I sat in my study leafing through yellowed documents stiffened by time. I read the letter typed in courier font by Sister Bertrille telling my parents they’ve been approved for the placement of a child. I notice her clear, careful signature. In a subsequent letter she happily grants their request to adopt me saying, “This will be a truly wonderful event for you and your little one.” Again I study her tilted cursive, the seal on my holy writ. The year was 1969.
I find a black and white photograph of her in the file. I stare. I cry. She is the woman who administered the sacrament of adoption to me. The sensation reminds me of my first holy communion, the first of many times I’d approach the Lord’s Table.
I wonder if Sister Bertrille knew as she signed each letter, as she placed me in my mother’s arms that adoption would be more than just a wonderful event. Did she know it would be an event without end?
As I’ve grown up in the company of the adopted, even adopted children of my own, I’ve come to see that Sister Bertrille isn’t the only one who speaks of adoption as if it were merely a one-time event. Recently author and adoptive mother Sara Hagerty said, “We prefer not to refer to our children as ‘adopted children’ as we see adoption as having been a one-time event. We just call them our children.” I understand her desire to not label her children as ‘the adopted one’ or ‘the biological one, ’ and I agree. But what caught my attention was the idea of adoption as a one-time event.
This echoes Russell Moore, author of Adopted for Life, who says, “Adoption is a past-tense verb, not an adjective.” The belief is that when the adoption proceedings are finalized, the adoption is done. The unintended implication is that the action of adoption remains in the past. But nothing could be further from the truth for those in the company of the adopted.
Adoption is a present tense and always active verb. It is a sentence without a period because there is never a full stop to the formative work of adoption in our lives.
I was adopted on April 28, 1969 and have the court papers to prove it. My adoption happened. But I also testify to the truth that my adoption happens. I am continually shaped by the graces of adopted living, constantly molded by hospitality, generosity, acceptance and an undeniable redemptive energy. Adoption is both a past event and a present tense reality for the adopted tribe.
In this way adoption reminds me of baptism. We were baptized into the community of faith – many people even inscribe this date in their Bible to mark the singular occasion. From then on we are baptized people living into our baptismal identity. Baptism is never so far in the past that it does not impinge on the present. Here we see a sacrament with a once and always quality about it.
Likewise, adoption happens once and always.
But the slow and steady hands of hospitality have formed me into a woman who welcomes others, a woman who’s had some practice in creating safe spaces and learned the cadence of solidarity. I’ve lived like the wide-open space of a loom, wholeness woven over the years with the threads of relinquishment and redemption in turn, fashioning me into a blanket able to embrace others with empathy and offer hope. Kneaded into my story are unknown bits, hidden details likely to never be disclosed. Even so, my capacity for mystery grows and allows me to live with what is (and isn’t) revealed. Over decades, adoption has shaped me into the person I am today – gifts, imperfections and all.
Adoption is so much more than a one-time event receding into the past tense. Adoption is a sacrament and spiritual formation at work in us in the present.
One of the things most deeply formed in adopted people is the capacity for radical inclusion. We know what it is to be welcomed by a family without the prerequisite of biological connection. Through years of family living we develop a comprehensive understanding of what is necessary to be family – belonging, not biology. We learn that anyone can be your family, your kin, if you let them.
Jesus said as much before the crowds in His hometown. In front of His own mother and siblings He said that anyone could be His family if they did the will of His Father. Speaking into a social context where family affiliation was in every way definitive, Jesus announced that family belonging was more that shared genealogy or clan membership. Jesus widened the definition of family by saying everyone gets in.
The company of the adopted includes Jesus, the adopted son of Joseph. His own earthly experience of adoption allowed Him to practice what He knew about family beyond biology, connection beyond clan. And as adopted ones, we learn those same lessons and follow His example in forging belonging across boundaries of ethnicity, nationality and any other line of demarcation the world constructs.
Adoption is a one-time event – the record of where it all began. But adoption is also a continued means of grace. It constantly shapes us in acceptance despite our differences and regular doses of redemptive energy. Our families become the place we can safely practice radical inclusion. Adoption happens day after day, the graces never receding into the past but ever present.
The company of the adopted, following in the footsteps of Jesus, enters the world with gifts on offer. We create authentic community, we welcome those who on the surface appear most unlike us, we pioneer belonging in the most unexpected places, and we embody the family Jesus dreamed of.
Adoption is, once and always, transforming a fractured world.