Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Dear Church: 6 Things You Need to Know When an Adoptive or Foster Family Visits

Dear Church:

My name is Rachel.  When my family walks through the doors of your facility, you will probably notice us.  Not probably.  Correction.  You will definitely notice us. 

That's OK.  

Two white parents and four Black kids:  we stand out.  We're used to it.   Plus, we're a big family:  large and loud.   

Though we look different, we are there for the same reasons your other congregants are there:  because church is important to us and we want to find a place of belonging, and a place to grow spiritually.   

But can I tell you, there are some thing you need to know about my family/families like ours, families formed by adoption and foster care.   

1:  Don't insist our children go to Sunday School/children's church/nursery.    

Many churches today expect and emphasize that children should go to the designated children's area, not sit in church with their parents.  Trust me when I say, I know kids can be distracting and disruptive, and if my children do something along these lines, I promise to take them out of the service.  

You may wonder, why not?   

Our kids may have traumatic backgrounds.  They may have attachment issues.  They may be completely terrified of strangers.  This goes beyond typical childhood "separation anxiety."  To hand our children to complete strangers and walk away for an hour or so maybe isn't going to happen.

Don't question our decision.  Instead, offer up a "busy bag" for those kids who stay in church.  Or offer empathy and support.  We may not explain to you why our children aren't going with the other kids.  Be OK with that.   Trust that we are the parents and we know what we're doing.  Tell us what services you offer for kids, and then leave it up to us to decide.   

(If your sanctuary isn't welcoming of children, we're not coming back.)  

2:  Don't touch our kids, including their hair.   

This is an issue we encounter everywhere, not just church.  

Curious white hands try to make their way to our Black daughters' intricate cornrows.   

Let me be clear:  you shouldn't touch children you don't know, and you should never touch a Black child's hair.  

Just because their hair has color in it, or beads at the ends, or an afro, these things aren't your invitation to put your hands in our children's hair.  It's inappropriate.  It's a micro-aggression.  And it's offensive.  

You are more than welcome to say how nice/handsome/beautiful their hair is.  Just don't touch it, and don't grill them:  "How long did that take?  That must have taken such a LONG time!"  That's just weird and awkward.  

Again, children with traumatic pasts or special needs may be really uncomfortable with strangers.  I know touch is part of the beauty of the human experience.  But a stranger touching a child can be incredibly anxiety-inducing for our kids.   

So wave.  Say hi.  Introduce yourself.  But don't put pressure on the kids to respond, and certainly, "keep your hands to yourself."  

3:  Don't pour out your adoption story or insist we tell you ours. 

We visited a new church recently where a woman (in a multiracial, biological family) introduced herself, told us all about the children's program, and then asked, "Now are your kids from the same family?"   

Um, are we girlfriends?  Didn't we JUST meet?  

Another woman came up to us and gushed that she was a grandma by adoption.  I think she was excited to meet another family like ours.  But then she proceeded to tell us her grandchild's adoption "story" including the fact that he was abandoned, languished in an orphanage, had special needs, and she wasn't even exactly sure how old he was due to his previous life.   It was uncomfortable.  It was awkward.  It was inappropriate.  

My kids' adoption stories are beautiful, and they are none of your business.  

Examples of what NOT to say:  "Are they real siblings?"  "Are they in foster care?"  "What country are they from?"  "Why did you adopt?"  "Why didn't you have your own kids?"  

If there are other families-by-adoption in your church, and if we attend your church long-term, we'd love to connect with them.  But this is one of our initial visits.  Don't bombard us.  And don't assume that part of our nice-to-meet-you conversation is going to entail us divulging intimate, private family details.  

4:  Don't ask a lot of us or hand us a bunch of crap.

When I walk in the door with six coats, four backpacks (full of toys/snacks/diapers/etc.), my purse, and my family, I just want some Jesus.  I don't want to fill out your paperwork so you can call me, mail me something, or drop something by my house.   Just be friendly and respect boundaries 1-3 that I just shared.  I know you'd like us to come back.  And trust me, we will if it's the right fit for us or we want to learn more.  But just don't put another piece of paper or "free gift" into my already very full hands.   Please.   I cannot.    

And while we're at it:  children's ministry.  Do not give out candy and snacks, many of which my kids' cannot have.  This is not exclusive to adoption/foster care.  

We visited a church a few weeks ago where the kids were given candy before we even had them in their classroom.  Candy two of my four kids cannot have due to the dye in them.  Then when they left, they were handed more candy.  It all went in the trash.   

On the way home, I asked one of my kids how class went, and she told me one of the kids in her class had type 1 diabetes (like I do).  I asked her, "How did you know?"  She said she told the teacher she cannot have the candy because of her diabetes.  (Heartbreak!)

I worked in children's ministry for years.   Please just keep it really simple and fun.   And don't give the mom and dad MORE work.  Getting to church was work enough!   

5:  Don't tell us your church is diverse if it's not.  

One Asian person or two Black people doesn't mean your church is diverse.   

This has happened to us many times.  We call a church to get information, and of course I ask about racial diversity.  What I'm told on the phone and what I see on the church FB page tend to be VERY different.  

Just tell us the truth.  Don't waste my time.  If your church isn't racially diverse, just say so.  You don't have to hide it, apologize, or explain away.  Just give me the truth.

I called a church a few weeks ago and asked.  She said, "it's not right now.  But that is an area of focus for us."  She went on to explain all the things they're doing to become a more woke congregation and increase their diversity.  I very much appreciated her honesty!

6:  Educate your staff on adoption and foster care.

If you have adoptive/foster families in your congregation, ask them to educate your staff and leadership on adoption and foster care.  This helps you not only be a place of welcoming for families like mine, but helps you "lead by example."  You can teach your congregants by knowing what's right and wrong yourself!  

One example would be positive adoption language (PAL).  For example, a child was "placed" for adoption, not "given up" or "given away" or "put up."   A child "was" adopted (if the adoption has been finalized) and should not be referred to as "an adopted child" or "a foster child."  They are first and foremost a child.  (WORDS MATTER!)

The more you learn about adoption and fostering, the more likely you are going to attract and keep families like mine at your church.  And as you do have families join, ask them what they need and how you can support them.  Consider having one of your families head up a ministry just for families like mine.

Of course, you can always snag my book as a no-nonsense, authentic, funny, educational resource on adoption.  

Thank you for reading.  Thank you for listening.  Now go be church to families like mine! 

Love, Rach

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