Before I met Sharon I didn't think about adoption as something that evangelical Christians particularly cared about, or at least not in families like Sharon's—large, homeschooling families in which the parents already have lots of biological children. Sharon isn't the sort of person you visualize when you think of an adoptive mother yearning for the child she's adopting to "come home," as they say in the adoption world. After all, Sharon wasn't infertile. In keeping with her religious beliefs and as part of an evangelical movement that promotes prolific fertility, she had already had seven children biologically, and now in her mid-fifties, she was no longer particularly young.
I first got to know Sharon, who asked me not to use her real name, in the spring of 2007 when I was reporting on a group of evangelicals who didn't believe in contraception but thought Christians should accept as many children as God gave them—hence Sharon's seven. We met at a celebration hosted in Virginia by a fundamentalist homeschooling publisher, a sort of training ground for some of the people who would go on to become Tea Party activists several years down the line. (True to form, many of the men at the event walked the grounds in tricorner hats and kneesocks while the women donned colonial gowns.)
Sharon, a homemaking wife to a gentle and soft-spoken pest exterminator, was an eagerly outgoing woman with shoulder-length brown hair, a frank, makeup-free face, and a playful enthusiasm for culture-war sparring. We struck up a strange friendship, exchanging scores of e-mails, letters, and calls over several years, much of it concerning the difference in our world views: Sharon is an avid evangelizer and adheres to the self-described "patriarchy movement," while I am a secular, feminist journalist who covers religion and reproductive rights. We argued a lot about abortion.
In time Sharon, who struck me as a lifelong spiritual dabbler, trying on a dozen denominations and New Age paths before returning to the conservative Baptist beliefs of her childhood, developed a new calling. As 2007 rolled into 2008, Sharon became increasingly "convicted" that God was calling her to adopt more children into her family—possibly a brother and sister from an orphanage outside Monrovia, Liberia, or maybe a blind girl from Guatemala, or one of several infants recently born in the United States. She found these children by looking online at the websites of various Christian adoption agencies and ministries, which seemed to grow in number by the week.
The family created a blog that referenced a verse of scripture that was increasingly important in evangelical circles, James 1:27: "Pure religion is this, to help the widows and orphans in their need." They began asking friends and family for donations to help defray the tens of thousands of dollars in adoption costs needed to "bring an orphan home."
But Sharon was slightly behind the curve in the places from which she was seeking to adopt. When she began looking into Guatemala, the country was on the cusp of shutting down its huge adoption program, which had been sending adoptable children to the United States at a rate of one in every one hundred Guatemalan children born. That booming system, fueled by a seemingly insatiable demand from prospective US parents,
had led to a number of abuses, including coercion of Guatemalan families, child buying, and even kidnapping. Things didn't look much better in Liberia, which had become an adoption cause célèbre in the Christian anti-contraception movement that Sharon followed and a particular trend in her own southern city. One of Sharon's friends, she claimed, had adopted fourteen children from Liberia, and members of several churches
in nearby suburbs adopted almost all the members of a Liberian orphan-age group. In 2009, however, just as had happened in Guatemala, Liberia's government suspended international adoption there as well. They were responding to numerous complaints about unethical adoption practices, including allegations of child trafficking after one unlicensed US Christian adoption ministry—the same ministry Sharon had hoped to use for her adoptions—was accused of trying to fly children out of the country without authorization.
Undaunted, Sharon began trying to adopt domestically, within the United States, spurred on by the experience of friends who had received a newborn baby within three days of applying thanks to a new "Safe Haven" program that allowed mothers to abandon children to public authorities without penalty and without the formalities (or safeguards) of officially relinquishing for adoption. "I will make you the first to know that my husband agreed today to pursue a newborn domestic adoption in Florida," she wrote me triumphantly one day. Not long after came an-other message, asking me whether I thought it would be wrong "to attempt to talk a woman out of an abortion and ask her to let me adopt the child instead?"
I hadn't thought about it much before, but when Sharon asked the question, I realized I did think it was wrong. Sharon countered with an argument borrowed from one of her new "adoption friends," someone she had met through an online community of women who had adopted or were seeking to. The friend assured her that "When you take one of these children, you are literally saving them from the ghetto life in America."
Sharon began to support programs that encouraged women with un-planned pregnancies to carry the pregnancy to term and relinquish the child for adoption.
She also compiled a "birthmother letter" and a packet of information about her family, including photos of their children and house as well as descriptions of the lifestyle they could offer. She sent it out to Christian adoption agencies and updated the fundraising widget on her website. She quarreled with friends and neighbors when they lagged in writing reference letters for her home study—part of the adoption agency approval process—and began writing me using the acronyms of the adoption world: AA for African American or SN for special needs. She alerted me in excitement every time a new possibility for adoption emerged, each of which might send her off to Florida or Texas or Utah at a moment's notice. She became invested in one potential child after another, leaping quickly from news that a child might be available to imagining the child in her family and then being crushed when the birthmother chose another couple, as often happens in domestic adoption.
Sharon's "best adoption friend," a woman who had adopted multiple times, wrote her in sympathy, telling her to hold out hope—more babies were being born every week—and if she wasn't chosen, that meant that this was not meant to be her baby. "God knows when each child is conceived where they will grow up and once you have YOUR baby you will understand what I am saying," she comforted.
When Sharon received another rejection, she cried and came down with headaches. She wrote me that she was exhausted with the entire process and didn't think she could continue. But she always came up looking for other options.
Part of me was baffled by Sharon's fervor, and part of me recoiled, though at first I couldn't understand why. I wondered why Sharon was throwing herself into such a punishing process when she had seven children at home. The tears she shed over kids who went to other adoptive parents would have seemed more understandable coming from an infer-tile couple who had been passed over and were mourning yet another lost possibility to parent. If her motivation was to save orphans in need, why did she seem more disappointed than relieved when children she had looked at were adopted elsewhere?
From The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce. Copyright 2013 by Kathryn Joyce. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs Books.