Shunned and stigmatized, single mothers are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the church. How can we respond to their unique needs?

Tina was a 16-year-old, all-around athletic high-school student. When she wasn't cheerleading or hurdling her way through track meets, she was breaking records in volleyball and gymnastics. And like most teenagers her age, she enjoyed shopping at the local mall with her buddies and talking on the telephone.

But what really put the sparkle in Tina's eye was her new boyfriend. Her feelings for him started as a typical high-school crush, but they soon led her to sneak out of the house--not just to happily spend more time with him, but also to escape an abusive family environment. Her father had murdered her mother in a heated argument when Tina was just under 5 years old.

Tina's search for unconditional love would make her a statistic just like millions of other women before her--she soon got pregnant and had an abortion.

Two years later, in 1983, the 18-year-old found herself in the same predicament. She had met a man, gotten pregnant and had had a second abortion. One year later, Tina realized she was pregnant with a third unwanted child, but this time God intervened.

Her friend had a dream about blood flowing from someone, but she didn't know who. Tina recommended that her friend discuss the dream with her pastor. His interpretation: Tell your friend Tina not to send God any more babies.

Tina had already made an appointment for a third abortion, but the pastor's words were convicting. "I just couldn't bring myself to have another abortion. I just couldn't do it," she says.

Tina House, who's now 38 and lives in Orlando, Florida, says she surrendered her will to God and decided to have the baby. Nine months later she gave birth to twin girls.

Her decision had broader implications than she had imagined. She not only had the responsibility of caring for two children; she had to do it on her own.

Brenda Ajamian's story has a different beginning but a similar ending. Married to a minister for 24 years, Brenda lived in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with her husband and their three children. Early in their marriage, the Ajamians had worked as missionaries in the Middle East.

The two were outwardly a doting couple held in high regard among members in their hometown church. That quickly changed in 1990, when her husband moved out of the house after it was discovered that he was having an affair with a woman from Taiwan.

"My husband was teaching English as a second language in the public school system when he became interested in a woman 15 years his junior," Brenda recalls.

Brenda was fearful at the thought of having to care for her family alone, but she was devastated to learn that her husband's mistress deliberately came to the United States to marry an American who could secure visas for her children.

Out of desperation, Brenda says she turned to her pastor and other church members for counseling and emotional support. Instead of receiving love and understanding from people, she was hurt by their cold responses.

"The pastor treated me as if I had done something wrong, like it was my fault that my husband was cheating on me," she says.

Like many other women, Brenda was facing the reality not just of being the sole provider for her family, but also of discovering that some Christians would now treat her differently.

For single moms who have been widowed, the circumstances are often different. They don't face the stigma of having had a divorce or an unwed pregnancy, and churches tend to respond to them with more compassion. Though they face many of the same financial struggles other single parents deal with, several widows say churches were quick to meet their immediate needs, including funeral costs, food and grief counseling. However, they said churches were not as committed to helping them in the years that followed.

After interviewing several single parents, Charisma discovered that they and their children are among the most needy families in the body of Christ. They all face the same difficult tasks of paying the mortgage, buying a car, pulling double shifts at work, feeding their families and maintaining an emotionally healthy life.

In addition, many of these parents worry that their children will become statistics or will not have the same advantages as children from two-parent households. They say they can't spread themselves thin enough, and many are afraid to make major decisions, such as big purchases, lest they make a mistake.

Some also feel a sense of guilt for their predicaments. They're hoping Christians across the country will take note that there's more to their story. The role of "single parent" falls on people from all racial, economic and denominational backgrounds. It plays no favorites--except perhaps in the church, where indications are single parents are made to feel they don't measure up to traditional families.

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