A family of 10, surviving on faith
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Couple with 6 kids open their hearts and home to 2 more
By Manya A. Brachear
September 20, 2009 / Chicago Tribune
Behind the doors of a modest Rogers Park frame house, Pete and Patty Mueller are acting out their own reality show of "Pete and Patty Plus 8."
Home-schooling all eight of their children and surviving on one income, the Muellers have not sought the reality show spotlight that helped pop culture icons Jon and Kate Gosselin raise their brood and eventually broadcast the end of their marriage.
Still, there has been a fair share of drama surrounding the Muellers' adoption of two children from Ethiopia -- a process that started four years ago before anyone could have guessed Pete Mueller would lose his job.
The Muellers could have backed out of the adoption. But they didn't. They believed they were answering God's call in the New Testament to look after orphans in distress.
Now, with a new school year under way, with eight pupils at the dining room table instead of six, the Muellers are reminded of what they believed all along: God does provide. The journey has not brought fame or fortune. But it has fortified their faith.
"We didn't go into this thinking we'd save the world," Patty Mueller said. "We did it selfishly. The byproduct is we're forced to live by faith, forced to need God."
Pete Mueller says he has had three epiphanies, or "lightning bolts," in his 48 years. The first struck when he decided to propose to Patty.
The second was the name of their oldest daughter, Pippin -- a catchy name that Patty heard on the radio and Pete liked immediately. They chose P names for all of their biological children who range in age from 5 to 17. After Pippin came Paxton, Perri, Pia, Paavo and Peyton .
The third epiphany was the decision to adopt Mulugeta and Birtukan, an Ethiopian brother and sister who kept their given names. Patty, 47, suggested adopting after learning about the plight of children in Liberia. With 146 million orphans and 2.1 billion Christians in the world, she believed, it was a moral imperative she could not ignore.
Her husband scoffed and wished his wife luck. But six months later, he realized she had a point. This was a call from God.
Though Pete felt drawn to Ethiopia, the couple followed Patty's heart and applied with an agency in Liberia. Worried that the agency's reportedly sloppy paperwork and inaccurate case histories might jeopardize their efforts, they sought another agency. Liberia closed its doors to adoption before they could find one.
Wondering if this was a sign from God to abandon the idea, the couple met with a counselor who specialized in adoption issues. After forcing them to confront every worst-case scenario she could imagine, the counselor asked Pete and Patty how they would feel in 20 years if they didn't do it. When only regret came to mind, they followed Pete's heart to Ethiopia.
The day before New Year's Eve, the Muellers received word that a man had brought his grandchildren -- now 2 and 6 -- to the Bete Hit Sanet orphanage in the Ethiopian city of Kombolcha. Their mother and father had died of a sudden illness and he was unable to care for the children.
The Muellers' joy was tempered by an unexpected development that had occurred just days before Christmas. Pete lost his job as a project manager for a general contractor. The family was surviving on his two-months' severance.
The family could not afford two more mouths to feed, let alone travel to Ethiopia. Illinois' Department of Children and Family Services would not grant them a license necessary to adopt a seventh and eighth child the simple way, with one trip there and back. In order for the children to qualify for immediate citizenship, the Muellers had to meet them first in Ethiopia and then return a second time, costing them thousands of dollars more. After a Tribune inquiry, DCFS is now investigating why a license would have been denied.
"Adoption is not cheap or free," Pete said. "Our whole lives have been undercapitalized. If we were smart economically, we wouldn't do anything we do. I couldn't imagine not having done this."
Five weeks after the severance expired, Pete found a sales job for a landscape supply company.
Money has never been a priority for the Muellers. Neither has decorating, dusting or yardwork. "Some day" projects occupy almost every nook of their cozy four-bedroom home and lawn. They will get to them "some day."
When Pete discovered that the doors were coated with lead paint, he removed them. The house had no bedrooms with doors for 12 years. Because he has not yet installed another shower, the house has only one full bathroom.
"They don't seem to get bothered by some of those things," said Patty's mother, Lynn Berthel, who always kept a tidy house, but admires her daughter's values. "There are some things you just have to let go."
What they can't let go they discuss on Wednesdays, otherwise known as date night. Often the couple walk up the block to Baker's Square for a cup of coffee and a free slice of pie.
"He vents for a while. I vent for a while," Patty said. "We don't go with the intention of having heartfelt conversations or romantic trysts. It's just to be in the same space."
It's the one time of the week when Patty is more than mom, teacher, coach, cook and chauffeur. She is Pete's wife.
"We need to be reminded that we love each other or need to," Pete said.
Those intimate moments, they say, sustain their marriage. A shared passion for justice also helps. That passion has fueled many of their unconventional life choices.
Members of Grace Evangelical Covenant Church in Albany Park, they hope more churches broaden their pursuit of justice to include adoption ministries. They also want more churches to shake people from their comfort zones to address the issues -- war, poverty, AIDS -- that threaten young lives in the Third World.
"Without getting too philosophical, what kind of purpose in life do you want to create?" Pete said. "We knew we weren't the kind of couple that would vacation in the Riviera or climb the Himalayas, but we humbly think we have a great family. We're good at this parenting thing. Once I got used to the fact that I'm going to be poor for the rest of my life, I was at absolute peace. That's when I knew we couldn't not do it."