Pastor W.C. Martin heard God's commandment loud and clear. If God had adopted us into his heavenly family, why shouldn't we emulate him through adoption on earth?
“God is the one who started adoptions,” he said. “Jesus went out of his way to save us. We've got empty bedrooms and empty homes. It's time for us to reach out and save others.”
And that's exactly what he did. He and his wife Donna adopted two children through Child Protective Services. Then they reached out to their church, Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist in Possum Trot, a tiny East Texas community near Lufkin, to do the same.
“I looked up every Scripture I could find and pleaded the case,” he said. Within a few weeks, there were 23 families ready to commit. And in the end, 72 children were adopted. The church's membership is only 200.
Possum Trot's adoption success story is unprecedented. Their story has been featured nationally on Oprah, 48 Hours, ABC News and others as a small, poor town making a big difference in the lives of children.
According to the U.S. State Department, there are an estimated 120,000 children available for adoption in the United States. And there are an estimated 143 million orphans around the world.
With more than two billion Christians living today, the feat of eliminating the world's orphan crisis seems realistic. The church is being challenged with questions of duty when it comes to orphan care and adoption. Do Christians have a responsibility to adopt?
For Kris Faasse, the director of adoptions at Bethany Christian Services, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., the answer is both yes and no.
“Yes, Christians have a responsibility,” she said. “They have a responsibility to respond. But not every Christian should adopt. We're not all called to do so. But we are all called to do something.”
No child should be adopted out of a sense of duty, she added. But the church should support adoption through giving financially, providing respite care for parents or mentoring children.
“There are a lot of ways churches can step up,” she said.
First Baptist Church in Mansfield plans to begin an adoption ministry in their church in January. Worship Pastor David Peyton, an adoptive parent in the process of bringing home two children from Haiti, said his own family's experience inspired his vision “to get more orphan children into Christian homes.”
He plans to do so through raising awareness, providing support groups for adopted children and families, and through partnering with non-profit organization Lifesong for Orphans to provide matching grants for families looking to adopt.
“The biggest barrier for a lot of families is cost,” he said. “So, I think that's one area that churches should really step in.”
He also sees a direct relationship between his church's missions efforts and adoption. They plan to take yearly orphan care mission trips through Buckner International.
“Missions and adoption go hand in hand,” he said. “When people go and experience orphans and spend time with them, their eyes are opened. If it doesn't move them towards adoption, it will move them towards ministry.
“Scripture commands us to help orphans. God doesn't ask the government to care for orphans and widows; he asks the church. If God identifies this as pure religion, then I think it's pretty important. It really is the local church's responsibility.”
In Colorado, churches have chosen to work directly with the government to find families for state-placed children by joining with the Department of Human Services and Project 127. The project — whose motto is “no waiting children in Colorado” — has already successfully placed 143 children into Christian families representing more than 115 churches statewide.
Faasse noted that there has been a “paradigm shift” in the way Americans view adoption.
Old attitudes have lifted as more parents adopt older children living in state custody and children of different ethnic backgrounds, she said. There are also more open adoptions where parents maintain an open relationship with the child's birth family.
In November, the U.S. State Department released a report showing a 12 percent decrease in the number of international adoptions in 2008. As accreditation for adoption becomes stricter in many foreign countries, experts believe the number of American adoption agencies providing international services may decline.
Buckner, a Baptist social services ministry based in Dallas, recently announced it is affiliating its adoption services with Dillon International in Oklahoma in an effort to serve more families and children through adoption.
Deniese Dillon, executive director of Dillon, and her husband Jerry started the adoption agency in 1972 to place Korean children into Christian homes.
Under the new structure, Buckner and Dillon will continue to offer both domestic and international adoption opportunities to Christian families. They will be well-suited to support churches in their efforts to care for orphans.
Dillon advised any church leader or lay leader looking to get their church involved in adoption to seek help from a Christian adoption agency to get started.
“Christians have always been inclined to adopt,” Dillon said. “But in the last decade, families have become more informed about adoption because of access to information through the internet and because of an increased emphasis on adoption education. Many churches have become more open to learning and participating in adoption, too.”