Evangelical trafficking? A guest post by Caleb David

Caleb David One Child Campaign

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast 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 One Child Campaign

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.

[Sorry, you’ll have to copy and paste into your browser. MD]


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.

Caleb David lives with his wife, Rebecca, and children, Sakari and Huxley, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. You can find One Child Campaign on Facebook or email for more information via info [at] onechildcampaign [dot] com. For more information about evangelical adoption from social and theological viewpoints, check out the books below.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • HI Caleb – Thanks for the time you spent writing this. I read Kathryn’s book too and felt like there was so much that needed to be said and heard by evangelicals and was bummed when it instanty was dismissed due to the Mother Jones piece. I know there are folks that feel Kathryn misrepresented them, and for that I feel bad … BUT- I applaud you for being willing to say “There ARE major problems” … and for challenging everyone to be less defensive and more open to hearing from the “other side” …. I truly hate to think that we would be unwilling to examine ways we can improve and reform the system in order to better love, serve, and care for the poor. http://livesayhaiti.blogspot.com/2013/04/primum-non-nocere-first-do-no-harm.html
    (Thanks Marty for hosting this post.)

    • martyduren

      You’re welcome, Tara. Thanks for reading.

      • Marty Duren
        I am a Christ follower …HI Marty..are you a christ follower or a follower of the words written in the bible?

        • martyduren

          I don’t see that as an “or” question, so “both.”

  • P.S. – Thanks for this. I’m with you. “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.”

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  • Overall a good article…. although for someone who claims he doesn’t like
    labels his article is full of labels that stigmatizes children (such as ‘orphan care’ which automatically creates a saviour mentality among the evangelical movement)…. until the dialogue shifts extensively to something more appropriate like vulnerability of not just
    children but their WHOLE families and communities (such as the excellent CSI) we will constantly be battling against a movement that continues to get it wrong.

  • Tara, Kirsten and Mark – thank you all for your feedback. I welcome it. In response to the labels, as mentioned in the first paragraph, for the sake of base line and context, wording that is common in this field needed to used. I’m glad to see that we agree on the fact that it’s beyond just children and if you’ll check out the links of those we partner with in Ethiopia, those partners are strategically working on the whole families and communities. The intention of the article is to create that dialogue and best practices moving forward.

    • thanks for responding.. I think that a part of the dialogue moving forward should be how we talk about vulnerable children and the label ‘orphan’. In a country like Uganda it just drives everyone in child protection crazy as it’s thrown around so inaccurately and doesn’t at all capture what we are trying to achieve by equipping and empowering communities… but hey, that’s nitpicking at your excellent article and I hope that dialogue is productive. I know some of the Ethiopian partners which again highlight that some great stuff is going on.

      • I completely agree with you…that’s definitely a major issue and that has got to change. Really appreciate your input, I pray that dialogue can not only begin, but that it will be productive…other wise it will be nothing but chatter and wasted time…thanks Mark!

      • The term “orphan” confuses people. You are correct. We need to rethink how and why that label is used. As a sponsorship coordinator of Children’s Hopechest Carepoint in Ethiopia I am careful how I define the children in need. We can come alongside or partner with vulnerable children and/or communities if it is done in a transparent manner. This model can work but we must be very clear that not every child in desperate need is an orphan. That word tends to muddy the waters in the minds of many. Are we still willing to speak out and support the child who is vulnerable even if he or she is not a true orphan?

        • Couldn’t agree more, Melanie!

        • Excellent Melanie. Try looking into the CSI (child status index) – it can assess the vulnerability of a child and the conditions that a child is living in without negatively labeling or stigmatizing the child – if used well can also track vulnerability throughout any interventions.

          I have always maintained that the over emphasis on ‘orphan care’, which as we know is fraught with difficult and ambiguous interpretation, has actually resulted in some of the most vulnerable children being ignored. In Uganda a child without a parent or parents does not necessarily mean the child is vulnerable or indeed in need of ‘saving’ (in over 95% of the time that child will be living with extended family), likewise a child with two living parents may be vulnerable due to a whole set of circumstances and yet his or her needs are often ignored…. sadly ‘child vulnerability’ doesn’t have as many biblical ‘soundbites’ as ‘orphan’ and therefore, as Christians, our programme development and interventions are often misplaced.

  • Good to see you’re still refusing to acknowledge the myriad problems with Jonathan Merritt’s piece, Marty.

    • martyduren

      Hi Sarah! Great to see you, too.

      I deleted your other comment since I offered a clear and unambiguous apology for the offense. You will not be allowed to sidetrack this productive conversation. Your blog=your rules, my blog=my rules.

      I’m glad to know Kathryn sees a way forward through this mess even though you cannot. It lets evangelicals know who is sincere and who merely has an agenda.

  • Lauri Lee

    Hi Caleb –

    As an adoptee who had a family and was wrongfully taken for international adoption by an evangelical adoption agency in the 1970s who took many children this way, I appreciate that you are taking on the responsibility at looking a little more critically at intercountry adoption rather than denying the issues which seems to be the response of some. I also appreciate that you are looking at some alternative responses to vulnerable children than the IA response.

    However, trafficking is not the only issue with intercountry adoption (and I am not sure you truly appreciate how entrenched this is in IA). I hope you will someday appreciate that being transported across the globe and raised outside of cultural and race lines is a disservice to children. I find that many Christians will speak of spiritual wellbeing and yet intercountry adoption can be so spiritually destructive on the children whom it purports to “save”, as can be evidenced in the high suicide rates along with other distresses amongst intercountry
    adoptees. http://www.tobiashubinette.se/multiple_burdens.pdf

    Before I was aware of the trafficking in IA, and before I was in reunion with my own family and found out about my own wrongful adoption, it was the wellbeing of intercountry adoptees and what IA does to them that was most salient in my heart and mind.

    Please keep delving into the issues.

    • Lauri, I apologize for the delay in responding to you but your feedback carried so much weight that I wanted to really absorb it so far. I have printed off the resource you share and will read it thoroughly. I would love to learn more from you and your experiences if you would be willing to share. Thank you for your input and encouragement, you have my commitment that I will keep delving into these issues. Please feel free to email me directly on Facebook or at caleb@onechildcampaign.com

  • “Seeking truth and justice will not neuter the power of the Gospel”

    Of course it won’t. Truth and Justice IS the Gospel. Thanks for moving in the right direction on this issue.

    • Appreciate your input and feedback, Shannon!

  • Pingback: Kathryn Joyce | A Christian Adoptive Parent Responds: "I have heard and seen trafficking of children with families with my own ears and eyes."()

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  • Karen

    Caleb, I am truly overcome by the thoughtfulness and the care in which you wrote this article! I had to look up a word, “chary” (unusual for me)! I believe this article will have tremendous impact on “both sides” of the issue. May God use your words to bring unity, compassion, and repentance. Again … WELL DONE! It’s hard to achieve balance in this world of any kind.

    • Karen…thank you so much. Thanks for reading it and sharing it so we can pray that exactly what you said would happen. Unity. Compassion. Repentance.

  • I am not an evangelical. I am the adoptive mother of one Ethiopian-born girl. I am a writer and investigative journalist of sorts. Our adoption was gloriously transpired in the name of God, and completed with the almighty dollar. We are in the process of rectifying this. I do not understand why any love of a child must be in the name of anything religious. Why do children, who are inherently children of God, need to be raised with a slanted view of how God lives within each one of us and the world around us? I am a lover of Life, Children, Love, the Truth, Kindness and Respect. This is enough in our kind and respectful, and God-loving home. I believe this is enough.

    • martyduren

      Hi Dina-
      Thx for stopping by and for your comment. I’m curious if you can tell me about the God to whom you refer. Is it the God/god of a traditional religious system, or more God as you envision God to be?

  • Pingback: Child Catchers and One (Surprising) Christian Response | Light of Day Stories()

  • Jeff Thompson

    Caleb, thanks for the great post. Have you considered writing about the “adoption theology” that under girds the evangelical adoption movement? As Russel Moore and others have been plenary speakers at the CAFO Summit conferences, I really believe that for true change to take place in IA we need to take the conversation to a larger scale and perhaps get Jedd’s cooperation to use CAFO as a larger platform for the discussion.

    • Jeff, thanks so much for your feedback on this article. I am currently doing a lot of research and study on the theology of the movement. I pray that the CAFO platform will be used, but so far, the leadership has been pretty quiet on this subject as well as on the Kathryn Joyce book. I’m talking much with David Smolin whose written a great deal on adoption and the theology of the movement, I think he may be better equipped to tackle the subject, but still I’m seeking to learn more on it as well. I think talking about all of this on a large scale is going to take some time and must be pushed for by adoptive parents for it to gain full traction. However, in the meantime, there is a group of us that are working to pray, learn and strategize on how to move this all forward.

  • Pingback: Adoption Imperialism: A Q&A With "The Child Catchers" Author Kathryn Joyce()

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