Kelley Nikondeha’s new book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World is partly her personal experience (she is both an adopted child, and a mother to two adopted children), partly her thoughtful study of adoption in Scripture, and is also a call to all Christians to embrace our adoption by God (which leads to recognizing that our siblings are everywhere in the world). Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi, and co-founder of Amahoro Africa, an ongoing conversation between theologians and practitioners within the African context.
I caught up with her to get just a taste of her beautiful book. You can listen here, or read along below.
Would you tell me a little bit about your book?
I came to this, number one from my story. I am adopted, so I have lived in the company of the adopted for 48 years now, and I have adopted two children. We just celebrated their 12th adoption day, so my experience of family is bookended by adoption. I wanted to add to the conversation about adoption, from my perspective as both adopted child and adopted mother, but also as a woman and as somebody who might have different theological commitments. Those are the things that I’m pulling from as I do a theological reflection on adoption and what that teaches us about the anatomy of belonging.
Your experience as both an adoptive child and as an adoptive mother gives you special insight into what adoption means in a life of faith and about Christians’ call to care for orphans. Would you share some of that insight with me?
Adoption is about how we belong to one another. At its most basic, you are pulling somebody who is not biologically connected to you into your most intimate space, into your family. But we often don’t recognize how revolutionary it is to cross biological boundaries, ethnic boundaries if we are adopting somebody from another culture. It is significant to say that the way that we are connected to one another isn’t always dictated or limited by our biology or our country of origin. Adoption shows us that there are habits we can practice that allow us to belong to one another.
You trace the story of adoption and belonging throughout scripture. What has been the importance of seeing this theme repeated for you?
When I was little, I remember hearing all the Bible stories. But I was attracted to Moses because his experience of being let go by one mother and received by a different mother on the other side of the river. So Moses’s story is an archetype of an adoptive family, right? We see a birth family, we see the adopted woman who steps in as a mother, we even see Moses as an adopted adult wrestling with his dual identity. That was probably the first story in scripture that captured my imagination as an adopted person and was the first place I went to when I started to think about what kind of language I would want to offer for a better conversation about belonging and adoption in the church.
Jesus is adopted but I didn’t come to that until later in life. The recognition that Joseph was the adoptive father of Jesus allowed me to see myself having this kinship with Jesus. I started to read the gospels and think, ‘Oh yes!’ As adopted people, we do have a different way of understanding family, and so when he stands up in his hometown and hears ‘your mother and your brothers are looking for you,’ and Jesus says ‘well who are my mother and brothers?’ Well, everybody knew, but what Jesus went on to say was any of you could be my mother, my brother, my sister, in God’s Kingdom. That has always been quite a revolutionary text and when people preach it, they talk about how he was breaking all sorts of taboos and boundaries when he made that announcement and I get it. But as an adopted person, that has never felt weird or foreign or audacious to me because I’m like yeah, that’s how we understand family, that anybody can be your family if you choose to live in fidelity with them. So seeing Jesus as an adopted person and knowing that his family was shaped, it’s like ‘oh, that is familiar to me.’ Of course, then Paul talks about the metaphor of adoption in his letters and that is also a fascinating exploration of what that metaphor means. But I need to leave something for people to refer to when they read the book.
What would you say to those who don’t feel that they belong, even struggling with the idea of belonging to God?
It is challenging to make some of these larger statements because all of us have unique experiences in our families, as well as how we feel that connection with God. Adoption isn’t monolithic. While I can say that there are some universal statements and a general arc moving from relinquishment towards redemption, the truth is every adoption story is unique like every birth story is unique.
I feel similarly when we start to ask questions about how people do or don’t feel that they belong in God’s family because so much of that is unique to each of us. Yet I do find it fascinating that Paul pulls that metaphor and says that we are all God’s adopted. Only Jesus, in a sense, is biologically connected, if we want to use that language. He’s God’s begotten, but all of us are adopted into God’s family and that makes us siblings to one another and changes how we see and behave towards one another. Now that’s been easier for me to grasp because of my story, but I have tried to push some of my friends to explore: if we talk about adoption, there are practices. We recognize that we have been relinquished, that somebody has let us go. And sometimes we have to be able to name the loss and the lament in our stories.
I think a lot of us feel orphaned. In our lives, people have died too soon and we have felt bereft. There have been severed relationships or divorce or other things that happen to leave us feeling orphaned and alone. I think we need to name that dynamic that this is part of what it is to be human. Sometimes we feel left behind or left out. So then what happens next? Somebody receives us and do we see—do we have eyes to see those people who are stepping in to receive and welcome us and offer us hospitality, whether it’s in our church family or in our neighborhood? So as we go through the metaphor of adoption and the different movements that we see in adoption, sometimes we do have to practice like a spiritual discipline over time.
Your book explores adoption from a lot of angles. What are some of the ways we all can embrace adoption and belonging in our lives?
Well, I often get the question: should we adopt? Should everybody adopt? Should every Christian family adopt? And I think that’s not the place we should begin. I think the most biblical way to approach this is to say where can I participate in God’s Shalom in my neighborhood, in my community? Now that means where do I get to participate in a sense making people belong? Do I show up for my neighbor who’s a single mom and when I know she’s having a hard time, do I volunteer to babysit for her kids? Am I aware of her in places where she might just need somebody to come alongside even in friendship so that she doesn’t feel as lonely as a single mom? Do we understand that there are families maybe in our community that are struggling financially and falling underneath that poverty line? And so then are we willing to become advocates for better policies in our communities and even in our country that would support a better economic outlet for some of these families at risk?
I know my kids when they went to school here in Arizona, a lot of the children, a lot of their classmates were taking advantage of free breakfast and free lunch at school because their parents didn’t have enough money to put food on the table, so how does that shape my awareness of how I can help strengthen some of the families by being aware? Oh, I better make sure I’m contributing food to the local food banks so that when those families are going to get food, there’s good food there for them. It’s being aware that there are all these different ways that we get to help support one another and support families. Adoption is definitely one of the ways. Participating in the foster care system is one of the ways. Those are pretty high-commitment ways, but there are lots of other ways that I think we get to engage in kind of the adoption gestures where we are reaching out and caring for one another and strengthening families, which is what adoption is about.
What are you hoping that readers take away from this book as you send it into the world?
I hope that people will revisit or maybe for the first time consider the metaphor of adoption. It is a biblical metaphor that we have been given, but one that we often overlook, so I would love if more people would be open to exploring that and what might it mean that I’m God’s adopted child? What does that mean for my relationship with God and my relationship to others—recognizing that I am a sibling to my neighbors and people at church and etcetera? But I also hope that for people who are part of the company of the adopted— those of us who have been relinquished, who have adopted children, maybe we are the grandparent or the auntie or the godparent or neighbor of adopted families, we are somehow part of that group—I hope that we recognize that we have a sacrament. We have a gift to break open and share with our communities, that while adoption has shaped us, it is also something that if we break open, we can share with others and expand their sense of what belonging can look like and how they can even better practice belonging so that they are further extending that kind of love into their neighborhood as well.
Whether you are adopted or have adopted, how does this imagery influence your relationship with God?
Do you feel like you belong to God’s family? Why or why not?
What ways have you experienced or witnessed support for families at risk?
How do you participate in allowing people feel a sense of belonging?