Christians across Pittsburgh help evolve approach to adoption

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Among stacks of movies, family photos and Christian-themed books in Rob and Amanda Szenyeri's Cranberry home is a sign that reads, "Grant me the patience to deal with my blessings."

The parents of four, who adopted an infant from Ethiopia last year, try to live by those words.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Mr. and Mrs. Szenyeri, both 36, prepared dinner for 9-year-old Eli, 6-year-old Hank, 4-year-old Trey and the newest addition to their family: a joyful 20-month-old girl named Sidame, nicknamed Mae.

The couple adopted Mae in September 2011 through All God's Children, a Portland, Ore.-based Christian adoption agency.

"She was meant to be with us," Mrs. Szenyeri said. "God has a plan for her life."

PG graphic: International adoptions
(Click image for larger version)

Mrs. Szenyeri estimates that at least 15 families in the North Hills have adopted children from the East African country, and a group that meets monthly at Tana Ethiopian Cuisine in East Liberty includes 30 families who either have adopted or are planning to adopt Ethiopian children.

Although the number of international adoptions has dropped precipitously from its peak in 2004 -- that year there were nearly 23,000 versus just 9,319 in 2011 -- the trend in local communities seems to be on an upward swing, as a number of churches here join the "orphan care movement," which encourages the practice as part of the Christian mission.

But the movement has evolved from a focus on international adoptions to supporting domestic foster care, as well as finding new and creative ways to support children in need around the world.

It will be marked today as part of Orphan Sunday, a day to celebrate the movement and encourage those of the Christian faith to participate.

Those involved in the Christian orphan care movement feel compelled to act based on language taken from Scripture. James 1:27 says, "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you."

Those same followers also believe that loving orphans is a reflection of God, in that he spiritually adopted all of mankind.

"There is a deep sense of 'this is what was done first for us,' " said Jedd Medefind, who led the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush and now serves as the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.

Christians in the movement take it as a direct order.

"There's a clear call in the Bible to care for the most vulnerable," Mr. Medefind said. "Throughout history, there have been many expressions of this. It's nothing new, but there's been a resurgence in the last five to 10 years."

In the early part of the movement, Mr. Medefind said, the focus was primarily on Christians adopting children internationally.

"There was a heavy focus on the beauty and blessing of adoption and not a lot of talk about the challenges," he said.

That led to criticism of the movement among some secular groups, which believed adoptions were being done for the wrong reasons, that adoptive parents were not adequately prepared for the challenges they faced and that there was a lack of follow-up support and service.

Shanna Wright, a board member for Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, believes missional adoption downplays the needs of traumatized children, and various so-called "biblical parenting" models can exacerbate underlying emotional and psychological trauma children have experienced.

Further, she said the movement can overlook issues of corrupt adoptive practices and the preservation of original families.

"It can also isolate parents from obtaining appropriate post-adoption support because there may be a reliance on a faith community alone to support them while they're in crisis," Ms. Wright said.

For Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, the most important component of successful adoption is ensuring that parents know what they're getting into and have the resources around them to know where to turn in times of trouble.

"If people believe faith alone can deal with those children's needs, I think they need more education," Mr. Pertman said.

In recent years, Mr. Medefind said those concerns have begun to be addressed and that the Christian community has become wiser about how it prepares families for adoption, and in providing post-adoption support.

Diane Kunz, executive director for the secular Center for Adoption Policy, said her organization focuses on education, support, transparency and accountability.

She knows that occasionally a negative story about international adoption appears in the press and causes scrutiny.

That was the case in Pittsburgh in October, when a Franklin Park couple -- Douglas and Kristen Barbour -- were arrested and accused of abusing the two Ethiopian children they adopted earlier this year.

"One or two or 10 horrific cases should not overshadow that this is such a tiny minority," Ms. Kunz said. "Most international adoptions are successful. The vast, vast majority thrive as never before."

Adoption was something the Szenyeris, who were high school sweethearts, had long discussed.

Mrs. Szenyeri, a stay-at-home mom, teaches Zumba twice a week, and her husband is a merchandise manager at American Eagle Outfitters and a member of a men's church group. The pair discussed adoption while dating as students at Eastern Kentucky University. While Mrs. Szenyeri was growing up, her mother provided respite care for foster children.

But it wasn't until the family's church, North Way Christian Community in Cranberry, held an Orphan Expo in 2009 -- two years after the birth of their third son -- that they decided to make it a reality.

"I don't think my life would be complete without a baby girl," Mr. Szenyeri told his wife on Thanksgiving 2009.

Mrs. Szenyeri felt a "direct call" from God to adopt through James 1:27.

Whether the motivation behind adoption is relevant varies from person to person.

Chuck Johnson, with the National Council for Adoption, a secular organization, said it's very important.

"Love and faith may certainly equip an individual to do a good job, but it's going to take a lot more to help a child."

But Mr. Johnson doesn't discount the idea that people can be "called" to adopt.

"Even nonreligious people who adopt feel like they are called -- that it's meant to be, and providence brought them together," he said. But, he continued, "I would not want someone adopting just to prove they are a Christian."

And neither would Mr. Medefind.

"The notion that it's an aggressive form of proselytizing is mistaken," Mr. Medefind said. "The reality is there are much easier ways to share one's faith."

Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed.

"To say we are adopting in order to evangelize is no more accurate than to say we are getting married and having children to evangelize," he said. "It's not some back door to evangelism."

Both men agreed that showing God's love through adoption is a huge motivator, but it's not the only one.

Mr. Moore said no one should adopt out of a sense of guilt or obligation. "Some sense of externally imposed duty is not adequate to forming a loving Christian family."

And Christians who adopt also should not see themselves as "rescuers," he said. "Instead, you're forming a family with everything it means."

Ms. Kunz said she believes the motivation is less important than how the adoption is carried out.

"Why you came to that decision [to adopt] is a matter of conscience and belief, but it can never sacrifice a child-centered decision."

Although the Szenyeris felt called to adopt, they recognize it's not the answer for everyone.

Some people might better serve orphans through sponsoring a disadvantaged child, for example, or through advocacy work.

And that is how the Christian orphan care movement is evolving. Mr. Medefind called it a "healthy maturing."

"It's broadening to really fully encompass foster care, mentoring and support efforts all around the world."

Mr. Medefind believes that all three prongs of the movement -- international adoption, foster care and global initiatives -- are now on equal footing.

Mr. Johnson, who has observed the movement for years, has seen it change. "Before, it was doing adoption as a Christian act, and now it's morphed into ensuring that orphans have better lives," he said.

And as the Christian orphan care movement grows and changes, it has begun partnering with secular organizations.

"They've been smart about not excluding people they might not agree with on other issues," said Mr. Johnson.

Although critics, like Ms. Wright with Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, still believe that Christian orphan care concentrates too much on adoption as the only method to address the needs of children, those within the movement say that is no longer the case.

Dan Cruver, director of Together for Adoption, an organization that provides resources in the Christian orphan care movement, has long believed that in-country adoption is key to solving what he called the orphan crisis.

"Biblically speaking, adoption means that we work for orphan prevention through family reunification and preservation, and when reunification is not possible, we actively support indigenous adoption efforts," he said.

When possible, Mr. Moore said, children should stay with their natural families -- provided it is a stable home.

"Every time there is an orphan, there is some tragedy behind it, so we've got to address both ends, and I think that's become more and more clear in the orphan care movement."

For the Szenyeris, with a houseful of buoyant, energetic children, it could easily be overwhelming. But the parents are patient, calm and loving. There are always challenges, they said, but they are prepared and know they have a network of fellow adoptive parents, parishioners, professionals and family to turn to.

"You have to be willing to ask for help," Mrs. Szenyeri said. "We know it's there."


Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620. Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.


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