It wasn’t too hard to rouse the excitement in my parents regarding the impending adoption of our son – they were adoptive parents themselves, after all. Their transition into adoptive grandparents came easy. While the international adoption process felt foreign to them, the broader brush strokes of the adopted life were indigenous to their heart. The arrival of the next adopted generation excited us all – but I’m sure for them there was the added satisfaction that they must have done something right to see their adopted daughter carry on the family tradition.
Sharing the news with Claude’s parents was another story all together. Andre and Mama Rose are traditional African pastors who hold the Bible and family near. But their concept of adoption is of the non-western variety which means you take in children from extended family members only. Granted, the Burundian understanding of extended family reaches far beyond the western definition, so you could be talking about a wider limb of the family tree who are candidates for adoption, if need be. Still, you adopt within your family line, within your clan – not from an outsider.
I happen to know that some of Claude’s siblings were adopted – and not under this kinship rubric. Andre and Mama Rose were the kind of pastors who lavished their church with love, so it’s no surprise their congregation was like family to them. As a matter of fact, the lines between family and parish were so porous that they adopted two daughters from parishioners over the years. They never made a spectacle of the adoption, just quietly enfolded these girls into their home and loved them.
This was one of my first insights into my African in-laws – they were more forward thinking than their traditional dress indicated. When confronted with a widow and orphan in distress, they responded with compassion over cultural convention. They’d already stretched the notion of adoption to welcome children into their home, adding a few more siblings for Claude to compete with around the dinner table each night. How would they respond to news of their soon to be adopted grandchildren?
From what Claude has relayed to me, his parents were quite surprised we decided to begin our family through adoption. In true African form, they believed we’d have children. They also assumed we’d have them the old-fashioned way, allowing biology to play a key role in their formation. It never occurred to them that we’d adopt, let alone begin our family with adoption.
Andre and Mama Rose found our decision to be odd, yet benevolent. They offered their approval as they saw us engaging in a gesture of care for orphans as they once did. But our decision still retained a bit of audacity, that we’d take in children from an orphanage where we knew absolutely nothing about their Burundian heritage. At least they knew the mothers of their girls, knew what kind of women they were and where they’d come from. What did we know about these babies? Was it really wise to take in outsiders?
Yet here we were, stretching their notion of adoption just a bit further than they were comfortable with, but in a direction they already started on years ago. While they didn’t fully understand our desire to adopt these babies and wrestled with some of the implications this would have within their community context, they stood with us. They allowed us to bring these children into the Nikondeha Family without knowing what that might look like to outsiders.
I never cease to be amazed by their courage to confront their own culture, time and time again. I live in gratitude for their wild hospitality that accepts parishioner’s babies, an American daughter-in-law and adopted grandchildren of unknown origin. But they are in the company of the adopted already, so I shouldn’t be surprised.
Last summer I watched Mama Rose join my son in an impromptu dance party after dinner. While Michael Jackson and Beyonce laid down the beat, she busted a move with her grandson. Soon we all got out there, showing off our best moves. All fear of embracing the outsider in the Nikondeha Family vanished over the years, because what we know deep in our dancing bones is that we are family.
And this is what belonging to the company of the adopted has meant for us, weaving together all these strands of welcome and acceptance, what we know and what we can’t ever know and the hope of redemption round our family table each night. Each thread makes our family what it is, an adoption-shaped life rich in texture and gospel truth.
Those who travel in this tribe know the anatomy of adoption. As a collective, we’ve entered into the pathos of adoptive experience and learned that no one is really an outsider. Anyone can be your family if you let them, if you love them. We are learning this truth right alongside my kids and their African grandparents.
This offering is in honor of Adoption Awareness Month.