So I was in the foster care system from age 5 to 11. In that period I was adopted twice and had 3 last names. My second and last adoption was by a single father and beforehand he was my social worker. Not a traditional family but very much a family. He unfortunately died at the end of sophomore year in high school. Now I have no legal family that I have a relation with today. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been without family. In some ways I have a lot of families. I remain connected to several former foster families as well as the family that took me in during high school.
Unlike many foster care accounts, I have no horror stories to share. Being a special needs child, as most kids past 5 in the system are, I wasn’t particularly easy to raise. But I had a number of good families, where there was no abuse, no neglect, and where I have more good memories then not. In fact, there’s little I would change about childhood. And I do think it produces a unique set of experiences as I think about faith and society and our current culture wars, thus this post.
A common term of many in the lgbt community is “family of choice“. So many lgbt people have experienced rejection by their biological family and churches that they had to forge a new family for themselves, a new set of relationships and friendships. We all need people in our lives. We are not meant to be alone. I recently preached at a church whose members was predominately lgbt and it was clear that the church had become, for them, a family of choice.
Family in this instance, is not who you are born into. It is those people in your life who actually do family, they act out the functions of family in our lives. Biology is not always a good place to start, as many of us adoptees are aware of. But when foster/adoptive families do what families do, when there is care and support, you know you have family. This is also why so many of my close friends are family to me.
Because of this I find it disconcerting when people ask who my “real parents” were. My foster and adoptive parents were the most real parents I know. When I think of any number of my friends, I consider them as real as family as one could ever hope to have. And of course the church has been a family to me. One that has remained consistent despite the moves I have made as a child. Biology does not make a family. Growing up, it never occurred to me otherwise.
One of the drawback in the culture wars has been that despite all the talk about families, we seem to have an impoverished language about family. We know if we wanted a picture of the traditional family, it would be an extended one with lots of cousins, aunts and uncles, parents, grandparents and the like. It would not be a 2 person home. Does it make sense to place all parenting on 2 individuals like that?
When discussing programs such as food stamps, after school programs, mentorship programs, it appears we’re still hobbled in thinking that such things are not needed since the 2 parent family can and should do it all. And what language do we have to speak of the variety of families that do exist? Single parents, adoptive and foster parents, grandparents, stepparents, do important work. Do they receive the support, acknowledgment, and resources when our language appears to ignore them?
Recently Richard Land, from the Southern Baptist Convention, suggested that instead of support, single mothers in particular should feel responsible to give their kids up for adoption. We would apparently rather take kids from their homes then provide the support single parents need in helping raise their children.
And in all this, we’ve lost, in the western tradition, a space to talk about the role of friendship in shaping our lives and providing support. Picking up classical Greek literature one discovers that friendship, both how it is constituted and nurtured, is one of the most significant themes one will find. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics provides far more on the discussion than most Christian authors put together. The one counter example to this, interestingly enough, is feminist theology which has done a great service in recovering this topic in our time.
We also have another example of family that I have previously mention. That is the church. The church provided what families would have provided in the Roman world. A source of identity, a set of social relationships, and a new community apart from the normal ties of family and society that where given to you by birth. For those who did not fit in the Roman world, because of poverty, slavery, being a woman, not having the right family lineage, the church provided an alternative identity and a basis of support.
It intrigues me that most of the language of adoption we have is in the New Testament, in particular, with the apostle Paul. To paraphrase from Baker‘s dictionary
The Greek word for adoption (huiothesia) means to “place as a son” and is used only by Paul in the New Testament. Each of the five occurrences in his letters is to readers of a decidedly Roman background. Four references describe how New Testament believers become children of God through his gracious choice.
This adoption is not the result of any merit on the part of the believer, but solely the outworking of God’s love and grace ( Ephesians 1:5 Ephesians 1:7 ). Entering into adoption brings the rights and privileges of free sonship: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father'” ( Ro 8:15 ). The intimacy involved is remarkable.
The contrast between the religious vision, that of being a child of God, adopted into a family as opposed to those communities that had classified people as slaves, as not worthy, of being of the wrong lineage or class or nationality or status of birth is an interesting contrast. And it’s one worth recovering for the church today. I’d like to contrast that with the fear evident, for so many glbt children who grow up in church homes, only to fear rejection, if not homelessness. And not just an existential homeless but rather a literal loss of their home and family. 40% of all homeless youth are lgbt.
That stat bears reflection, repentance, and action to correct because lives are on the line. This is to suggest that the church needs a more adequate sense of family and what it means to support families. And so when I saw that gay adoptive parents would not be recognized by the state of Utah, I’m reminded of our collective failure to support the work of families, wherever that is found. And that whatever resources could be brought to bear, from the Christian tradition, to provide that support is not being utilized enough. It’s as if we forgot of our own adoption.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas.