Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADHD, depression, Hepatitis, Malnutrition, HIV, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attachment disorders, chronic infections—these medical conditions were just some of the many listed on my adoption agency’s “Statement of Risks in Adoption; Waiver of Liability” form.
When I found myself signing my name under a long paragraph of scary-sounding diagnoses, I could not help but feel anxious about what my husband and I were about to do: adopt. What I did not expect is that I would learn how to find peace in the face of these risks not from adoptive families who had avoided them, but from a community of adoptive families who had sought to adopt children with these and other diagnoses on purpose: the special needs adoption community. Through their faith and adoptions, this community exemplifies what Jesus meant when he told us to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him (Matthew 16:24).
When I first imagined my life as an adoptive mother, I pictured flying across the world to bring home a beautiful, bouncy, bright-eyed baby boy or girl. I wanted a child who was as young and healthy as possible—a phrase that, years later, I would read almost word-for-word in the welcome packet from our adoption agency. The agency wasn’t promising a “young and healthy” baby, however; they were acknowledging the truth that this bright-eyed baby was the desire of almost every adopting parent, and they were cautioning that in international adoption there were no promises.
At first, I found this information to be very scary. I remember writing an email to our caseworker and posing one of many what if questions. “What if,” I asked, “we fly to Russia and meet the child we intend to adopt, only to discover that he possesses more significant challenges than my husband and I feel equipped to handle?” More significant challenges and feel equipped to handle. These were my attempts to make my ugly fears more palatable. What I was really trying to say was that I didn’t want a broken child. I didn’t want Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Autism, or any kind of cognitive impairment in my life. I wanted a healthy child.
These were real fears, but not fears I wanted to voice to anyone in real life, so I went searching online for the answers. I found two opposing responses, and I found them in two different adoption communities. In the broad adoption community, a community that espoused a variety of religions and yet no definitive spiritual conviction, I found this answer: You have to be true to yourself. It’s okay to say no to a child if she/he is not a good fit for your family. That’s the answer I wanted to hear and truthfully, an answer that does have a little wisdom in it because not every potential family-child combination are a good fit. But then there was this issue of calling. My husband and I had a true sense of divine calling when it came to the adoption of our son; how could I be so sure of this calling on one hand and then so scared of potential “issues” on the other?
I found the other, better answer to my fears in a sort of “subculture” in the adoption world. It was a world of passionate, convicted Christians—true Jesus followers—who had walked boldly into the world of special needs adoption. These are the men and women who taught me and who have truly understood, in the context of adoption, what Jesus meant when he said:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done (Matthew 16:24-26).
These men and women had given up their lives and the ideal picture of a perfect American family to follow Christ as he called them to take care of the least. These families chose on purpose to adopt the “least adoptable” children in the world; they choose on purpose to welcome boys and girls with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, hydrocephalus, HIV, and other special needs into their families. In answer to my fears they did not say be true to yourself. Instead, they said something more faithful to the scriptures: They said God will be true to you.
Through their special needs adoptions, these Christians teach us what it looks like to live in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus said that in his kingdom, “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Because they operate according to Christ’s kingdom, these men and women have sought out the “least adoptable” children first. As they respond to this calling on their lives, it is as if they have discovered the secret to great joy. Surely they are tired from therapies and medical appointments, and surely they are not immune to worry about their children’s futures, yet they walk through that exhaustion and worry with a sense of purpose and conviction that few of us have been privileged to know. I can only imagine that their joy comes from looking forward to that day on which Christ will look upon them to say, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
From an outside perspective, these adoptive families may have looked like they lost their lives when they brought a child with special needs into their family, but from the perspective of the Christian faith, I now see them as having denied themselves, picked up their crosses, and followed Christ to the end of gaining their souls.
When my husband and I flew from Moscow to Michigan with our two-and-a-half year old son in our arms, I can’t say I did it without fear, but I can tell you I did it with confidence. I knew that God would equip me to parent him through any diagnoses that would come our way. If I lose life-as-I-know-it in this journey, I thought, I have only Christ and his kingdom to gain. Our bright, playful, and sensitive son is healthy today, but he has not been unscathed by his past; in the challenges we have met, God has indeed fully equipped us to be his parents. While we adopted to meet a need on earth, to give an orphaned child a home and family, and to answer God’s call on our lives, God has used our adoption to meet a need in us: to form us spiritually and to teach us in new ways about his love, patience, and faithfulness.
Adoption hasn’t just made me a mother. It has taught me about the value of human life. It has forced me to look deep inside myself and repent from the way I cling to my life and my picture-perfect family ideals. As I have watched adoptive families welcome children with special needs into their homes, I have seen them paint beautiful gospel pictures with their lives: pictures of compassion, selflessness, and mercy. These families see their children not as inconveniences but as children worthy of love, children who simply by the circumstances of their births have borne most heavily the weight of our fallen world and societies: poverty, disease, malnutrition, and abuse. By example, these adoptive families and their children teach us who we all are: God’s creatures, fallen and helpless, saved simply and powerfully by one thing—grace.
When I signed that scary adoption waiver form, I thought I was doing it to gain a son. What God has taught me through this experience is that my greatest gain is not my son, or my family, or motherhood. My (and your) greatest gain is always and only Christ and his kingdom. When we look upon the weakest members of our society with grace and compassion, when we seek the least adoptable children first, when we choose love and faith over fear, there is no denying that we pick up a heavy cross. However, it is under the weight of that cross and in the footsteps of the Lord we follow that we gain the greatest gift of knowing Christ, becoming like him, and sharing in his glory.