Thinking about adopting an orphan from a Majority World country?
You'll need to keep your altruism in check.
Especially if you don't know what a "Majority World" country is. Regular readers of my blog will understand that I've adopted this increasingly popular term to corroborate what social scientists now consider to be a more accurate description of what used to be called "Third World" countries.
Yes, in a way, the change is a matter of linguistic semantics. But really, it's also an acknowledgement of something we Westerners often forget: the majority of people on our planet do not live like us. Sure, we go on short-term missions trips to countries where electricity is a luxury and clean water only comes out of a plastic bottle. Back at home, we soon forget, and assume our lifestyle we take for granted here is within reach of most anybody with the tenacity and determination to improve themselves.
Intellectually, of course, we know better. One of the reasons the United States is waging a battle over illegal immigration, for example, consists of the reality that our standard of living is not yet sustainable on a global level. We're struggling with how to allow some people who weren't born here the privileges of living here, while billions of other people cannot.
Adoption in Context
Indeed, immigration is one way people can come to the United States. Another is international adoption. Extending the benefits of American citizenship has become one of the most compelling reasons people from the States have adopted children from places like Ethiopia, Cambodia, and even Russia. Conventional wisdom says that plucking orphans from Majority World nations and other struggling countries, like those of the former Soviet Union, will give at least a few children the opportunity to thrive in a much more privileged society.
Yet with the go-live today of my latest non-fiction review for Crosswalk.com, I've been thinking again about the paradox that can exist with international adoption. In his book, No Greater Love, an entrepreneur-turned-untrained-social-worker named Levi Benkert uproots his wife and family from affluent suburban Sacramento, California, to live in remote and impoverished Jinka, Ethiopia. Their mission? To save what are called "mingi" babies from certain death at the hands of their own desperate parents. You'll have to read my review - and indeed, the entire book - to understand more of the details of this compelling story, but suffice it to say that one of the first options Benkert and his team consider for these "orphans" is international adoption.
Only these babies weren't orphans in the traditional sense. In this particular case, with this particular tribe, the babies still had both parents. Due to some primitive satanic superstitions, however, even if the lives of these little children were spared, they couldn't live with the tribe. They could live elsewhere and spare the tribe of the wrath from evil spirits, but who would care for them?
Who else but adoptive parents from the West? At least, that's what the Benkerts first figured. But when parents of mingi babies found out that the Benkerts were arranging for their children saved from slaughter to go and live with Western parents thousands of miles away and never return, they figured: what's the point? Either way, through death or adoption, they'd never see their child again. Because of the twisted logic from generations of witchcraft, coupled with very real cultural deficits from living in tribal Ethiopia, these parents considered international adoption no different from murder.
I hate to keep saying, "read the book," but really - to understand the plight faced by the Benkerts and the infants they were trying to save, you have to read the book. Or at least my review of it.
Rich or Poor, Parents Can Still Love Their Kids
Suffice it to say that the Benkerts realized that international adoption isn't the fix we Westerners have become accustomed to thinking it is. In their particular situation, they realized that forging a system where Ethiopian widows from the country's many illnesses and wars helped raise the mingi babies would work better than adoption. So that's the path they're now following, raising funds and organizing a ministry to keep mingi babies in-country and, at the same time, giving widows a new opportunity for family and purpose in a severely patriarchal society. You can follow their journey on their blog.
But do you catch the key element in the Benkert's approach to helping resolve the crisis with mingi babies? Once they were in-country, and after their heads began to stop reeling from blatant culture shock, the Benkerts began to learn that parental love isn't an exclusively Western commodity. The reason these kids were being killed wasn't because their parents didn't love them. They were enslaved to a satanic ritual that would take time for missionaries and aid workers to unravel and dispel. But time wasn't something that was on the side of these mingi babies. So the Benkerts had to work with what they had. And what they had was a tribe desperate for a way out.
It's at this point that many of us evangelicals would sit back in our plush armchairs and scoff, "Christ is their only way out!" And we'd be right, at least in terms of the hold Satan has on this tribe.
Apparently, however, the Holy Spirit wasn't working to immediately bring salvation to the people of this tribe. He had other plans. And it appears that His plan includes an opportunity to remind we haughty Westerners that parental love trumps materialism.
Who says our kids here in the States need all of their technological trinkets, designer clothing, and select sports clubs to know they're valued and loved? For millennia, parents have been able to universally demonstrate love to their children with far fewer commodities. Sure, clean water, reliable electricity, sanitary sewers, and nutritious food make child-rearing much more efficient and humane, but how often do we Westerners, in our endorsement of international adoption, justify the availability of these good things as a ruse so we can - however subconsciously - validate the excessive materialism in which we wallow?
We need to save those kids from poverty! We need to give them opportunities for having fun childhoods and rewarding careers!
As if America is the only place kids can be free from poverty and have opportunities for fun and personal development.
The average cost for an American couple to adopt an orphan from a Majority World country runs from $15,000 to $20,000. And that's just to get the kid over here. Imagine if that money was spent on the orphan in his native country, where he could grow up with his parents, family, and tribe? What if he could get a good education in his hometown, and drink water from a fresh well in his hometown, and avoid germs with the help of a sanitary sewer in his hometown?
What if he could learn a trade, get a job, provide for his family, participate in a democracy, and raise a new generation to do the same? Isn't this basically what most Americans want for their kids? Into which segment of this scenario do smartphones and leather-wrapped steering wheels play pivotal roles?
They Say 'Orphan,' We Hear 'Parentless'
It's not even like all of these kids who are called "orphans" are really parentless. The term "orphan" may be one of the most mis-used terms in the international relief lexicon. Of course, there are parentless children, particularly from the AIDS epidemic and the countless wars and famines that have ravaged the African continent for generations. But how many children classified as "orphans" by systems looking for efficiencies actually have at least one living parent, and maybe grandparents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, and even a tribal community which has historically been the de-facto safety net for its people?
When we hear the term "orphan," many Westerners assume it means a child without either parent. In many Majority World countries, the term "orphan" means somebody whose parents cannot provide for their needs. But how many children are adopted by Western parents who don't understand that a family unit may still exist in the child's hometown? The Benkerts discovered that a whole adoption industry is running amok in Ethiopia, with children being bought and sold to feed the demand for cute black babies as trophies of Western concern.
Sometimes people in a position to render aid do so with the expectation that the aid they render should be dispensed by their rules. If I'm spending the money, I get to say how it's spent.
It didn't take long for the Benkerts to realize that lording it over people in need isn't necessarily the best way to accomplish one's objective.
I'm not saying that all international adoptions are wrong, that all Westerners who adopt aren't being entirely realistic, and that all international adoption agencies can't be trusted.
It's becoming clearer and clearer, however, that people contemplating participating in international adoptions need to do so with their eyes wide open. And their hearts willing to accept a solution that may not result in bringing a precious bundle of joy back across the ocean.
But if we're talking true love here, doesn't true love seek what's best for the other person?
Even if what's best doesn't look like what we're used to?