There's been a lot of controversy over the years regarding the separation of church and state, but one state agency and one Missoula church are joining forces to help at-risk children.

photo by Peter Christian

Montana State Department of Child and Family Services Child Protection Specialist Courtney Callahan said the agency was approached this fall by the Missoula Alliance Church, asking how they could come alongside the organization to provide assistance for area families and children.

"My boss, regional administrator Nicole Grosberg was approached by Pastor Jeff Valentine, Jennifer Walrod and a committee of people about how they could help, as the sign on the building says, bringing it back to the community," Callahan said. "The separation of church and state is a very important concept to the agency, but we can still infiltrate these efforts that our community wants to make to help support our families in the best way that we can."

Callahan said the relationship between the local church and the state agency is still in its infancy.

"We're still in this ground-breaking stage of our process, so we still don't know what that's going to look like in its entirety," Callahan said. "We've talked about starting with small things like car repairs through the MAC Garage, providing free repairs to single mothers, or if one of our families needs work boots. It could be as tiny as a pair of shoes, to something more grandiose like a celebratory event to recognize all the families that have stepped forward to help our children and our needy families."

Montana State Department of Child and Family Services Child Protection Specialist Courtney Callahan

photo by Peter Christian

Missoula Alliance Church Pastor Jeff Valentine said that one of the important aspects of the church is to provide assistance to struggling families in the Missoula community.

"We're very excited about building a relationship with the Department of Child and Family Services in their interest in protecting at-risk kids, because we want to come alongside and support those efforts," Valentine said. "One of the things I've discovered is that is that those who get involved in foster care, 90 percent of those people are no longer involved after just one year. So, as a church, we recognize what is really needed is a family support system."

Valentine said the church has made a significant commitment to the state agency.

"We're going to be receiving an offering on Christmas Eve at our two services at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and 100 percent of the offering will be going to build an infrastructure that supports these efforts," Valentine said. "We want to build, from the ground up, a way that, when there is a need, that we can respond in a timely fashion. The goal will be $30,000, and that will be partly for the needs that children have, and partly for the staff that will be necessary to build the infrastructure to help the state and to serve the city of Missoula."

Valentine said his church is also respectful of the boundaries between the state and religious organizations.

"We recognize that the state has its objectives, and we don't want to cross over and break that trust," Valentine said. "So, in all sincerity, we want to honor those boundaries and we want to help children and families that are in foster care and have needs for support."

Missoula Alliance Church Pastor Jeff Valentine

In past years, the church has donated their Christmas Eve offering to provide gift cards and assistance for local schools and their teachers, such as Chief Charlo and Franklin Elementary, as well as to organizations that assist with local adoptions.

Valentine is hopeful that the church will donate the funds necessary for the project, as $30,000 is about 50 percent more than any previous Christmas Eve offering.