.
During only his second sermon, the pastor asked his new congregation one simple question: If Creswell Church of Christ shut down that very day, what would the town of Creswell miss? Several awkward seconds of silence followed. No one knew what to say.
So Allison and his flock got down to work.
“We went around to all our members—which wasn’t difficult, because we didn’t have very many at the time—and said, ‘What do you think Creswell needs? What are the biggest problem areas? What’s the biggest ministry that’s just sitting there?’” Allison recalled. “The answer was families with kids, and kids with no families.”
The church developed a formal 20-year vision to help Creswell become a better place, one child and family at a time. A flurry of kid-centered initiatives resulted: an intergenerational reading program at the local elementary school, a weekend food bank for the town’s neediest children, a kid-focused clothing service, free home renovations every spring for hurting Creswell families with children.
And as the months turned into years, another subtle trend emerged: Creswell Church of Christ’s growing number of weekly attendees—about 175 now, including children—could be very creative in their orphan care efforts.
“We began to be Jesus with skin on to these kids,” Allison said.
One family adopted several children from Ukraine and local foster care, then began a life skills/livestock program for foster children and former orphanage residents. Another invited those kids to an apple cider workshop at their farm. Yet another hosted four siblings from an Eastern European orphanage to help them find an adoptive family.
The number of “regular” foster and adoptive foster families kept growing, too. In 2015, Jayme Walker Hill heard about this church that loved taking care of orphans, and the idea intrigued her.
“I was constantly hearing from people in the community about how accepting this church was, and how their vision and goal was to make Creswell better,” Hill said. “That’s exactly what [my husband and I] were trying to do.”
The Hill family started attending and soon had two permanent foster daughters, young women with such extreme physical and mental needs that the state essentially deemed them unadoptable. One often claps or stands in the middle of the sermon, “but Doug doesn’t bat an eye,” Hill said. “She’s able to be herself, and if she has a seizure in service, everyone is very kind.”
The older one—once so afraid of elderly women because of her one-time adoptive mother—now calls the pastoral care minister “Grandma.” Other congregants lavish her with stuffed animals (her favorite) and Sunday trips to the ice cream parlor.
Creswell’s reputation is still crossing borders. Hill’s county caseworker is “always dumbfounded” by the high number of foster families there, she said.
“It makes me feel like I’m in the place I’m supposed to be,” Hill said, “like there’s a kindred spirit here, and there’s an ability to continue that legacy of the Holts. Each Sunday, I look around and see all these adoptive and foster families, and I know this is obviously where we should be.”
Let the little children come, indeed—and let them come to Creswell.
Crystal Kupper is a freelance writer, military wife, marathon runner, mother of four, and native Creswellian. Inspired by the Holts, she and her American Ninja Warrior husband, Nickolas, adopted a daughter from Armenia in 2016.