Evangelical Trafficking?


Guest post for Kingdom in the Midst


Last week a fast and furious online exchange broke out over the Mother Jones article“Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.” Authored by Kathryn Joyce the piece generated responses from two high profile writers, Jonathan Merritt and Ed Stetzer.

Joyce’s article is based on a chapter in her new book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, which I will be reviewing here later this month.

As a result of the articles surrounding the subject, my friend Jason Egly, himself an adoptive father, introduced me to Caleb David, co-founder and Executive Director of One Child Campaign. Caleb surprised me by agreeing with portions of Joyce’s claims: there are problems in the broader Christian adoption movement some of which would be classified as “child trafficking.”

I asked Caleb to write a guest post for Kingdom in the Midst and he readily agreed.

I’m not much one who likes labels. I think too often labels are used to “explain” things that we don’t fully understand. Yet, for the sake of context and a base line I will resort to it.

On paper, Kathryn Joyce, author of new highly controversial book by Public Affairs, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, and I are quite possibly at opposite sides of the swinging pendulum in political and religious beliefs.

Kathryn would be labeled as liberal, feminist, award-winning journalist and author who just released an expose on the conservative Christian adoption movement.


Caleb David, co-founder One Child Campaign

I, an evangelical conservative, adoptive dad of two from Ethiopia, and director of a faith based short-term missions organization.

Kathryn and our family met through a string of unusual and unexpected events while we were in Ethiopia navigating a frustrating situation in our second adoption. This initial interview that we thought was just about our adoption situation led us to conversations beyond adoption into holistic orphan care, the church, faith-based communities and the complexity of poverty.

Over the past year and a half, Kathryn and I have talked on numerous occasions and have kept in touch via email. We were quite chary knowing that she was working on a book investigating adoption. However, we believed that if we were to speak truth from our experience in adoption and years of service that our hearts would come through. We actually didn’t believe that any part of our story or ministry vision would ever end up published. A few days before it’s official release, I got my copy in the mail. The butterflies returned with a vengeance after seeing a picture of my daughter, Sakari and I, on the back cover. I was now officially nervous to see if she put a slant on how our story would be told. I breezed through to the index and found the pages.

The proverbial “poop hit the fan” when I was tagged on Facebook by a friend encouraging me to read a faith and culture post by conservative evangelical writer, Jonathan Merritt, responding to Mother Jones’ article by Kathryn, that he called a “shameful attack on the Christian adoption movement.” I don’t know Jonathan personally yet but I have read several of his articles and have a lot of respect for his experience and writing. The Mother Jones article “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession” focused on the most horrific stories of international adoption as told in The Child Catchers.

In retrospect, the reaction to Mother Jones’ article, though not as thoroughly researched in comparison to the book, was just the thing that I believe these issues needed to spark the passion and interest of evangelical adoptive families, adoption agencies and orphan care ministries. If stories and perspective like this were all Ms. Joyce shared in the book, then the “knee-jerk” reaction would be merited and the evangelical responses would not have come under as much fire by the liberal left. Perhaps if I had read the Jones article before the book, I also could have taken that as a nasty jab.

As a Christian, I’ve found it more and more important, for me personally, to set aside a consistent stance of defensiveness and to take my opinions and truly seek to listen and understand what someone of an opposing view is trying to communicate. As a result, over the past few days, I pored over blogs, articles, FB posts, Twitter feeds, watched and listened to web and radio interviews all surrounding the release of this book. I also want to re-establish, that as an adoptive father, I am FOR inter-country adoption. I am FOR sharing the Gospel through our love and healthy, responsible actions. Those families closest to us in the orphan care community have been consistently seeking the best for their adoptive children and are fiercely committed to their well-being. Some of them (true orphans) have come from such traumatic situations that the argument that a child must remain connected to their culture is made nil. The family’s desire is to keep them connected but many of them barely lived through many negative cultural abuses and atrocities, that it’s truly not what is best for them at this phase in their adjustment and attachment.

BUT, friends, there ARE major problems with how we view adoption, orphan care and poverty. Just being an adoptive family does not make us experts on the complex socio-economic issues of our children’s birth countries. A year and a half ago I told Kathryn, that our family’s views and the approach of One Child Campaign would not be widely embraced in the mainstream evangelical adoption movement. However, now I believe that the Church and the adoption movement cannot ignore these issues any longer. The time to start discussing this emotionally-charged issue is now. We are doing ourselves, and the world, a great disservice if we focus only on what we disagree upon and push it off as one more “attack” on our faith. Too many organizations and ministries focus on “just wanting to love on people” without doing the due diligence necessary to truly affect any kind of lasting change.

Now that our attention is turned, and our passions are ignited, I believe that the Church is ready to start learning and understanding. A year and a half ago, if we were to speak out on how we (the Church) have missed the mark, we would have been shunned from the Christian and adoption communities. After many, many years and taking thousands of people onto the mission field, we have learned one thing: that we have so much more to learn. With our focus now being primarily in Ethiopia, we’ve had the opportunity to delve into each of our partner’s communities, learn from missionaries who have given their lives and Ethiopians who care about the long-term well being of the orphan, the widow and the impoverished.

I have heard and seen trafficking of children with families with my own ears and eyes. Some of this was done as a lack of knowledge, but some of it was done blatantly. In our eyes, we can’t imagine a Christian agency knowingly trafficking children under the guise of “they will be better off in the US anyway,” but it happens way more frequently than we could have ever imagined. If we truly say that we are people of justice, then these ethical and illegal issues MUST stop and be addressed. We cannot empower the stealing of children from their cultures any longer. We cannot allow children to be a commodity. We can, however, empower the nationals in so many different ways to restore hope, dignity, create jobs, sponsor by going and learning first hand what beauty and resources are in each community. In doing this, though it will be even harder than it sounds, those who are true orphans, and not adoptable in their home country, can be identified for international adoption. The problem for our Western mindsets with this is that it takes way more time, way more money without us receiving much, if any, credit. But if we say that we care about orphans and justice, then we must set aside our savior complex and hero mentality. This is the ONLY responsible, holistic, and sustainable way to move forward.

We have placed band-aids on the face of poverty, but never cared or were too ignorant to realize the much deeper issues beyond the inflated marketing numbers used for orphans. I quoted these numbers too, we even put them in a video. Not any longer. I will not compromise my beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that I am choosing a “side”. I hate choosing sides. We miss out on understanding too much when we don’t want to listen and draw a line in the sand and put our finger in our ears. I’m calling for a new side. The center of balance and the whole picture. A call to come to the table. A coming together while pulling our fingers out of our ears, setting down the stones and sharing our hearts and stories for the well-being of children, women, families and communities around the world.

I can only speak for myself, but Kathryn fairly and accurately shared our family’s story and the heart of One Child Campaign in her book. If you read the book, the evangelical will find much that you disagree with, however, you will also find that she applauds those ministries and individuals who are doing things well. I want to especially thank Jedd Medefind, Elizabeth Styffe, David Smolin and many others for speaking so directly and brilliantly on these issues. I’m also very encouraged by a core group of evangelicals who are desperately seeking to find common ground and have open discussion.

I hope that we are starting to see that this is the time to kick the pattern of how many of us advocates have dealt with stories of tragedy and questionable ethics in the past by dismissing them as a shame that’s too rare to cover. There are many beautifully redemptive stories that we can lean on as our hope for the future, but let’s not walk into the future blindly. Over the years we’ve found a core group of people who are willing to fight and not compromise what is best for the children and communities.


One Child Campaign highly recommends these organizations and their work in Ethiopia, I highly encourage you to learn more about them and get involved in supporting them.

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I don’t think that I could ever cover every one of my heart’s convictions and my mind’s thoughts on these issues in one post, but my desire is not to stir the controversy but for this to be a small part of beginning systematic reform and inviting us all to the table for civil discussion while laying aside our desire to wield political power over each other. We can easily be distracted by our political differences but Kathryn Joyce is not our enemy. To be honest, she has become a friend of our family. Corruption, ignorance and pride are the culprits. Seeking truth and justice will not neuter the power of the Gospel, so now that our eyes are being opened, let us take responsibility. Let us learn best practices so that in the end, those we say we care about so deeply – the orphans and impoverished – are the ones who will have dignity restored and a bright future.


Article originally posted May 1st, 2013

Caleb David