But the fifth annual Orphan Sunday, arrives at a challenging time, and not just because the number of international adoptions is dwindling. The adoption movement faces criticisms so forceful that some of its own leaders are paying heed.
The gist: Some evangelicals are so enamored of international adoption as a mission of spiritual salvation — for the child and the adoptive parents — that they have closed their eyes to adoption-related fraud and trafficking, and have not fully embraced alternatives that would help orphans find loving families in their home countries.
Some adoption advocates in evangelical circles have angrily rejected the criticisms. But the president of the coalition that organizes Orphan Sunday, Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, has urged his allies and supporters to take the critiques to heart even though he disputes some aspects of them. Alliance partners, he says, should be eager to support a broad range of orphan-care programs and to avoid the temptation of viewing adoptive parents as saviors.
“When the dominant feature of our thinking becomes ‘us as rescuers,’ we’re in grave danger,” Medefind wrote on the alliance website. “What often follows is the pride, self-focus and I-know-better outlook that has been at the root of countless misguided efforts to help others.”
One leading critic of the movement comes from within evangelical ranks — Professor David Smolin, director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at the law school of Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Alabama. Smolin plunged into the debate after he and his wife adopted two daughters from India in 1998, then learned that the girls had been abducted from an orphanage where they’d been placed temporarily by their mother.
The evangelical movement “uncritically participates in adoption systems riddled with child laundering, where children are illicitly obtained through fraud, kidnapping or purchase,” Smolin wrote in a law journal article.
“The result is often tragically misdirected and cruel, as the movement participates in the needless separation of children from their families.”
Many of Smolin’s concerns were reinforced with the recent publication of “The Child Catchers,” a book about the evangelical adoption movement by journalist Kathryn Joyce. It details cases where foreign children adopted by evangelicals were mistreated and looks at problematic Christian-led adoption initiatives in such countries as Ethiopia, Liberia and Haiti — where Idaho church group leader Laura Silsby briefly was jailed for arranging illegal travel of children after the 2010 earthquake.
The evangelical adoption movement, writes Joyce, has provided millions of new advocates for a global adoption industry “too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money, turning poor countries’ children into objects of salvation, then into objects of trade.”
Christian engagement in international adoption goes back many decades, notably to the efforts of a devout Oregon couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, to promote adoption of Korean orphans in the 1950s.
Only in the past 10 years, however, has there been formalization of a Christian adoption/orphan-care movement, as heralded by formation of the Christian Alliance for Orphans in 2004.
In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, approved a resolution urging its churches to promote “an adoption culture.”
The resolution was drafted by a rising young leader, the Rev. Russell Moore, who now heads the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee. Moore is author of “Adopted For Life,” published in 2009, which relates his experiences as father to two boys he and his wife adopted from a squalid Russian orphanage.
Moore suggests that the prospect of evangelizing a child shouldn’t be the primary motivation for a Christian to adopt, but says it’s natural for an evangelical parent to seek to pass on values to an adopted child.
Another prominent evangelical adoption advocate, Dan Cruver of Traveler’s Rest, S.C., addresses that issue in his book “Reclaiming Adoption.” The ultimate purpose of adoption by Christians, Cruver writes, “is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel.”
At the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a prominent adoption think tank, executive director Adam Pertman commended the efforts of some major Christian adoption agencies to expand programs aiding orphans in their home countries.
Initiatives by such agencies as Bethany Christian Services and Buckner International include promoting domestic adoption, foster care and kinship care, and providing support for orphans’ local communities.
Bethany and Buckner will be participating Nov. 21-22 in a first-of-its kind conference in Kenya aimed at promoting domestic adoption in East Africa.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.