International adoption is a ‘long, complex, costly’ process, church members say. But an increasing number see it as part of their mission — introducing the gospel to children who otherwise might not hear it.
It takes persistence, patience and prayer to adopt a child — especiallywhen that child is born half a world away, Teresa Fillmon said.
She and her husband, Rich, have done it twice. The members of theMeridian Woods church in Tallahassee, Fla., made the long trek to theEastern European nation of Ukraine to add Artur and Alla to theirfamily.
“It is a huge leap of faith,” Teresa Fillmon said. “There are so many uncertainties about it, we have to trust God.”
It’s a leap a growing number of Americans — especially church members, it seems — are willing to make. In the fiscal year 2006 the U.S. State Department issued 20,679 immigrant visas to orphans, nearly three times the number granted in the fiscal year 1990.
To help Christians navigate the rigorous process of international adoption, the Fillmons founded Cornerstone Adoption Services Inc. The licensed adoption agency has helped hundreds of Christian couples adopt children from 11 countries, from Guatemala to Azerbaijan. The couple also oversees His Kids, Too!, a relief ministry for orphans and the needy in Ukraine.
Infertility is the main reason people adopt internationally, Fillmon said. But many church members also see adoption as part of their Christian mission.
That was the case with the Fillmons, who have three biological children, ages 16 to 20, in addition to their two adopted children.
“We adopted because we feel we are called to reach out to the orphans of the world,” Teresa Fillmon said. “So we not only adopted, but started our charity to help those left behind.”
NOT AN EASY PROCESS — BUT WORTHWHILE
Tim and Michelle Shoulders have compiled a book documenting the journey that brought five Russian children into their home. The title: This is how much we love you — the story of how God put us together as a family.
The adoptions weren’t easy. That’s why the book is 120 pages long, said Tim Shoulders, body life minister for the Sugar Grove church in Meadows Place, Texas.
Unable to have children biologically, the Shoulders were considering domestic adoption. But “three of our friends adopted children domestically and had problems,” Tim Shoulders said.
Many church members choose international over domestic adoption because of the complicated legal process of having birth parents in the United States relinquish their parental rights, said Brent Isbell, preaching minister for the Bering Drive church in Houston.
But “international adoption is by no stretch perfect or easy,” Isbell said. The process requires stacks of paperwork and approval from two governments. The adoption can take two years to complete, and costs can easily add up to $25,000.
Isbell and his wife, Melinda, are veterans of “the long wait.” After gathering documents, certifying paperwork and participating in home studies with social workers, they submitted their dossier to the Chinese government — and waited more than a year for their referral. They now have two daughters, 5-year-old Jordan Mei and 17-month-old Sarah Lin.
“Adopting internationally is a long, complex, costly, often frustrating process,” Brent Isbell said. “But if you decide it’s God’s will, do it. Step out in faith. Ignore the occasional horror story about long waits and all the money it’s going to cost.
“The moment that baby is in your arms, you will never for one moment regret it.”
ADOPTION AS MINISTRY
For Todd and Henriann Catteau, international adoption was a home improvement project.
The minister for the Park Avenue church in Denison, Texas, and his wife decided to add an extra room and bathroom onto their home. Their two biological teenage daughters “were requiring more and more bathroom time as they got older,” Todd Catteau said. The project left them with an extra bedroom. “We decided to fill that room with a little 5-year-old boy from China named Bao,” he said.
As soon as he could speak English, Bao told his new parents about his best friend, Shen, back in China. “Bao has a trundle bed, and he was always pointing out that Shen could sleep in the extra bed,” Henriann Catteau said.
One year later, Shen was part of the family.
Bruce and Sheri Dennis’ three biological children, ages 11, 14 and 16, participated in the decision to add Ryan, an orphan born in Haiti, to their family.
“Our experience has been so positive that my wife’s brother and our sister-in-law are now in the process of adopting three from Africa,” said Bruce Dennis, an elder of the Fittstown, Okla., church.
Several church members who were parents before they adopted internationally told the Chronicle that a key factor in the decision was the desire to raise children in a Christian home — children who might not hear the gospel otherwise.
Church members often cite James 1:27, which calls believers to “look after orphans and widows in their distress.” But many Christians misinterpret the verse to refer only to adoption, Fillmon said. “Look after” also can mean assisting others financially who are adopting children or supporting ministries that help orphans and widows.
Church members must prayerfully consider what they’re doing before they decide that God is calling them to adopt, Fillmon said.
“Adoption is life-changing and life-altering,” she said. “It’s not just a chapter in your book. It changes the whole course of your family dynamics.”
Lora Fleener’s life changed drastically with the addition of Lydia, whom she adopted from Vietnam in 2003.
Fleener, manager of student support and communications at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., first traveled to Vietnam in 2000 with Jessica Moore, Harding’s director of women’s intramurals. Moore was adopting two Vietnamese children, Aiden and Caily.
“When I got there and saw the orphanage, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this,’” Fleener said. Now she and her daughter celebrate “gotcha day” every Jan. 22, commemorating the day in 2003 when the Vietnamese government finalized the adoption.
Parenthood is tough but rewarding for Fleener, a single mother. Members of the College church in Searcy have “adopted” the small family, and Lydia, now 4, loves her Bible class, her mother said.
Recently Lydia went to her first children’s worship training. After two songs in the auditorium, she “took off down the aisle” with her two friends, Aiden and Caily.
“I thought, ‘There go three precious little girls who have a chance to learn about Jesus,’” Fleener said, “and I just bawled.”
GROWING UP DIFFERENT
Angela Steed grew up fully aware that she was adopted — “mainly because I didn’t look anything like my family,” she said. “I was the Asian population in elementary school.”
Her mother told Steed how a policeman found her in an icy ditch and took her to the orphanage in Inchon, a fishing village outside Seoul, South Korea. A few months later she was laying in a long row of cribs, peering out from her blanket at a U.S. serviceman, soon to be her father.
“As a child, I hated that story and never repeated it to anyone,” Steed said. “I always felt ashamed that I was abandoned … I just wanted blond hair and blue eyes like everyone else I knew.”
Growing up in southern Alabama and Georgia wasn’t easy for Steed and the three brothers she didn’t resemble. Her parents went through a painful divorce. But her mother “understood that she needed God’s help,” Steed said. She made sure the family attended church and had Christian people involved in their lives.
Steed, now 31, graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., where she met her husband, Travis. The Steeds are active members of the Blacksburg, Va., church.
“As an adult, I look back at my beginnings … and understand God’s plan for me,” she said. God purposefully chose people from humble origins — including a baby hidden in the Nile River — “to show us that, no matter where we began, if we let him work through us, he can raise us up to be powerful soldiers for him.”
Over the years, Steed has come to appreciate her Asian heritage — and the people who gave her the chance to know Christ.
“I understand that God meant for me to be with this family,” she said.