Adoption, Faith, and Belonging

I recently interviewed several families living in the Fresno, California area to explore their experiences with adoption. The following five stories, told from the parents' point of view, are limited to the following scope: Mennonite and/or Anabaptist families, Caucasian parents, and transnational adoptions of children from Asia. Here I present several vignettes categorized into the following: Motivation to Adopt, Initial Bonding, and the child's Construction of Identity. In all of these categories, I note the role of religious faith and how it is reflected in various and meaningful ways.


Anthropologist Linda Seligmann (2013) examines the role faith plays in adoption in a chapter of her recent book entitled, Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption Across Race, Class, and Nation. She finds that many American adoptive parents believe in intelligent design and in the idea that "God had a plan in store" for the formation of their families. To those parents, the adoption of a child is not just a random matching, one of chance— a higher power has a role in shaping the children and the family (61).

For many adoptive parents, a kind of mystical, supernatural intervention such as a sign, recurring dream or sense of call is part of the experience and, in the words of Howell, 2006, "contributes to the transubstantiation process that lies at the heart of kin-work in adoptive families" (qtd. in Seligmann 55). The significant role of religious belief in adoption and family formation has been clearly documented in several reports including Seligmann 2013, Jacobson 2008, and Ruth 2000 (Seligmann 55).

Not surprisingly, Seligmann found that adoptive parents often refer directly to the Bible as a rationale—God has adopted all of us as sons and daughters. In fact, some say, the very concept of adoption is inspired by God (60).

Seligmann's point about parents' imbuing the adoption with religious, mysterious and transcendent significance played out in some fashion in several of the interviews I conducted, as well as in my own experience. It is as if for us, as parents, our feelers were out, searching for meaning as we took this risky, life-changing step.

Parent of JONNY: Age 23

We were not able to conceive, but we did not think it good stewardship of our resources to spend money on IVF. We did all sorts of other tests to find out what we could, but at some point we told ourselves "other babies need homes." And we did not need to have a blond, blue-eyed baby; we did not want to be narcissistic. In fact, we felt comfortable with a child from another ethnic background.

This juncture was a significant time. It was Easter. We spent Good Friday in beautiful Yosemite National Park where we discussed what to do since we had hit a wall. We had explored adoption at that point and had had offers for crack babies, but did not feel ready to take on a special needs child. We had already given away the clothes and crib we had bought and had basically given up.

The Monday after Easter we made one last call to Bethany Christian Services. They said, "You wouldn't want to adopt a boy from Philippines, would you? "Instinctively, we said "yes!" without thinking. Now, we are not impulsive people, flying by the seat of our pants. We like being organized, in control. But this was stepping out in faith. We chose Jonathan, a Biblical name, a gift from God. He was our Easter baby.

Parents of GRACE: Age 10*

We wanted to start a family but we faced issues of infertility and a painful miscarriage. We thought about IVF, but said, "No, let's use our resources in other ways." We also thought of the Bible: widows and orphans are to be taken care of. We thought about justice. We thought of China with its one-child policy. Girls were less prized than boys—we saw it as a justice issue.

We did have grief and a measure of hostility towards God since we could not conceive, but as soon as our daughter was placed in our arms, all of that went away. God took it all away. We knew this child was who God placed with us. This is how God orchestrated it.

*Not her real name.

Parents of HOPE, Age 11*

We wanted to grow our family, and we wanted to adopt from India. We were living there at the time, serving in ministry, and we wanted to be more connected with South Asia. We also knew the challenges an orphan girl faces in India, but it was hard to adopt from there while we were living there, and no one knew how to do it. Indian bureaucracy makes the process very complex and at the time we were looking, religion was a major block since the common thought in India was if the child is Hindu, she should go to a Hindu family. Christian foreigners were at the bottom of the list. So we turned to Nepal.

Nepal was more open than India but unfortunately for us, in the middle of adoption, Nepal transitioned to a new government which shut down all adoptions due to reports of corruption and child trafficking. We had already met our child once; she was five months old. But now we were told to give up the adoption. It was like death; we had knee-jerk emotions. But we continued to pray for her anyway.

Six months later, we got a call and were told we could proceed with the adoption. We decided to give her the name "Hope." We took this theme from Jeremiah 29, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you" (New International Version, Jer.11-12).

*Not her formal name

Parents of LAN: Age 18

For us, adoption was in our DNA, so to speak. On my side (mother), my great-grandmother had adopted several children in addition to her own. In one case, the mother had died and her children were farmed out to relatives, as it was commonly done in those days. Another time, great grandma went to church one Sunday, found out they were looking for a home for a baby boy whose mother had died in childbirth, and took the baby back home with her that very day, not even bothering to consult with her husband!

It was, in fact, not only in our own DNA, but in the Mennonite DNA since the church has close ties all over the world. So it felt quite natural for us to consider adoption before considering having biological children. We also felt it natural to adopt from Vietnam, the country in which we were serving with Mennonite Central Committee in 1999.

For us, we saw our girl as a flower, naming her after the Vietnamese word for orchid. On our way to the orphanage where we first laid eyes on her, I wrote this poem:

Blessing (Upon receiving our daughter)

We glide along in the taxi
soundproofed against harsh vendor's cries,
revving motorbikes, clashing horns.

I see through tinted glass
French villas, banyan trees,
women riding by, like bandits,
handkerchiefs tied tight
around their mouths.

The cloudy day hangs heavy over the streets
as we, with limp and strangely foreign documents
drive through Hanoi towards the orphanage.

Later I would see them,
babies sausaged together, side by side
and head to head
on dull grass mats,
sharing breaths of sleep.

Later the moment would come,
my husband exchanging sounds with a stranger
and I, caught mid-thought, mid-air, my head turning,
body swinging around to surprise-catch

Black hair, blacker eyes, fine forehead fuzz
and all my breath stopped in my mouth.

But now, refuged in my taxi
I am looking, my eyes fine-tuned to this day,
I do not know I am searching until I see it,
a single rose
in understated yellow,
arching out of the backpack
of a passing bicyclist.
Its petals stretch
fragile and firm
against the day's gloom.

As a side note, we were immensely pleased when one of our Vietnamese staff member decided to adopt a baby from his community; perhaps he found it a bit easier after watching us, to break out of cultural norms in a country where bloodline is everything.

Parents of SHARADA: Age 20

We wanted to be parents and tried the whole fertility route. After a couple of failures, we turned to another option: adoption. We were fairly practical in making this decision, though our faith enabled us to be open to it. We adopted internationally because domestic adoption seemed such a complicated, lengthy process. Honestly, the main hesitation we had was cost!

We also felt the situation was "not pretty" in that people in other cultures did not want to adopt themselves. Were we doing the ethical thing? We did not know what to do with people who came up to us and said, "You are doing such a good thing!" Maybe and maybe not. We had our own selfish reasons. It is a mixed bag about whether we are helping the child or not. At one level it seems to would be better just to help the birth family out instead of adopting their child. And so much money is going to the agency and to the lawyer for the court case. Also, we certainly wanted to avoid the trafficking of children. It is "the fog of adoption."

We adopted our first, a girl, from India at nine months of age. I have a vivid memory of the plane ride home from India. We were all sick and Sharada had diarrhea. I remember a prayer floating through my mind, "Lord, give us love, give us courage, give us grace." Later, I realized that these were words from one of our house church songs, "Lord, listen to your Children Praying."


In the joy of receiving our new child, some of us were quite naïve about the problems and stresses that come with adoption. One of these is the concern over bonding—either child to parent or parent to child or both.

Linda Seligmann argues that faith-based beliefs allow for a "comfortable narrative" for adoptive parents when faced with awkward situations, the unknown or things outside their parental control. This grounding in faith, she claims, helps to mitigate the difficulties that arise.

Some of us, in our desire to feel justified by God and others, conveniently forget about the stark reality in our adoptions. What does it mean that God had a hand in this adoption? Though some of us parents did not always follow this line of thinking out, in her research, Seligmann found that actually, several parents did recognize and comment on the sorrowful situations that led to their adoption process. One parent states it in brutally honest terms: "The reality is that Flora is my child because something went wrong. To believe otherwise would mean that God intended her mother to suffer because she could not afford to raise her child,that we were meant to have the option of adding a girl to our family because we could afford the price." (Larsen as qtd by Seligmann 68). Another adoptive parent said it would be a mean and vengeful God who would allow a child to suffer just so he or she could be placed with a "predestined mom and dad." (Ken as qtd by Seligmann 68.) Yet another parent in Seligmann's study noted the irony, the disconnect: when parents adopt, they throw a baby shower with smiles all around and a big celebration. Meanwhile, the adopted child may feel displaced, confused, out of place, and profoundly sad (66).

In my interviews, I found that this complexity played itself out immediately for some of us, as the initial difficulty of bonding with the child tested our "comfortable narrative."

Parents of GRACE:

Our daughter was adopted from China when she was seventeen months old, but it took three years to bond with me, her mother. She would cry in the morning when daddy left, then just sit in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. I sat in another doorway and then read stories out loud until eventually Grace would come to my side. What helped was my decision to home school. It was healing for me, and gave me credibility in the family instead of being the one pushed out. Our daughter loved to draw. But she first drew just herself in a bubble, then only herself and her daddy, then all three of us in the bubble, and finally put no bubble around any of us. It was like healing. She was in the picture, in a safe place. Now she is still in the picture but there are drawings of other things as well. (In a current picture, she is a blue penguin in the corner of the paper!)

Parent of JONNY:

We adopted our son at two-and-a-half weeks. At first, there was no sense of bonding with me, his Mom—it all seemed so strange. Then when he was three weeks old, I had a very intense bonding experience with him. As I was holding him close, we gazed deeply into each other's eyes: it seemed to be a lengthy, knowing look that he was truly my son, and I was truly his mother. A profound affirmation of our bond. It was a gift. Then growing up, I was always his playmate, always bonding. We are connected now.


Many of us adoptive parents thought a loving family and environment, along with the blessing of God, was all we needed. As the Beetles sang, "Love is All You Need." Right?

It is true that as adoptive parents, many of us failed to see the complexities, that love, in fact, may be not enough to heal some traumatic "primal wounds" and that the limitations of our very beings would be tested.

As Seligmann discovered in her research, "Parents had a naïve belief that they could change a child's condition through their parenting and environment and were dismayed if, as many found out, they could not" (61).

Another way that this simplified view is reinforced, Seligmann found, is when adoption agencies and media portray both the children and the adoptive parents as "angels" ( 70). This not only elevates the moral goodness of these very human actors, but "perpetuates the idea that these children are blank slates that parents can instill their value systems and beliefs into" (70).

I found this over-confidence in the influence of the environment echoed in some of my interviews, though not all. How does the child construct his or her self-identity anyway?

Parent of JONNY:

We went into the adoption process, like many others in the church, thinking all we had to do is love the child and nurture the child and everything would work out. This was the view in the 1960s and 1970s.

We also went into adoption thinking, this is like a gift package! There are surprises inside. Take out more tissue paper and things unfold in layers.

Some things about our son fit in very naturally with our family. Just like his father, Jonny loves sports. His father worked in the athletics department at a local college; Jonny played baseball in high school and college. But what to do if a son chooses a path that challenges his parent's faith practices? This could certainly happen to anyone, but it is especially intense for me, a Mennonite mom who was left raising my son when his father died of cancer. What do I do when my son chooses a certain line of work that directly challenges my faith practices in nonviolence? All this was and still is a stretch for me. Recently, I recalled that his birthfather was in a similar profession (in the Philippines) to Jonny's chosen line of work here in the U.S. DNA, it is in there! In a way, I could better understand his choice. And that was comforting.

Parent of LAN:

I was always surprised by how much my daughter thought about her birth parents. She was always very conscious she was adopted and was always trying to figure things out, even as a 4-year-old. She inexplicably referred to her birth mom as her "pink mom" and randomly wondered aloud why her birth mom had to give her up. She was always making connections in her mind between what she observed around her and her own identity as an adopted child. For example, after she heard a story in church about the widow's surrendering of her last coin in the temple, she whispered to me, "That must be why my pink Mom had to give me up. She must not have had money for diapers and baby food."

Adopting internationally provided an additional challenge. Even to this day she dislikes the color of her skin. Recently, she told me that when she was little she tried to rub the color off; she just thought she was dirty since she was not as white as the rest of us. It was so wonderful to hear a doctor once compliment her skin color, calling it "cinnamon-brown"!

As a parent I sometimes over-estimate the influence of a loving environment. In fact, it was only recently that I came to accept that an adoptive parent can only go so far—that I can never ever fully "replace" the birth Mom.

Parents of SHARADA:

We realized, early on, that our blank slate idea was seriously challenged. We went into this thinking it does not make a difference that we were adopting— we were just like any other parents. We found we had underestimated how big a role genetics plays in the shaping of a child. We parents sometimes overinterpret things in retrospect; that is, something that we attribute to adoption may, in fact, be simply an in-born characteristic, a personality trait. I, in consultation with my husband who is a biologist at NIH, wrote a book in 2015 called Weaving a Family: Genetics, Identity, and Adoption. We are constantly running up against a different set of genes than our own. A simple example: we are book-loving, game-playing enthusiasts. None of our children like these past-times but are rather heavily into sports and music. This is a constant adjustment for us.

There are indeed unexpected challenges of family dynamics in adoption, but in my interviews, I also found some very positive aspects about the way families adapted to their adopted children in order to foster a strong sense of identity—something that dovetails into Seligmann's research.

Seligmann found that adoptive parents experiment more with different kinds of religious practices, and rituals, and are more willing to mix things up for the sake of the child (56). Significantly, Seligmann found that parents will put the comfort level of their children, such as worshipping in a more racially-mixed congregation, above their own religious comfort level. Some families also invent new rituals to help bring about a healthy sense of self-esteem—such as brother/sister day to celebrate relationship of siblings or "got-cha day" which is the day the child comes home to live with the new family.

Parents of GRACE:

We were very intentional about making sure our daughter felt she belonged. We are both Caucasian but changed churches intentionally so our daughter has a place where she belongs and we parents do not as much. We now go to a Chinese Christian Church. One thing we had to get used to, among many, was elderly Chinese women coming up to us and making sure our daughter is raised in the "proper way"!

Parents of SHARADA:

Our daughter has always been conscious of her skin color. Growing up, she felt she stood out at our house church which is comprised of mostly Caucasian professionals and was visibly uncomfortable there. We felt rather bad about that, so in order to provide some connections and grounding for her, when Sharada was 16, we sent her with her house church mentor to visit the nun who raised her at a Catholic home near Hyderabad, India. For a number of reasons it did not make sense for the entire family to go, so our daughter went with her mentor; it was an invaluable experience for them both.


I found in my research and my interviews that we Mennonites, as adoptive parents, often have an idealized view of what adoption is. We sometimes act out of the Protestant ethic, with noble intentions to do good in the world. We sometimes have conscious or unconscious theological underpinnings— Anabaptist values. But there is a lot that we are unaware of when we adopt—not the least of which are the very deep wounds of early abandonment, of bewildering displacement, of a confused identity.

As our adopted children grow up, there may be instances when we, the parents, are rejected outright—and perhaps our faith as well. Our religious beliefs both enable and complicate the adoption experience. Ultimately, we will never fully understand our child's experience. And some of us have to come to terms with the hard truth that we can never fully replace our child's birth parents. It is often a tough journey— but the mix of delight and sorrow, happiness and hurt, discovery and despair, placement and displacement is the whole, complex package we receive when we accept the gift of our beloved child.

Works Cited

Duerksen, Darren and Shahna. Personal interview. 14 May 2017.

Kinnison, Cynthia and Quentin. Personal interview. 7 Jun. 2017.

Klassen-Isaac, Esther. Personal interview. 10 Aug. 2017.

Landis, Rosanna and Don Weaver. Personal interview. 3 Oct. 2017

Seligmann, Linda. Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption across Race, Class and Nation. Stanford University Press, 2013.

About the Author

Fran Martens Friesen

Fran Martens Friesen is Assistant Professor of English at Fresno Pacific University where she has been teaching for nearly fifteen years. She also oversees the writing program for the university, including the freshmen composition classes and the writing-across-the-curriculum initiatives. She has presented at various regional and national conferences, most recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Mennonite/s Writing Conference. In 2015, she, along with a colleague, organized that conference and brought it to Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, she served with Mennonite Central Committee, a development agency, for five years in Vietnam, along with her husband and family. She received her Master’s Degree in the Teaching of Writing from Georgetown University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from Goshen College.

Fran is married to another professor at FPU, Dr. Ken Martens Friesen, and has three children, two boys and a girl. She and Ken live near campus with three cats and a dog. They enjoy taking FPU students (and their daughter) to Vietnam for a learning tour every other summer.