ShePonders: Adoption

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“Abandonment gives way to belonging, vulnerability cedes to stability and an orphan becomes a daughter by a divine spark of redemptive goodness.” 

I remember a grade school assignment: Tell us who you are in ten sentences, each beginning with “I am.”  My first sentence: I am adopted. It is always the first sentence that surfaces when asked to describe or define myself. It is core to my self-understanding. Adoption grounds my story and at the same time is woven throughout each chapter in subtle and significant ways.

Every year, for about 40+ years now, we’ve celebrated my Adoption Day: the day my parents brought me home; the day we became a family.

For the past seven years we’ve celebrated another Adoption Day: the day we picked up our babies from the Rainbow Center; the day we became the next generation of family.  More than any earthly thing, adoption has shaped me in foundational and formative ways.

It is from this lived experience that adoption has become a holy word in my personal vocabulary of faith. To be adopted, to adopt–it does something in the deep places of your being.

I often hear people speak of adoption as a benevolent rescue operation, saving an unwanted child from a lesser quality of life or worse. Some sing of adoption as the solution for those with barren bodies yet pregnant hearts. Some cultures see adoption as an option, others a taboo.  Many people of faith see adoption as the ultimate gesture in orphan care. For my mother, it was antidote to infertility. For me, a call to rescue. But there is more gestating within me when it comes to grappling with the full implications of adoption.

When God set to work shaping a good society in the fertile land of Palestine, there was always the imperative to consider the most vulnerable:  the widows, orphans and immigrants. Whether it was leaving enough for them to glean in the field or ensuring justice for them, God never lost sight of their condition on the margins of local life. His insistence that they be included was not so much a call to charity or compassion, but a summons to see that these vulnerable ones remain part of the global human family even if locally displaced. I believe that His call to care is an invitation to see that every orphan remains a member of His family, and adoption becomes a way to reinstate them into a local family.

Adoption then becomes the physical sacrament that points to the deeper nature of family, the divine grace that allows us to recognize how large the human family is and that ultimately, every child is related to me.

There are those, and certainly in Africa this is true, who believe that your children must share in your genetic make-up. Your child must have your eyes, his father’s swift if awkward stride and that your DNA must be embedded in your child. Many people still believe that it is biology that makes you family. What adoption has taught me is that there is a larger family resemblance we all bear–we each carry the very image of God infused in our being, a divine DNA that binds us all in ways more profound than blood, tribe or color.

Biology does not make a family, belonging does. God’s antidote to the ache of abandonment is to create a community of belonging, a family. God continues create families through both biology and adoption to ensure all of us find a place to belong in His world.

Isn’t that a greater and more generous understanding of family? We are all members of the human family tree, connections that run across national borders, cultural boundaries and bloodlines.  Adoption reminds us of this truth when we see a child who needs to belong, and we reach across these man-made lines to create a family. We witness to the truth that we are all of the same family.

But there is another reason that adoption is sacramental for me. Adoption is chock full of redemptive energy, from the first inclination to welcome a child into your home to each subsequent day of shared meals, school drop-offs and pick ups, quelled nightmares and family celebrations.  When a new family embraces a child, a redeeming act has occurred. Abandonment gives way to belonging, vulnerability cedes to stability and an orphan becomes a daughter by a divine spark of redemptive goodness. With every Adoption Day celebrated, there is the reminder that redemption is the thread wonderfully woven through each season of life. We have been rescued, reclaimed and relocated for a purpose, and with that deep awareness we go into the world as adopted ones, sirens of redemption in a world in need of such light.

I have always known that I was adopted; my parents gave me my story from the very beginning. This has laid a redemptive foundation for me; I know my life begins with a true rescue from the margins. I have always felt special, somehow, that I was born against the odds and wanted, when my story could have been otherwise. That has shaped my view of the world–I know real redemption happens and that it remains on offer by God’s grace.

And over the years, I think that redemptive energy has seeped deeper and deeper into my bones, into my soul. I seek out redemption all the time–in reconciled friendships, restoration of broken communities and how I find it natural to believe that God is actively restoring all things to Himself. I know it because He has done so with me in such a physical way through adoption. My eyes are trained to see redemption–where it is present and where it is needed. I’m sure it was only a matter of time before I followed in my mother’s footsteps and adopted my son and daughter, passing on the legacy of redemption, belonging and family.

Not so long ago there was a post written by an adoptive father about adoption. It was lovely. But in the end, he said adoption is always second best. He was pointing to the fact that first best is biological families; first best is a child never being orphaned. I get it. But my own history and heart I could not agree with his conclusion.

In my experience, adoption has never been second best. Adoption was God’s way of shaping two generations of my family, so rich with fidelity and wild with love. I just cannot agree that there is anything second rate about it.  I want to imagine a world without orphans, but I cannot imagine a world without adoption. Actually, I see each orphan as a family waiting to happen, each one an opportunity for a fresh dose of redemptive energy to be released into the world.

Our world cries out for repaired relationships, for deep acceptance, for connections that can reach across gulfs of difference. We live in a time when people need to learn how to forge abiding bonds in the face of tremendous hardness of heart, tribalism and fear of those unlike us. Who better to teach the world than the company of the adopted? We know what it is to be left out, brought in, and infused with redemption. We have this redemptive energy running through us that needs to be released into the world. We can demonstrate how to welcome, accept, create belonging across any divide. I believe that all those touched by adoption–parents and children and siblings–have something sacred to offer our world.

So, when I tell you that I am adopted, I am telling you that I belong.  I am telling you that I have this redemptive energy rattling around deep in my bones and that I want to be let loose in the world to witness to that deep truth that God redeems all the members of His family and can connect us beyond the fault lines we see. I belong to the Johnson family, my children belong to the Nikondeha family and we know how to create belonging. We are the company of the adopted.

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My dear SheLoves friends, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts!

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Photo credit: Baby, by Joseph Hoban

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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