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Dave and Patrick Underwoods hands

Belonging

What an adoptive family learned about the family of Christ

Jen Underwood

3 Comments
3 Comments
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  • Linda Haley

    I love this, Jennifer, and appreciate the wisdom God has forged in your life to handle such complex issues. Such a different level of parenting sancification than those of us with more typical families receive! Patrick is blessed to have you for an advocate mother as you as blessed to have him as your heart-stretching son.

  • Melanye Rea Wrighton

    Oh Jen! I don’t know when I’ve read a more beautiful piece — or should I use its alternate spelling, “peace.” This gives such widening space to a place in my own heart, my little girl heart, that grew up in the sixties in KC, MO holding my preacher daddy’s hand as we visited inner city churches during what our denomination called “Reconciliation.” This. What you have done and speak and your beautiful family continues to “do” Invites me to breathe and embrace that we aren’t done, yet, but we’ve progressed. Thank you! I can’t help but wonder if you are related to Tom Underwood who pastored Cherokee Christian Church when I was a little girl. He courageously flew into the Congo frequently and his family’s commitment to the “other” impacted me deeply.

  • Charles Gilmore

    Thank you for sharing your family's story. As an African-American man who used to work for an adoption agency, I know that trans-racial adoptions can be fraught with challenges, especially in the US with its pervasive & persistent racism. You and your husband gave Patrick a wonderful, irreplaceable gift: the lived experience of being part of a loving family. You've given him both roots & wings.

When my husband and I began our journey as white parents adopting an African child, adoption always seemed to be presented as a glowing ideal in our predominately white churches and communities. Adoption was uncomplicated: adoptive parents were heroes, and adoptive children would be grateful and happy, assimilating without issues into their new family’s culture.

We may have bought into that dream a little, but not fully. For one thing, we didn’t feel “called” to adoption in general but to Patrick specifically. We knew his story and tragedies and the young woman who’d nursed him back from near starvation. We did not feel like heroes. We simply believed it would be disobedient to God not to pursue the adoption of our son. Both during the adoption process and since, we have often felt guilt. Was it right to adopt Patrick without adopting his older brothers as well? Was it right to displace him from his country? One Sunday in Uganda, I watched Patrick run the church aisles with other children, and a phrase played loop-like in my brain: We are giving him a family, but we are robbing him of a people. How is someone supposed to be uncomplicatedly grateful for that?

We are giving him a family, but we are robbing him of a people.

We brought Patrick “home” to a tiny college town smack-dab in the middle of Kansas, an odd place for a brown-skinned baby. But we worked at the college, which had a far higher rate of diversity than the town, and so our son had several students with darker skin tones in his life and in and out of our house. Then we moved back to our former home, a predominately white suburb of Chicago where we had to work at diversity. We hosted two high school international students for four years and our “girls” became like family, but they were both Chinese. We lived in a sub-neighborhood with many people of color, but they were almost all Mexican Americans. A couple other families in our church had adopted children, but they were younger than Patrick. Our son was the minority everywhere he went.

How was he supposed to know what it meant to be African American? Who were his role models? Was it fair for him to grow up both in a white family and in a white-dominated culture?

As these questions persisted, we began to wonder if we should move to a place where the white family members would become, in a small sense at least, the minority. That wondering changed to compulsion, and we moved into an inner-city neighborhood of Chicago where Patrick is ethnically among the 98 percent, and the rest of us are in the minority (although we still carry privilege.)

So here we are. Patrick is surrounded by a community that looks like him, and he enjoys telling his white brother and sisters, “Now you know what it feels like.” But in moving we did not leave behind the old questions of belonging and identity. They tagged along and unpacked themselves here. Everywhere Patrick goes, he carries a significant difference. This is a heavy and complicated burden. I tell myself that no matter what, he can always find belonging in my heart, where he is lodged as deeply as if his life began just a few inches below it. But I do not think this is enough.

We have always talked openly in our family about adoption and race. When Patrick was small, our conversations caused him no pain, but as they’ve increased in complexity, I have learned to recognize the particular hurt he carries. When he came home from his new school a couple months into the year with a troubled look, the two of us snuggled into a chair, and he struggled to express what he didn’t quite understand.

Dave and Patrick Underwoods hands

Dave and Patrick Underwood’s hands

Finally I asked, “Do you ever wish I was black?”

He shot bolt upright, eyes wide. “Yes! Yes! I do.” Then, quickly, “But it’s not that I don’t love you like you are.”

I stopped him. “It’s okay. I know that.”

He told me how his classmates, after first seeing me, said, “You have a white mom?! What’s that like?”

We talked more, and then I said, “Can I ask you something?”

He nodded.

“Do you ever wish you were white?”

Again the pop-eyed stare. Words burst out: “No way! Why would I ever want that?”

I am incredibly grateful for this, but other conversations reveal struggle. One night he was afraid (he’d watched a monster movie), and he asked me to pray for him. I prayed Patrick would be able to see Jesus smiling at him, open-armed.

“Can you see his face, sweetheart?” I asked. “He’s looking at you with so much love.”

He shook his head, his eyes screwed tight. “I can see him, but not his face. It’s blurry.”

Sudden flash of insight. I asked, “What color is Jesus’ face?”

He opened his eyes to look at me. “White.”

Finally I asked, “Do you ever wish I was black?”

Our children’s Bibles depict Jesus with brown skin. Our children know God took on the body and flesh of a Jewish man; the historical Jesus was not white. They decided, years ago, he probably looked a lot like a beloved college student and friend who came from the Middle East. I don’t think my white children see Jesus in their minds as white, though it would be perfectly normal for them to do so.

But here was my brown-skinned son unable to see Jesus as anything but white.

“Oh, Patrick! You can’t see him with darker skin?”

He shook his head.

I fetched my laptop. Together we looked at images of black Jesus icons until he found one that resonated. We printed it out and hung it by his bed. This “answer” sufficed for the moment; most days we feel we are muddling through.

My heart aches, both with Patrick’s pain and with a sense of responsibility: we – my husband and I – placed this on him. Yet the thought of not having Patrick in our life causes greater pain. He is my son, my husband’s son. He is the brother of his siblings. With him – all together – we are a family. A messy family to be sure, but with a bond that does not rest on our similarities or even our compatibility. We belong with and to each other simply because we are family.

What we are learning in our small family informs our view of the Family of Christ.

What we are learning in our small family informs our view of the Family of Christ. Our belonging to both is infinitely deep and wide, as vast as the love of God himself. Just as the six of us with all our differences are still and always identified as Underwoods, our identification as Christians, as Christ’s own, means the same: we all belong to each other. It is our sense of belonging that must grow deeper and wider. Love one another, Jesus told his disciples. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other. Christ’s bond of perfect love is like supernatural DNA imprinted on every single cell. This bond can move us beyond our fear and distrust of differences, beyond our natural desire to stay with those who look and act like we do, beyond our tendency to ignore our unique qualities.

Earlier this year I attended a worship service in which a group read from Zephaniah. The group members were of different ethnicities, and they repeated key phrases from the passage in their native languages. One particular phrase stood out to me, the Lord saying, “I will bring you home.”

In English, Spanish, Tagalog, Hindi, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Swahili: I will bring you home.

One home, for all of us. One place of belonging together in Jesus.

It spoke to me of the deepest longing of our hearts, the longing my youngest son sometimes expresses when he wonders how, with all our apparent differences, we can actually belong together. We do.

The “how” of working out this true belonging is messy. We sometimes hurt each other in the process. We have to admit wrong and apologize and forgive again and again. We have to have hard conversations and open ourselves to feelings and truths we’d rather not experience. At times it will seem it would have been easier if we’d never attempted this kind of belonging.

But far greater harm is done when we don’t attempt it at all.

Oh, God, bring us home.

the Underwood family Patrick with his family
Contributed By Jen Underwood

Jen Underwood lives with her husband, four kids, a 20-something friend, and two dogs in Chicago. A former English teacher, she is now a storyteller with Greenhouse Movement, a church-planting/partnering work. She is working on a masters in theology and writes in any spare moment she can find.

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