ENID, Okla. — Oakwood Christian Church is looking for other congregations in Enid to partner with them in Embrace Grace, a program designed to give love and support to young women in unplanned pregnancies.
According to the Embrace Grace website, the group, started in 2012, now has more than 650 active support groups and more than 6,000 program graduates who "have been empowered to learn how to have hope again."
The program aims for "every girl with an unplanned pregnancy to have a church to go to for spiritual, emotional and physical support," according to the website.
Tangee Lee, who started the program at Oakwood Christian, said she first learned of Embrace Grace through Journey House pregnancy resource center, where her husband, Dr. Chris Lee, D.O., is the medical director.
About a year ago, Journey House executive director Amy Voth brought materials on Embrace Grace back to Enid from a conference.
"I started looking at the material, and it brought tears to my eyes," Lee said. "I have a very strong love for these women."
Lee said she immediately felt a connection to the young women Embrace Grace aims to help, because of her own experience. When she was 21, a single college student, Lee became pregnant with her oldest child.
At the time, she was assisting as a youth pastor at her church, was involved in Baptist Student Union and was helping lead college ministry at a second church. However, when she became pregnant, she didn't feel she belonged at church any longer.
"In a time when I needed the church the most, I felt ostracized and pushed out," she said. "I didn't want to be a part of the church anymore."
Looking back, she said she can't recall anyone doing anything to make her feel that way, but the social and religious stigma surrounding unwed mothers made her feel uncomfortable within the walls of a church.
"I was very ashamed," Lee said, "so I wasn't going back to church in college, huge-pregnant and single."
She wanted to begin Embrace Grace at Oakwood Christian to help break down that fear and stigma that can keep young women out of church, at precisely the time they need faith and a church family the most.
"We want to break that stigma that's been built up in society that the church is judgmental and you have to be perfect to be in church," Lee said, "because no-one in this church is perfect."
Lee's oldest daughter now is 18 and a freshman at Oklahoma State University, and Lee has had a successful career, marriage and family in the church. She hopes other young mothers-to-be in Embrace Grace will "see what the future can hold for them."
Leah Seibel, who is helping Lee run the program, said she also was drawn to Embrace Grace because of personal experience.
When Leah's husband, Alan Seibel, was lead pastor at Davis Park Christian Church, the couple's unmarried daughter unexpectedly became pregnant.
"My husband was the pastor of the church, and my daughter came home from college pregnant," Leah said. "We were worried about how people would react, and we were most worried about how it would impact our daughter's relationship with the church."
Leah said the congregation reacted in the way she wants other young women to be treated in church.
"The church really embraced and loved her, and accepted her, and threw her the biggest baby shower we'd ever had," Leah said.
That kind of grace and love pays forward in dividends of faith, Leah said, hoping that Embrace Grace will grow so more young unwed mothers can experience the grace that was shown to her own daughter.
Alan Seibel, now associate pastor at Oakwood Christian, said Embrace Grace is a needed ministry in the Enid community, in a county that has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.
"We just have a heart to help these moms who've found themselves in the place of an unplanned pregnancy," Alan said, "and we're excited for this ministry."
He said Oakwood Christian was a natural fit for Embrace Grace, because the church already works closely with Journey House and the Parenting Ministry at Hope Outreach, which allows all three organizations to coordinate efforts and avoid duplication of services.
When the program was announced to the congregation, another tie to Embrace Grace was discovered. Leah said "an army of women" came forward from the congregation to volunteer, and to share — many of them for the first time — their own experiences with unplanned, unwed pregnancies.
"I had no idea so many of the women here had experienced that in their lives," Leah said, "but they just opened up their hearts and their arms to love and support these women."
The program, which has proven to be healing for both young mothers-to-be and the volunteers, started earlier this fall and runs for 12 weeks. Each 12-week session can have up to five women, and meets Sundays at 9 a.m. No more women can enroll after the third week of the program, which already has passed. Lee said another session is scheduled to begin Feb. 2, 2020.
Enrollees must be unmarried and in an unexpected pregnancy. Lee said women estranged from their husbands due to domestic violence situations also would be allowed to enroll in the class, and women can participate whether they plan to put their baby up for adoption or raise their baby. If a woman enrolls in the program, and subsequently decides to have an abortion, Lee said she hopes the woman would want to remain in the program "to show her God's love and grace."
The program runs on a video-based curriculum, along with workbooks and discussions. Participants who complete at least 76% of the classwork receive a free baby shower, to provide them with essential items needed after their baby is born, and also a surprise "special day" of pampering. Women enrolled in the program are not required to attend worship services, and do not need to be from a specific, or any, faith background, Lee said.
The real aim of the program, Lee said, is to show Christian love where it is needed.
"That's what this whole program is for, is to show them they are loved and their baby is chosen and loved," Lee said. "We don't want them to feel ostracized. We want them to feel welcome and loved.
"No matter what their journey is, or what their past is, it's a place where there's love and not judgment, and they can experience forgiveness," Leah added. "It may be the first time they've felt that during their life."
They're hoping to expand the program to other churches in the community, so programs can be coordinated to commence more frequently, and so women have more diverse options on denomination and style of worship, should they choose to attend church at the congregation hosting Embrace Grace.
The next-closest Embrace Grace program currently is in Oklahoma City, and Lee said it's foreseeable, given the demand in Enid, "we could end up turning girls away, and we don't want to do that."
Embrace Grace is a non-denominational program. Women desiring to lead or teach in Embrace Grace must complete a telephone interview and congregation assessment with the organization, then order curriculum materials and complete about 12 hours of online training.
Churches that aren't in a position to start an Embrace Grace program still can support the effort, Lee said, by helping cover the cost of baby showers. Lee said each shower, for each woman in the program, costs about $350.
Tax-deductible donations to support the Embrace Grace ministry can be sent to Oakwood Christian Church, 401 N. Oakwood Road, Enid, OK, 73703, with "Embrace Grace" in the memo line of the check.
For information on Embrace Grace, go to https://embracegrace.com or call Tangee Lee at (580) 931-7666.