I met Heba in a park a few months after we brought our youngest daughter home from China. I didn’t notice her playing with her young daughters, even though under normal circumstances I probably would have. I’ve always been drawn to people from other cultures and backgrounds, and her musical Arabic would have captured my attention had I not been so immersed in my own world of desperately trying to help a grieving, sick, and overwhelmed little girl learn that I was Mama and somehow comprehend that I was safe and could be trusted.
But Heba noticed me. She walked up to me smiling broadly and told me she liked my skirt. I wearily smiled, thanked her, and didn’t reciprocate conversationally in any way. In fact, I think I moved to another area of the playground. A few minutes later, she wandered over and asked me how old my daughters were. “Almost four and almost two,” I said, quickly walking away again.
To be honest, usually I’m far more outgoing. But I felt like life was quicksand and I was sinking, and I didn’t have any extra emotional energy to invest in new friendships. If my memory serves, she had to try at least once more to strike up a conversation with me. And this time I found my manners and asked her about her family and where she was from. Before we left the park, I’d learned her daughters were almost the same age as my girls, she was from Egypt, and I was going to her house for tea a few days later.
Months later, after we were fast friends and could speak more frankly with one another, I asked Heba why she had been so persistent with me in the park that day. I’d brushed her off at least twice and certainly wasn’t brimming with friendliness. Had the shoes been reversed, I don’t think I would have deemed her friend material. Her answer to my question first opened my eyes to an aspect of adoption I hadn’t yet considered, “I saw your daughter Alea and knew you must be a person with an open heart, and I needed a friend.”
I’ve thought a lot about Heba’s response this last year. I hadn’t considered it much until now because for those first couple of years after we got home, I didn’t have the luxury of mental space for deep pondering. We were in survival mode on several life fronts, and all I had the capacity to think about was the current crisis. (You may be there now, and if so this post isn’t really for you yet. Hunker down, sister, and you’ll get through the storm.) But over this last year in particular, as we’ve settled into more comfortable family rhythms, I’ve been pondering what adoption means in our life. And as the world outside the walls of our home seems to grow more divided and chaotic, I keep coming back to Heba’s response.
Heba is an Arabic Muslim woman in a predominantly Christian and deeply conservative small West Texas town. Although her experience has been largely positive, I know it can’t always be an easy place to be who she is. At a very minimum, it can be isolating to be of a different faith in a town where community belonging is still strongly tied to church membership. By many counts, she is an outsider – different country of origin, different native tongue, different religion, and different customs. And as an outsider-looking-for-a-friend, she picked me. She picked me because she saw I had claimed a former-outsider as my daughter. Though she knew nothing else about me, the fact that the circle of my family had been drawn wide gave her reason to believe I would be safe.
What if being an adoptive family is about so much more than giving a child a home and growing the number of people who will hopefully someday gather around our Thanksgiving tables? In her new book which releases August 17, “Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World,” Kelley Nikondeha draws a more vibrant view of adoption than simply what happens when an orphaned child is claimed by a family. In a world fractured by war, fear of ‘the other’ and tribalism, she explores how the ripple effects of adoption – things like hospitality, cultivating belonging, radical welcome, and protection of the vulnerable — can transform broken communities and lives and reflect God’s coming kingdom. “Adoption is one way we dare to stitch the world back together. It offers a needle and thread to begin the mending. We cannot mend all the wounds, gather all the fragments scattered around war zones and orphanages and underserved neighborhoods – but we do what we can with each stitch,” Kelley says.
I think many of us live on the fringes of the fullness of what this may mean. Like I said, I’ve spent most of the last few years knee-deep in parenting-help books that lean heavy towards attachment. (Love me some Dr. Purvis.) If you’re like me, when I think about adoption, I’ve tended to think about the daily reality of knitting a child from a hard place into our family… not about what it might mean in other areas of my life. But that’s starting to change, and thanks to Kelley’s book, I now have some structure around which I can see the disparate parts of my life becoming connected and whole.
And wholeness looks like a wider circle.
After meeting in the park two years ago, Heba and I started having dinners that quickly morphed from 2 people to 3 to 10 to a loosely organized International Women’s Group that now has over 200 members. We meet monthly for coffee and conversation and together we make reusable feminine hygiene kits for girls growing up in developing countries, fighting against isolation and keeping girls in school. In our circle, we have women from at least 5 different faith traditions, close to 20 countries and more languages than I can count. It’s a beautifully wide circle.
Adoption isn’t a common theme in our international group – so I know being an adoptive family isn’t the only way to develop a perspective that embraces difference with curiosity and compassion and genuine love. But it has been a significant part of my journey, and so Kelley’s words ring deeply true. For the most part, she says, we humans tend to “behave like we’re different species instead of fellow siblings in God’s wide family.” But adoption tells a different story. Adoptive families can “cultivate belonging with anyone unlike us because we know that it’s always possible to graft someone into our family tree. Point us to the arid places, and we will break the ground and plow it toward connection and kinship. It is our superpower.”
I’m not suggesting that adoption will lead each of us to draw the same wider circle – yours may lead you into your inner city or public school instead of into an international community. But what I do think, and what Kelley so beautifully articulates, is that God cultivates a unique perspective on what it means to belong within adoptive families. And it isn’t just unique – it looks a lot like His heart, and put into practice, it looks like God’s kingdom unleashed in the here and now.
One of the things Kelley’s words emboldened me to recognize is that adoption has changed me from the inside out, and it isn’t just about my parenting. It has helped me recognize that any child could be my child, any outsider could be part of my circle, and any unloved person could be part of my family.
Can you imagine the healing love that could be unleashed upon the world if we each turned our adoptive hearts outward, extending their impact far beyond the boundaries of our families?
I think that would look like God’s kingdom come.
Though some of my favorite parts of the book centered on how a life transformed by adoption can give life to other barren and broken wastelands in this world, this book is by no means primarily about taking the lessons of adoption and applying them to other areas. It’s also a beautiful look at the heart of adoption. As both an adoptee and an adoptive mother, Kelley speaks eloquently and with tender wisdom and vulnerable insight into so many aspects of adoption, including the harder sides like loss and relinquishment, grief, unrequited affection and attachment struggles, and the sometimes unanswerable questions about first families.
And as she tackles these issues, she weaves in stories from scripture, tracing themes of adoption from Moses to Jesus, with many stops in between. And this is no fluffy, feel-good theology of adoption. It isn’t so heavy on the redemption that it doesn’t count the cost. Unlike many theologians (armchair or otherwise), when Kelley talks about how we are all adopted children of God and how adoption is a beautiful earthly picture of a scriptural truth, she doesn’t gloss over the pain of its beginnings. She looks loss, tragedy, and the severe injustice that sometimes leads to relinquishment square in the eye and invites us to do the same. This is a far messier theology, and some ends don’t tie up nicely and neatly, but I’m grateful to be reminded that grace can be gritty, and it’s never cheap.
In short, if you’re looking for a book to wrap up your summer reading list, please pick up a copy of Kelley Nikondeha’s book “Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World.” And let her words wash over you and empower you to take your love out into this fractured world we all call home. I don’t think this means we have to add more obligations to our “to do” lists.
Whether we are sitting beside our children’s hospital beds or ferrying our kids to and from activities, if adoption marks us as people with open hearts, as my friend Heba says, may we live like them – listening to the Spirit’s promptings and cultivating belonging wherever we go.