By Peter Smith
January 18, 2011 / courier-journal.com
David and Tera Melber always knew they wanted a large family, but they didn't expect it to grow the way it did.
The southern Jefferson County couple already had three biological children when David's overseas visit several years ago to a crowded, seedy orphanage convinced the couple that there were too many children in need of a home to ignore.
In 2005, they adopted a daughter, Maritess, from the Philippines, followed by two sons from Ethiopia, Jonas in 2007 and Isaac in 2010. Their six children now range in age from 4 to 16.
“We believe that's part of our mandate as believers, to be able to go and help those who are in need,” said Tera Melber.
The Melbers are part of a growing adoption movement among evangelical Christians. They see taking in children — whether locally or from different countries — as fulfilling biblical mandates to help the needy and to evangelize children.
Religious groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and Focus on the Family, a prominent Colorado-based evangelical organization, have made a strong push in recent years for adoptions.
Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical journal, published a cover story in July promoting adoption, authored by Russell Moore, a dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The movement does have critics, who see it as severing adoptees from their culture and religion, particularly in the case of foreign adoptions.
Such criticism was further stoked in early 2010 after the arrest of a Southern Baptist church team suspected of child smuggling after the Haiti earthquake.
But evangelicals say adoption is simply a way to spread their religious message and provide orphaned children a loving home.
Researchers into evangelical family trends say the adoption movement is too new to have been studied or to count how many adoptions it has inspired. But nationally, adoptions grew 22 percent to 57,466 between 1999 and 2009, according to U.S. figures.
But adoption has unquestionably risen as a major focus of evangelical churches and organizations through sermons, conferences, support groups, subsidies and orphan-awareness Sundays.
Tera Melber coordinates an adoption ministry at Highview Baptist Church, where 95 families have adopted 140 children — the majority since the ministry started five years ago, she said.
At least 13 families have adopted or cared for foster children, she said.
"“We have various people who are adopting little babies from right here in Louisville, Ky., or going overseas and adopting a sibling group of three children,” said Tera Melber.
Other church members volunteer their time to care for orphans or donate money.
“We don't really believe every Christian is called to adopt, but we do believe every Christian is called to do something,” Melber said.
A gentler message
The trend partly “reflects a desire of evangelical Protestants to pursue family-related goals that are softer, less divisive” than confrontations over volatile cultural issues such as abortion, said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia researcher into evangelical families.
Evangelicals say they want to put their anti-abortion words into deeds by providing an alternative.
“Being pro-life is not simply holding to certain legislative goals about abortion,” Southern Seminary's Moore said.
Evangelicals also depict adoption in theological terms — as a real-life parable of biblical texts describing salvation as adoption into God's family.
Christians who are adopting “get a new sense of the Gospel that they've already embraced,” said Moore, who adopted two sons from Russia and authored the book, “Adopted for Life.”
A 2009 Southern Baptist Convention resolution called on churches to “be concerned for the evangelism of children — including those who have no parents … (who) will never otherwise hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The message behind the movement
But critics warn there deeper subtexts to the push for adoption.
Mirah Riben, author of books calling for ethical reform of adoption practices, said the evangelical push “satisfies several right wing fundamental Christian agendas,” from evangelism to opposing abortion.
Writing on the blog “Dissident Voice,” she warned of unregulated international adoptions and the potential for birth parents being shamed into giving up children.
Kathryn Joyce, author of “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement,” warned of a “strong taint of colonialism” in the evangelical adoption movement. It is casting Americans “as saviors and focusing on adoption as a solution for impoverished communities,” she wrote in a Daily Beast blog post.
But Terry Singer, dean of the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville, said that he isn't as concerned about a possible goal of building “an army of converts” if “some of these kids can be given some permanency and consistency in their lives and some love.”
And Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said, “The option for any of these kids is not a good one if they're not adopted. It's pretty difficult for me to have concerns about folks taking kids in and loving them.”
Blake Ring, an adoptive father and a minister at Ninth and O Baptist Church, said his church unapologetically sees adoption as “a gospel witness to these children” in deed as well as word. Church families have adopted about 15 children in recent years, with 11 families now in the adoption process, he said.
The evangelical initiative is also showing practicality, warning against adopting because it's trendy.
Parents should be prepared to deal with children with potential health problems or with distress over separation from birth parents and homelands, they said.
Parents adopting cross-racially may learn “who the bigots are in their extended families,” Moore added. “That can be quite painful.”
For the Melbers, where the children are home-schooled together and cooperate on child care and other chores, the adoption experience has broadened the perspectives of both parents and children.
“It's given me more thought about more countries,” said Jonathan. He said “we're so blessed” to live in this country, but he realizes the world is “not just America.”
David Melber agreed with those who say crises of poverty and child welfare can't be solved by trying to “adopt every orphan in every country.” He cited church mission teams that work alongside locals to improve conditions for everyone in a country, including its orphans.
Oldest son Alex Melber, 16, for example, has already volunteered to work with orphans in Haiti and plans to do so again.
“Having siblings that didn't speak English, it helped me communicate with kids down there,” he said. “I had already done it here.”