by Justin Phillips (00)
The moment finally arrived. After all the waiting. The anticipation. The paperwork and the prayer. We were about to meet our daughter. Getachu, our Ethiopian driver, had delivered us safely. Through the crowded and congested streets of Addis Ababa, the 1984 minivan herked and jerked. Our stomachs were left knotted by the stop and go, the exhaust fumes climbing in through the rear window, and the full knowledge that we stood on the brink of a new reality. We were stepping up to be parents of four. We were responding to a personal call of God on our lives. We were choosing to be loving parents to one of the world’s most precious yet most vulnerable.
This was the moment.
The orphanage director took my wife, Melissa, by the hand. I fiddled nervously with the camera and then passed it off to my mother. Our family was led through a dirt courtyard and then down an exterior hallway. I remember napping toddlers popping their heads up from their faux sleep and then putting them down before the director noticed. Hired caretakers gazed from afar. Everyone sensed the gravity of the moment. The hallway crowded in behind us.
“This is Atsede. She is your daughter.”
Tears came easy for us. Rolling down. She stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall, hands behind her back. Her white tights, red polka dot dress, and tightly braided hair made her stand out from the other children. She was 6. And everything in her world was about to change. Her eyes communicated it. They were wide open. She seemed happy yet reserved. Excitement and gratitude oozed from our pores.
We embraced her tightly and got down to her level. In short order, we introduced our sons, Ricardo and Amare, 22 and 3 at the time; her grandparents; and ourselves. Amare, who was adopted as a baby from Ethiopia, jumped in quickly, each English word chasing down the next.
“I’m Amare. I’m your new brother, and I want to take you to Trader Joe’s, and we can drink juice boxes together, right? You want to come? Yes?”
She was rightly puzzled. The straight translation wasn’t going to work in this context. It wouldn’t have helped. But everyone around us wanted to know what the native-born Habesha (Ethiopian) just said. I did my best.
“He is excited to have a sister and wants to show her our home.”
At the time of that meeting, we knew only limited information about our daughter. We knew her approximate age. We learned she had lost both parents early in life. We knew of her health challenges, ones which would have better odds with medical care in the U.S.
We didn’t know that she was mostly oblivious to what would happen next. We didn’t realize nobody had told her that we would hop on a large airplane later that week. We didn’t know that she had more than six primary caregivers in her six short years of life. We didn’t realize how difficult it would be for her to attach to new parents, as a result. We counted the cost. But we didn’t quite realize the way our semi-calm home, our career plans, our sacred space, and our finances would need to be sacrificed to make this work. We had no clue how much we would need our faith community to help us through this.
I proposed to Melissa (Panian) (00) after the fall semester of our junior year at PLNU. Every piece of the proposal was calculated and planned. What I didn’t see coming was the stipulation. After spending time in orphanages in Latin America, Melissa had been deeply moved. And the intention to have a family through adoption was a non-negotiable for my bride-to-be. At the time, her conviction seemed aggressive. Today, I know it was one of God’s signposts along our journey.
Initially, our reasons to adopt were practical in nature. There are an estimated 153 million orphans worldwide.* In San Diego County, there are an estimated 6,500 youth in foster care.** We could at least get these numbers down by a few. So we set out to configure a family atypically.
Moving ahead, our motivation to adopt grew in complexity. Together, we began to consider a theological understanding of God’s heart. His concern and preference for the poor, the voiceless, and the marginalized is undeniable (Isaiah 1:17, Luke 4:18). He even names the orphan specifically, claiming to be “Father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5) and a “defender of the orphans” (Psalm 10:14). And in case we missed our role in this, Jesus clarifies, saying, “Whatever you did to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Our first opportunity to engage in this call came in 2005 when we were only 25 years old. Ricardo, 15 at the time, was a foster youth in my English class at the local, urban high school. He was living in a group home and looking at two to three more years in the system before emancipation. After 30 hours of foster care training, a get-to-know-you meal at our place, and an assurance that Ricardo wanted this, he moved in. When he did, he moved all the way in.
Watching our family and friends welcome Ricardo was a sacred thing. It was a picture of God’s people at their finest. And it had little to do with Melissa and me. The church was living into the call of community. In this instance, support looked like a stocking that hung on a new grandma’s mantle, “Rico” embroidered with gold thread. It looked like a group of PLNU alumni, huddled under a blanket, sipping hot chocolate, and yelling for Ricardo’s football team. Engagement in the call looked like an English teacher who knew Ricardo before we did and taught him far more than academics. Love looked like a crowded patio four moms deep (birth mom, foster mom, mentor mom, group home mom), pulling off Ricardo’s PLNU graduation celebration for 100ish people. In our community effort, the words of Isaiah came into being. As people gave of themselves and sacrificed to support Ricardo, “darkness … became as light at the noon,” and the community was “like a well-watered garden, [and] like an ever-flowing spring” (Isaiah 58:5-12). Without overstating, this was the best picture of “pure and lasting religion” that I have seen up close (James 1:27). Even if not directly adopting or fostering, the church can be intimately involved and markedly supportive.
In 2006, a year after Ricardo joined our family, we made the decision to adopt a child from Ethiopia. It was a layered and intentional decision. A large percentage of the world’s orphans exist in Sub-Saharan Africa (56 of the 153 million). And Melissa’s Nease Hall floor-mate, now married and living outside California, was in the process of adopting an Ethiopian child. This, somehow, made it seem possible. After 18 seemingly long months of waiting, we traveled and met our son, Amare, who was five months old at the time.
Through our first adoption process, we were surprised by our own love and even more acutely aware of God’s love for us. If any part of our impetus to adopt was out of duty or obedience, it was soon dwarfed by a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Adoption has gifted us this: In a deeper and more visceral way, we know what it meant that God first loved us. He welcomed us into His family despite our ability or willingness to reciprocate that act of love (1 John 4:19; Galatians 4:6). “His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us to Himself, through Jesus Christ. And this gave Him great pleasure” (Ephesians 1:5). This was yet a deeper theological understanding; and we came to know it in our bones.
On our first trip to Ethiopia, we realized that the great majority of children in orphanages are older. A significant number of them have special medical needs. All of them have experienced trauma and find themselves vulnerable. These conclusions led us to the adoption of Atsede, and one day later, Matias (9 months). While adopting two more kids didn’t necessarily solve much of the global orphan crisis, we know it drastically changed the trajectory for these two. They no longer face a future of institutional care. They have access to phenomenal education and healthcare. They have a permanent family. They will hear about the hope and healing that only can be brought by the Gospel.
Though Atsede and Matias now face a new reality, the same cannot be said about the majority of orphans still in care throughout the world. The church still has work to do. It may mean supporting the folks in-country who are left to take care of these children. It may come as a formalized child sponsorship (World Vision, Compassion International, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, etc.). It may look like a mentorship with Big Sister, Big Brother in your local community. God asks each of us to engage in different ways. The important part is that we act. (Luke 12:48 says, “But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.”)
At our church, we recently launched an orphan care ministry to champion the cause of adoption and partner with families in the process. We are working to help families overcome financial barriers and real fears that keep them from stepping into this journey. We look to support families in the post-adoption chapter, where the challenges of parenting children from hard places become significant.
As a church, we are beginning to realize the strategic importance of adoption, foster care, and orphan care. At its root, orphan care is discipleship. Taken as a group, orphans make up the single largest group of people unreached by the Gospel. If our Great Commission is to “Go into all the world, making disciples of all men, baptizing them in the name of Jesus” (Matthew 28:19), then it is difficult to imagine a more fertile space for this life-changing work to occur.
There are some other things we didn’t know on May 31, 2010, in Addis Ababa when Atsede became a part of our family. We didn’t know the beauty still glowing in a young girl facing tough odds. We didn’t know the squeal-turned-shriek that erupts when we tickle her feet. We didn’t know the deep joy and relief we would sense as she gradually risked to love us back, making necklaces for Dad or bringing flowers in for Mom. We didn’t know about the hours and hours of therapy, driving to and from appointments, and just what having a child “from hard places” would mean in our everyday lives. We didn’t see how she would help us solidify and give voice to our own purpose and calling. I didn’t see that stepping into this adventure would be so instrumental in helping me become who God created me to be.
* U.S. Government “5th Annual Report to Congress on Public Law 109-95” and affirmed by UNICEF