Father's Day: Dad of 10 calls family a huge blessing

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2014 

Psalm 127 says a man with many children is like having a quiver full of arrows.

The Rev. Andy Merritt and his wife, Kathy, have taken that passage seriously -- producing 10 children in their 40 years of marriage.

"The reason we wanted to have a large family is that we believe each of those arrows has a destiny and a target to hit," said Merritt, reflecting on his life as a father. "We felt that probably the greatest way to impact the world we live in would be to raise children that would come to know Christ. We really viewed it as an opportunity to express our Christian faith and even advance it through the lives of our children."

Merritt, 62, is senior pastor of Edgewood Baptist Church on Forrest Road, where he's served for 37 years. He and his wife have three sons and seven daughters, from ages 39 to 19. All but the two youngest are now living on their own, and many have started their own families. Two of their sons are pastors, and most of the other children are in some form of ministry.

So far, the children have blessed the Merritts with 18 grandchildren.

Merritt said he's not the perfect father, but he has relied on God for guidance.

"I came out of a broken home and always believed I came into marriage and family with a great deficiency," he said. "I think I learned more from my errors than anything I've done right. It's only been by God's grace."

Merritt, who has two siblings, grew up a military brat. He said his father, now deceased, had a distinguished career in the Air Force. He described his mother as a devout Christian who showered him with love and took him to church every Sunday. But he craved the affection of his father.

"I always knew my Dad loved me but I never felt loved by him," he said. "He was gone a lot, and when he was around, there just wasn't a connection. I know that created in me the motivation for building relationships with my children."

As a teenager, Merritt said, he strayed from his Christian upbringing and lived a life of partying, drugs and alcohol. As a freshman in college, he played football for Auburn University. But he felt an emptiness in his life, so he accepted Christ while spending the summer with a friend in Maryland.

That's when Merritt inadvertently found Washington Bible College, where he would eventually meet his wife. He enrolled on a whim and began attending as a sophomore. Kathy came in as a freshman his junior year, and the two fell in love.

"She was raised in a very godly Christian home and had a pretty sheltered life," he said. "When I met her, the purity there just drew me to her. I guess it was a stark contrast to what I had known in the past."

The couple began dating and married after Merritt's graduation. The wedding was on Aug. 10, 1974, in Haggerstown, Md., Kathy's hometown.

Kathy said Merritt told her before they got married that he wanted to have a big family to spread the Gospel, and she accepted the calling. But she had no idea it would be this large.

"It has had its challenges but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat," she said. "I love having our children and being part of a large family."

The Merritts' 10 children are each unique, but they also have a lot in common. All of the boys have names that begin with the letter "J" and the girls with the letter "C." Kathy said that tradition began with the first boy, Jonathan, now 39, who was born in 1975. Merritt expected to have more boys and wanted them to all have "J" names from the Bible. When the second child turned out to be a girl, they named her Christina and began the "C" tradition.

Christina, nicknamed Christy, is now 37. The other children are Jamie, 36; Carrie, 34; Joel, 31; Catherine, 29; Carol, 27; Carla, 24; Caytlin, 21; and Charissa, 19.

Charissa has Down syndrome and is a competitive swimmer in the Special Olympics. Merritt said they learned of her condition the day of her birth.

"Kathy went through natural childbirth for all 10. So, it was a tradition that the baby be placed in her arms to immediately start bonding," he said. "But Charissa had a breathing issue and had to be whisked off."

When the doctor returned, he placed the baby on the bed between her two parents. He told them she had Down syndrome, but all they saw was a beautiful baby girl.

"Before we had an opportunity to react, it was like God walked into that room and we were both overcome with absolute pure joy," Merritt said. "We received Charissa from that moment as a gift from God. We knew she would have some unique challenges but didn't treat her any different than our other children.

"She's a people person, very social, and has just been a delight to us, and all of her siblings."

Merritt said he focused on five A's while raising each one of his children: Acceptance, Appreciation, Availability, Affection and Accountability. He struggled most with affection because of his background with his father, but he was deliberate and intentional about showing love to his children because he knew it was important to their development.

In addition to pastoring the church and raising a large family, Merritt has also been very active in pro-life activities. In 1981, his church established Sound Choices Pregnancy Clinic, a ministry on Wynnton Court that offers abortion alternative services to girls with crisis pregnancies. Merritt has also helped other churches across the country establish similar programs through a national organization called Pregnancy Resource Ministries.

But even with his busy schedule, his wife and children said he's always made them a priority.

"He always said relationships were more important than material goods," Kathy said. "So, he spent time investing in the children. He made sure that he was at all of their games and we did family vacations when they were growing up. We would struggle financially so we could do that. But he wanted to make sure they had good memories."

All but three of the children live in Columbus and the family still gets together for dinner every Tuesday night. This weekend, Andy, Kathy and Charissa are in New Jersey for Charissa to compete in the National Special Olympics. That's where they are spending Father's Day.

Jonathan, the eldest child, now has six children of his own and serves as minister of education at Edgewood, alongside his father.

"My Dad without a doubt has been the single biggest influence in my life," he said. "His commitment to family and the authenticity of his relationship with Christ, it's the real deal."

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