A maternity ranch is born

ARGYLE, Tex. — The vision had come as she was driving home from the Kroger, and it was so sudden and fully formed that Aubrey Schlackman began to tell people that “it was like God placed it in my head.”

This was last year, a time when abortion was still widely available in Texas and Aubrey was one more young mother joining the midmorning traffic along Farm to Market 407 in the growing suburbs north of Dallas. She passed the Starbucks. She passed the AT&T store. She was thinking about getting her two young boys down for a nap when she reached a pleasant stretch of land bordered by a long split-rail fence, and this is when the idea came.

“A maternity ranch,” she thought, and she could practically see it through her windshield.

It would be a place for struggling pregnant women who decide to have their babies instead of having abortions, a Christian haven where women could live stress-free during their newborn’s first year of life. It would have individual cottages for mothers. “Host homes” for couples who would model healthy marriages. A communal barn for meals. Bible study. The whole plan was clear, and when she told her husband later that night, he said, “Yes, this is what we’re supposed to do.”

Now it was September of this year, and Aubrey was bringing her vision to life outside a coffee shop on a perfect Dallas morning. She was setting up a table. She was putting out stacks of pastel-hued postcards with photos of women and babies. She was propping up a sign that read, “Blue Haven Ranch” and “Donate Today.” Her goal was $10,000, and her sense of urgency was growing because of all that had happened up until this point.

Four months before, Texas legislators passed a bill outlawing most abortions in the state.

Three weeks before, the law had taken effect, and though it was being challenged in court, a similarly restrictive Mississippi law was headed to the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in decades.

The growing sense among evangelical Christians was that the end of Roe v. Wade was no longer a dim possibility but a near certainty. The time had come for the next phase — a new era in America when the church would establish a kind of Christian social safety net where motherhood was not only supported but also exalted as part of God’s plan for the universe.

Increasingly, this was the cause mobilizing the megachurches rising across the Texas suburbs, most especially an emerging network of women who flocked to them, and Aubrey Schlackman was part of this vanguard. Her project was gathering momentum, and in front of the coffee shop, she was greeting her first prospective donor of the day.

“Morning, we’re a local nonprofit supporting single pregnant moms,” she said to a young woman who read the sign, studied the postcard and responded without hesitation.

“Such a blessing,” she said. “Do you take checks?”

To be a woman such as Aubrey Schlackman, in a state such as Texas, at a moment such as this, was to be a cultural force behind what part of America was becoming.

She was a 34-year-old mother of two who wore her long hair in a ponytail and baseball cap and did not meet all the expectations that could come with the label White evangelical Christian. She said she could not bring herself to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, for instance, though she voted for him in the 2020 election. She hardly ever watched cable news. She was not convinced that the Texas law known as the heartbeat law — which bans almost all abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — or any law, was necessarily the best way to end abortion.

What she did believe was that abortion had led to a “genocide of children.” She believed that the best path to ending it was not only to support women but to also help them to see themselves as God intended. And Aubrey believed, as she often said, that “belief requires action,” and in this way, she was a mainstream evangelical woman, one who saw herself as suited and maybe even destined for the moment at hand.

The moment was one preceded by a long and complicated history. The idea of providing a place for single, pregnant women harked to a time before abortion became legal and so-called “homes for unwed mothers” were often the only option for women — mostly White women — to give birth in secrecy and avoid social scandal. The homes were often run by institutions such as The Salvation Army, orders of Catholic nuns, and evangelical churches. They were often bleak places where women were assumed to need reform and were sometimes abused and shamed, the kind of subjugation that advocates of legal abortion aimed to end.

None of which Aubrey had in mind as she envisioned her own maternity ranch in almost utopian terms. To her, it would be a place of liberation and Christian development in accord with the beliefs she had refined at her church, one of the many popular megachurches in suburban Dallas that tended to be conservative in values, modern in style, with praise bands, coffee shops and names such as the Door and the Well.

Hers was called the Village Church, a congregation of roughly 3,500 people whose mission included advancing the idea of a divine social order the pastor often called “God’s beautiful design.” The question of how abortion fit into this order was intertwined with the question of how women fit in — and this was a matter that had become so fraught within the evangelical world that in 2017, her church issued its own 64-page statement on the subject with 218 footnotes and a five-page bibliography.

It affirmed that God created two genders, male and female, who were “equal in essence, dignity and value” while having “different yet complementary roles.” Men were meant to be “protectors” and “providers.” Women were meant to be “helpers” and “life givers.” In the church, this meant that the top leadership roles were reserved for men. In Christian marriage, which the church defined as being between a man and a woman, it meant that men were to lead. In politics, it meant a relentless focus on ending abortion, which the church viewed as not only murder but also a grotesque distortion of God’s plan for humanity.

The church devoted a special week of prayer to the issue at the start of each year. It hosted donation drives for diapers and maternity clothes. It hosted a ministry called YoungLives in which members mentored pregnant teenagers. It offered “recovery groups” that were advertised on the stalls in women’s bathrooms.

“Are you considering abortion or struggling from the effects of past abortion? Know that God loves you, redeems, and heals,” read one.

Aubrey embraced all of this, and if she sometimes had questions, her reaction was to try harder to understand what she believed to be God’s wisdom. She attended Bible study every week. She went to church every Sunday, including a recent service that culminated with a young woman stepping into the baptismal pool at the front of the sanctuary and reading a statement, her voice shaking. The woman explained that she’d had an abortion in college, and how she had felt “the guilt and shame of that” until she found the grace of Jesus.

“And now I am free,” she said, and when the young woman rose from the water, Aubrey wiped away tears and joined the congregation in a standing ovation.

She was there on a Sunday after the heartbeat law took effect, when her pastor addressed questions that he was getting about the proper Christian response to women who become pregnant after being raped or trapped in abusive situations.

“My heart breaks for that,” he told the congregation. “But the answer can’t be, ‘Well let’s kill the baby.’ The church’s answer is, ‘Let us come alongside you and love you and walk with you and help you in any way we can with our money, with our houses, with our homes.’ ”

As she heard the words, Aubrey felt a wave of encouragement. It was exactly what she and her husband, Bryan, were already trying to do.

Their home was a beige brick fixer-upper in a town called Argyle, roughly 30 miles northwest of Dallas. It had a gray Ford Explorer in the driveway and a welcome wreath on the front door, and inside was an open floor plan renovated in the modern-rustic style of the Christian HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. White shiplap walls. Tile floors resembling rough-hewed planks. A farmhouse table. Built-in bookcases with titles such as “Every Woman’s Desire” and “Try Softer,” classics of modern evangelical literature that advanced a certain kind of Christian womanhood, Christian manhood and Christian marriage. On a wall was a giant photo of Bryan hugging Aubrey in the sun.

The house also had an extra, fourth bedroom, and this was the main reason they had chosen it, a decision that had come before Aubrey had her vision, before the heartbeat law passed, before the Schlackmans had come to believe that building a maternity ranch was God’s plan for their lives.

What they were sure of from the start was that they wanted a house with room to welcome the stranger, as the Bible commanded. That was the kind of family they wanted to be, which was in keeping with the kind of person Aubrey had always wanted to be.

She was the good daughter, the dutiful one who grew up absorbing the basics set forth on Sundays all over evangelical America, including in her hometown of Amarillo, Tex.: follow God’s plan and earn eternal salvation; rebel and face eternal suffering. She was 10 years old when she made her choice, standing behind the thick curtain of a baptismal pool, a hymn called “As the Deer Panteth for the Water” playing, and when she emerged, she recalled feeling nothing more holy than the warm approval of the parents she loved and a congregation that welcomed her as a child of God.

She became a good teenager, the kind who went to youth group, and spent summers at the Christian camp her grandfather founded, and as Aubrey described the rest of her upbringing, “If I could think of a picturesque American childhood, mine was pretty close.”

After that came college, Dallas and her first serious feeling of rebellion, in the form of a boyfriend Aubrey described as “not like anyone I’d ever known,” who fell out of the picture after Bryan wrote her a love letter that began, “I just thought I could encourage you less with how I see you and more how I know God sees you.”

Ten years into the marriage, there were times when Aubrey chafed at what she believed God required of her. She struggled with the concept of submitting to Bryan’s leadership, though his earnest and self-deprecating manner made it easier. She did not love being pregnant, especially after suffering an excruciating form of rheumatoid arthritis probably triggered by the birth of her first son. The condition left her so racked with pain that she would sometimes sit at the edge of her bed at night and cry, thinking, “I could kill myself, but then I’m leaving my husband and my son,” and understanding why women with less support than she had might choose to have an abortion. But the lesson she ultimately took from the episode was not about politics or God’s indifference, but rather “what God did to humble me.”

“I realized my life is not really mine,” she said.

To remind herself, she got a tattoo on her right forearm referencing a favorite line of a favorite hymn about “bowing in humble adoration.”

And that was who Aubrey Schlackman had become by the time she and Bryan moved into the house in Argyle, where one day Bryan came home and told her that God had put it on his heart that the kind of stranger that they should welcome was a single pregnant woman.

“He was really specific,” said Aubrey. “I was like, ‘Well, okay then.’ ”

After that came the morning when Aubrey had her own vision, which was so vivid that she posted a description of it on Facebook. To her surprise, she was soon flooded with messages from women who were in so many ways versions of herself — evangelical women pursuing what they considered to be God-given missions.

She met a woman from church who founded a nonprofit called the Sparrow Collective, whose mission was to “help women identify their God-given significance,” and who was rehabbing an old building into a modern-rustic wedding venue. She met a Christian blogger and purveyor of essential oils whose mission was “helping women show up for their lives.” She met a woman writing a book called “Breathe, Broken Soul” about being saved from a life of drugs and multiple abortions. She met Christian doulas, Christian photographers and Christian Instagrammers — a juggernaut of evangelical Christian womanhood ready to absorb a fresh tide of desperate women into their fold.

“It was one of the many affirmations that this idea that God has given me is the path that I’m supposed to take,” Aubrey said.

She began working with a Christian consultant who helped women set up nonprofits to do “Kingdom-advancing work.” Before long, she had a sleek website, 501(c)(3) status, and a mission statement of her own: “Supportive community, gospel discipleship, and farm therapy for single pregnant mothers with children.” Her pastor endorsed the project. An anonymous donor gave seed money, enough to start a first phase: financial assistance for four single pregnant women, along with a Monday meal and discipleship in the Schlackmans’ home.

By January, they were looking for women in need of help, and one day Bryan ran into a neighbor in the grocery store. He knew her as a housekeeper and single mother of two teenage children, and when he noticed that she looked different, he took the liberty of asking whether she was pregnant. She became the first participant, and as word spread, they added three more in various stages of pregnancy: a 33-year-old manager of a RaceTrac gas station; a 27-year-old who worked as a medical biller; a hairdresser hiding from an abusive boyfriend. They all signed agreements to participate in a series of activities, starting with a 12-week Bible study.

By September, three babies had been born. And on a Monday evening, the women gathered in the Schlackmans’ living room for the Week 9 topic, “allowing Christ to set you free.” They’d each had their own baby shower. They’d gotten help with bills, rent and broken-down cars, and all had pregnancy portraits — a professional photo shoot in which they wore flowing goddess gowns.

“You look angelic,” one of the women was saying now, looking at photos of the housekeeper in a long, sheer ivory dress.

Aubrey’s regular volunteers, a few women she knew from church and CrossFit, were cooking a family meal in the kitchen, and the whole thing was beginning to take on an air of normalcy. Aubrey felt good about how things were going, and after the heartbeat law took effect, she began getting more and more inquiries.

“Hi, I am currently in a Fort Worth shelter since August,” began one message.

“Good morning, I have a student that may possibly need assistance,” read another.

“Looking for help.”

It wasn’t just Aubrey getting more inquiries. It was the same across evangelical Texas, and at a megachurch in Dallas called Watermark one afternoon, several hundred people, mostly women, gathered to discuss what the moment was becoming and how they should respond.

“Women are calling in very panicked,” reported a nurse who worked at a health clinic.

“We are trying to connect,” said another nurse. “And not just by saying, ‘You can do this,’ but by saying, ‘Here, we have a list of 150 resources for you in the area.’ ”

“We have to show that we are not just pointing our bony fingers,” said another woman.

“We want to lead them to Christ because that’s what they are going to bring back to their communities,” said another.

“We have to say, ‘You are created to do this. Your body is meant to do this.’ ”

Bruce Kendrick, the director of Life Initiatives at Watermark and host of the event, tried to impress upon the crowd the immensity of what the moment required of them. He said that he and his wife had already adopted four foster children — they also had five biological kids — and that such needs were sure to skyrocket. He compared the coming era to the end of slavery.

“Look at the years after abolition — that wasn’t the end,” he said. “They had to work to change society, to change hearts and minds, and we’re still dealing with that today. I think we will see a similar battle ahead. There’s going to be a major shift in our culture to a new normal.”

More and more, Aubrey saw herself as part of the cultural shift. She was already starting a waiting list for her program. She realized she was going to need more space, and contacted a church near her house about hosting the program until she had raised enough money to buy land, and the next Sunday, a church elder was introducing her to the congregation.

By then, she had a video to show potential supporters, and she watched as it played on a huge screen — scenes of the women in her living room, their pregnancy portraits, a clip of her two boys running out into an open field.

“A new life sanctuary,” Aubrey said in the video, her voice now filling the auditorium.

“Amen,” came the response.

“I love what you’re doing,” a woman said afterward.

The next Monday, Aubrey moved the program inside the church.

The volunteers began cooking the family meal in the industrial-size kitchen, while the women in the program sat around tables in an adjacent room, talking about what it had been like to be in Aubrey’s world so far.

“They’ve encouraged me that getting pregnant wasn’t just a mistake — that God wanted that for you,” one of the women said, referring to Aubrey and her volunteers. “I’ve learned I don’t have to feel shame — that shame and guilt is the enemy talking, not God talking.”

“The Bible lessons showed me that choosing your child over whatever circumstances you’re in — that God is giving you this child as a blessing, to let you know you are worth something in this world,” said another.

“I’ve gotten love,” said another. “Companionship. I’m growing closer to God. I’m getting to figure out my purpose in life — I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I know there is something.”

She had started going to the Village Church. She had started thinking that her purpose might be to work at the ranch and minister to other women. In so many ways, she was becoming more like Aubrey, who was now coming into the room, handing out little white pouches, a gift for completing the recent Bible study unit on breaking the chains of the past.

Inside were silver bracelets engraved with the words, “I am free.” The women looked at them for a moment, and then they put them on.

A few days later, Aubrey was setting up the table outside the coffee shop.

She leaned the Blue Haven Ranch sign against a wall. She set out the postcards with a QR code linking to her website. It was North Texas Giving Day, an annual event to help local nonprofits, and her cause had been advertised widely for the past week. When she opened her laptop to the fundraising page, it showed that she’d already raised more than $6,000.

“Good morning,” she said to a man who stopped to read the sign. “We’re a local nonprofit supporting single pregnant moms. You live around here?”

“Harvest,” he said, referring to one of the newer developments.

“Cool, well, we’re called Blue Haven Ranch,” Aubrey began explaining, and he donated.

“Yes, the timing is incredible,” Aubrey said to the next person, and she donated.

“It’s like once they have the baby, that’s when the real help is needed,” she said to the next person, who handed her a check, and after a while, there was a small group of young women standing around the table talking.

“Have you heard of MOPS?” one of the women said, referring to a group called Mothers of Preschoolers. “It’s a Christian organization where moms get together with other seasoned moms, and just live life, and have prayer.”

“I’ll have to check that out,” Aubrey said.

“Have you heard of the Healing Place at Cross Timbers?” said another woman, referring to a local church counseling program. “Everything is free.”

“I definitely have moms with trauma,” Aubrey said, making a note.

“I could maybe help with postpartum,” offered a Christian massage therapist, and it continued like this all morning and into the early afternoon, and when Aubrey got home later, her total was $9,850 and climbing.

“Woo-hoo!” said her brother Isaac, who was in town visiting for a while.

Aubrey was in another room rummaging for the letter that Bryan had written her back when they first started dating. It happened to be their anniversary, and she hadn’t read the letter in years. When she finally found it, she began reading the opening lines as she walked back into the kitchen, where her kids were running around and her brother was making dinner.

“It is clear in the scripture that God preserved and protected certain Godly women so that he might use them in the work of reconciling all things to Christ,” she read.

The letter was handwritten on ivory stationery.

“I am confident that you are a continuation of this legacy because of how you have boldly and shamelessly lived your life for God,” Aubrey read, then handed it to her brother to finish.

“This is how you do it, guys,” Isaac said, half-kidding about the formalities of Christian courtship. He continued reading: “‘Your gentleness, kindness, self-control, overwhelming love, faithfulness, generosity, selflessness, boldness, beauty, and humility is all a result of Christ transforming your heart. I want to be around you because I want to see Christ more every day.’”

He put the letter down.

“Well, Aubrey — that’s all you have to do,” Isaac joked. “Just be like Christ.”

“Ha,” said Aubrey, but the truth was that she had been thinking a lot lately about the biblical story of Esther, a Jewish woman who becomes queen and risks her life to save the Jewish people from destruction by appealing to her husband, the king.

“Not that I’m Esther,” Aubrey said. “But I do believe that God puts people in certain positions for certain purposes.”

When she checked the fundraising total again, it was $10,175, and then it was $13,000, and after North Texas Giving Day was over, donations kept pouring in.

By the time that lawyers were arguing over the heartbeat law at the U.S. Supreme Court, Aubrey had raised more than $120,000, a figure that continued to rise.

The whole improbable idea was going so well that one day, Aubrey decided to drive out to the rural edges of Argyle to see some land.

It belonged to friends of hers, and she was hoping they might be willing to sell. In the meantime, she liked going out there to pray from time to time. Her vision for the ranch was becoming ever more real, ever more specific, and now she was opening the iron gates of the property and walking out into a landscape of stiff and yellowing grass.

“Right up here on this crest?” she said, pointing to a hill near the road. “I’d have a barn, but modern-looking. Like a community building. It would have a big, covered porch, a playground outside and a big chef’s kitchen with a chef to teach the moms how to cook.”

“We’d cook an early evening meal each day,” she said. “We’d have a big dining space, and in the same space, a kind of corralled kid play area with bench seats all around the inner part where moms could watch kids while the other moms are cooking. Also, downstairs, we’d have some nursing rooms and a crib room where moms who are going through a class, or cooking, they can put the baby down in a quiet place. That barn is the first thing you see when you come in.”

She pointed to another area.

“Then there’s a gate and you drive to the host homes,” she said. “Me and Bryan would be one host. We would live here. And we’ll have two other families. The women need to see healthy relationships. These are just normal three-bedroom, two-bath homes, farmhouse style. I want all of the aesthetic to be unified.”

She walked out a bit further.

“Then there’s another gated system here,” she said.

She walked out even further.

“So, then you could picture that on the back half of the property would be where we’d build the mother cottages,” she said.

She looked out at the part of the property farthest from the road.

“Two beds, one bath,” she said. “The mom and baby in one bedroom, the kids in the other. It’d follow in that same farmhouse-style vibe, and I’d love it if they had screened-in porches. I know as a mom, when you have littles, you want to be able to take them outside and not worry about bugs.”

The sun was strong, and Aubrey shaded her eyes.

“I’d like to have 15 to 20 mother cottages on 60 to 100 acres,” she said.

She imagined that the women could plant a garden and learn how to grow their own food, and maybe even learn how to raise cows. She imagined selling produce and beef to subsidize costs. It was all so clear. It was all happening.

She had already started talking to a man who designed septic systems. She was already thinking about security, mindful that some women would be leaving abusive relationships.

“I’m thinking of maybe hiring a female veteran or a female police officer, so she could live for free on-site in her own place,” Aubrey said. “I think the moms would feel better if we had in-house security. I’m sure we’ll have dogs.”

She looked around. She breathed in. She felt hopeful, like she was doing what God required of her. She felt how she wanted all women to feel.

“If I can offer these moms and babies a safe, structured first year of life, of calm and stability — that can change whole generations,” Aubrey said, and as she headed back toward her car, she started describing another vision, one that was even larger than a maternity ranch.

“What if Texas ends up becoming a model for the future?” she said. “What if Texas meets this shift in culture? And instead of having high abortion rates, what if we help single moms to become stronger moms, to become successful?”

She imagined what that would look like. Churches helping. Christians opening their homes. Christian safe havens all over Texas. Maybe all over America.

“God is paving the way,” Aubrey said. “I’m just trying to keep up with how quickly it’s happening.”

Read the original on the Washington Post.