In 1962, my parents picked up a 3-month-old boy from a Minneapolis children's home. Instead of a shower or welcoming committee, they came home to silence and sideways looks. They were adopting at a time when the decision was considered a response to an epic reproductive failure, something not discussed in polite company.
And then there was the baby. At just three months, my older brother showed signs of institutionalization. My mother remembers how he lay in her arms like a board, never able to snuggle. Psychologists were only beginning to form theories on attachment disorder, and no one, including my parents, fully understood how even a few months without parental nurture can impact a child.
Thank God that attitudes about adoption are changing.
The Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAO) held its sixth annual summit on orphan care this April at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Featuring keynote addresses from John Piper, Steven Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman, and Al Mohler, the summit drew more than 1,200 attendees, most of them ministering to orphans through their home churches. Watching those gathered, I knew this was not my parents' generation.
What the State Can't Do
Jedd Medefind, president of the Virginia-based CAO, says his organization wants to encourage care for orphans worldwide through adoption, foster care, and orphan care. A nebulous term, orphan care includes everything from funding children's homes in countries with large numbers of orphans to holding shoe drives for children in orphanages. CAO, with over 100 member ministries, is also starting to advocate "in-country" solutions where churches in countries with many orphans encourage and help families in their midst to adopt. "We want to build communities that are committed to families who are committed to orphans," says Medefind.
From megachurches like Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, and Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, to small congregations like First Baptist Church in Cambridge, Minnesota, U.S. churches are launching orphan care ministries, most of them lay-led. One such ministry, Tapestry, began in 2000 when a few adoption-hopeful couples at Irving Bible Church in North Texas began meeting. Launched by Michael and Amy Monroe, Tapestry has become a cultural juggernaut at Irving Bible and in the wider community. It helps adoptive families wade through the endless amounts of paperwork, home visits, and assessments, and, after a child arrives, provides education and connects families to support groups.
Ministries like the Denver-based Project 1:27 work with government agencies to place children with families and support them before and after adoption. Taking its name from James 1:27, the project, together with the Colorado Department of Human Services, is credited with helping to shrink the number of the state's children waiting to be adopted from 800 to 365 in just two years.
Tapestry's Michael Monroe notes that while local and state foster care agencies do many things efficiently, they leave gaps.
"State agencies are well-equipped to help if you have decided to move forward, but less so if you have questions about adoption," the adoptive father of four says. "Church-based ministries are best positioned to come alongside families and help them prayerfully make the best decision."
Still other ministries train foster parents, find families who can provide respite care, and keep free childcare supplies on hand for foster families. And that's just ministry to children in the U.S.
A Continuum of Need
Two weeks before CAO's summit this spring, a Tennessee woman made headlines when she tried to send her adopted son on a plane back to Russia, with a note tucked in his backpack: "I no longer wish to parent this child." Her stated reasons—that the 8-year-old boy had psychological problems, that he seemed like a physical and emotional threat—struck at the heart of many adoptive parents' worst fears.
Just ten years ago, the church's mantra on adoption was that love heals a host of problems. Adoptive and foster families were given prayer and encouraging words as they waited for a child, but largely left to their own devices once the child arrived.
"For a long time, churches focused on the pre-adoption process," Medefind says. "There's a growing understanding that the journey really kicks in once the adoption happens. The vision of the church has matured to encompass that."
That journey is often a bumpy one. Many children coming from children's homes or foster care are "children from hard places," says Michael. When emotional or psychological issues start playing out in their new families, parents turn to their church communities—and churches don't always know how to help. Thus, both the child and the parents suffer alone.
Tapestry aims to address the care gap—one that government agencies cannot address—by working with parents before they adopt.
"We learned early on that the kids aren't the only ones with issues," says Michael. "Parents need help examining their own motivations and expectations [for adopting]. They need to embark on their own healing journey that involves discovering past hurts and how those might impact their parenting. There's no better time to start working on these issues than while they are waiting."
Tapestry also helps parents recognize that every adoption and foster care situation carries an element of grief. Something or someone has been lost, and if the loss is not addressed, the family will suffer. Tapestry provides education on everything from how to parent abused children to how to address a parent's own fears in order to build healthy families.
Medefind says more CAO member ministries are starting to "recognize that we can't ride in on a white horse and rescue kids. They know that adoption brings great joy, but can sometimes bring great pain for all involved. Orphan care ministries are maturing to encompass the whole process."
Beyond Good Intentions
Not all churches can sustain a ministry like Tapestry, but those that want to ramp up their orphan care have many practical outlets: keeping a list of resources for families interested in adoption or foster care; knitting blankets for children's homes; managing a fund that helps adoptive families with costs; and providing respite care for adoptive or foster parents, to name a few.
Basic provisions can have a tremendous impact. Mo, a single mother from Iowa who asked to remain anonymous to protect her child, adopted her 10-month-old daughter out of foster care. She says her needs don't always fit churches' typical new-baby gifts (meals, baby showers, babysitting). "When my daughter is upset, she does a lot of property damage. I would love some help with repairs, but I don't know how to let people know. I'm afraid to have people see what she's done. How would they view her afterward?"
Stacey and her husband, Sam, live in Minnesota and have adopted two children from Guatemala. Stacey encourages churches to include adoptive and foster care parents in their ministry to all parents. "One of the hardest moments was about a month before our daughter came home. I was at a women's retreat [where] they brought all the pregnant women on stage to pray for them and give them gift baskets. They didn't include me. It was really hard to take."
Thankfully for these and other adoptive and foster families, churches are recognizing that mere good intentions won't help families recover from the loss that often leads to adoption—or to prepare for the joy that awaits. It takes a community of people who are willing to wrap themselves around a family who has wrapped themselves around a child.
Carla Barnhill is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis. She blogs at TheMommyRevolution.com.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This story accompanies a cover story on why every Christian is called to rescue orphans. Christianity Today also posted stories on how adoption is everywhere and Jedd Medefind's top 5 books on orphan care.
Previous articles on adoption from Christianity Today include:
210 Million Reasons to Adopt | Haiti's devastating quake reminds us that orphans matter to God. (April 7, 2010)
State Department: Now's Not the Time for Haitian Adoptions | Official says first priority should be placing Haitian children with Haitian families. (February 10, 2010)
Idaho's Impact | Haiti scandal overshadows bigger threat to evangelical adoption efforts. (February 7, 2010)
Orphans on Deck | Adoption steps to the front lines of the culture wars. (January 5, 2010)
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