Wednesday, August 14, 2013

MISSIONARY REFLECTIONS ON KATHRYN JOYCE’S, THE CHILD CATCHERS: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption

A new book by Kathryn Joyce called The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption recently came out that takes an overall critical look at the American Evangelical International Adoption movement.   Yet, Rwanda’s journey and our family specifically are reported on in an overall positive light.     Also, the book addresses growing concerns that we have with short-term missions and the applying of industrial economics to our vocation.     The book is as painful to read as a marathon is to run.    Yet, it is a must read for both believers and the secular if one has an interest in these matters.    Following are my missionary reflections on the book.  


Our family was given a great gift to spend 19 of our adult years serving in East Africa.   One of those blessings was spent practicing an old African virtue of sitting under the trees.   We did it in all the places God allowed us to serve.   Our community gathered.   We shared a cup of chai (African tea.)    We discussed the problems of the day.   We hoped for a better future.   We debated.   If the context was church we debated with open Bibles. 

Yet sometimes it was not a church where we debated under trees.   Sometimes it was our Leadership Committee meetings in Uganda.   Sometimes it was our Umuganda in Rwanda.   Sometimes it was a Harambee in Kenya.   Sometimes it was even with friends in national media debates on Monitor FM in Uganda, or Rwanda Focus.  

When we sat under trees well we rose in unity and labored together.    Our bzee (wise elders) taught us the virtue of sitting under trees.   We did not need to all believe the same things.   However, we did need to treat one another with honor.   We needed to listen.   We needed shared wisdom to refine.   Finally, our children’s future needed us to proactively serve with grace.   

In 2011 God gave our family a privilege to foster a child named Gabriel Mugisha.    We did this with fear and trembling believing God had asked us take steps forward with Rwanda’s orphans and vulnerable children.     We did this with a belief that Mugisha was Spoken For.   We were to be one of the initiators of a conversation that grew from the virtue of sitting under trees.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion had asked for help from Rwanda’s churches and families to de-institutionalize children in orphanages.   The church we pastored, Christ’s Church of Rwanda decided that our niche would be fostering children in vulnerable situations until long-term solutions could be found.   As senior pastor we needed to lead in both word and deed.

As we began this journey Jana was contacted by Kathryn Joyce.   A few friends suggested we not visit with her as Ms. Joyce shared a different belief perspective than us.    Yet, the African virtue of sitting under trees told us that inclusion is part of the answer.   We are thankful to have had Ms. Joyce in our home while Mugisha was also there.    We are thankful that she listened and reported on our journey.

Christ's Church of Rwanda Hand Over Gabriel Mugisha Jacobs
Our Mugisha journey took us to Nairobi as we sought healing from Mugisha’s seizures.   In time Mugisha was adopted by Mark and Chelsea Jacobs.    Throughout our season with Mugisha our community rallied.   Much of the rally came from our church.   Yet, it was a Muslim doctor at Aga Khan Hospital that found a drug combination to stop the seizures.    Also, my agnostic friends called to check on Mugisha, and offered their support and encouragement.   Sitting under trees was the virtue that gave Mugisha healing and we hope.  

On May 6, 2013 a friend contacted us that Kathryn Joyce’s, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption had been released, and our family featured in almost a full chapter labeled, “A Thousand Ways Not to Help Orphans.”   We scrambled to find a copy in a local book store.   We sat down to read.    It was time to again sit under the trees.

We consider Ms. Joyce an acquaintance in our journey.   We hope someday to consider her a good friend.   She raised some excellent points.   There is much in her book for which we empathize.    

The Child Catchers is a painful read.   It took me 2 months to get through it.   My book is highly marked up.    I have read a multiple of discussions on the book.   Most of the discussions that I have read seem to feel partisan.   Some criticize the American Evangelical International Adoption Movement.   Others defend the movement.   I have not read much so far that feels like sitting under trees.    It seemed to me that it was time to also offer my missionary reflections.   


               Ms. Joyce in her book describes herself as “I am a secular, feminist journalist who covers religion and reproductive rights (Preface, page x.)”     She shortly later wrote, “In Rwanda I explored a church-state orphan-care collaboration that may defy the traditional ‘boom-bust’ adoption industry model and that points to a cautiously optimistic way forward (Preface, page xiv.)”    In her chapter discussing Rwanda, “A Thousand Ways To Not Help Orphans,” Ms. Joyce paid our family a great compliment by describing us “longtime missionaries of the old school – immersing themselves in a foreign culture until it became their own.”   She accurately reported on our vision to “build Christ’s Church around a plan to expand the Rwandan middle class.”   She also reported what we perceive about ourselves, as we “learned important lessons from their adopted countries (page 243, 244.)”

               I am a believer in Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection.   This belief is defining for me.   It seems appropriate to reflect on this old belief as we discuss Ms. Joyce’s book.   The very title proclaims a new Gospel of Adoption.    I think she does a masterful job of reporting a historic trend in the American Evangelical movement.    Yet, I think like many of us (myself included) she misses this idea of the Gospel of Adoption being a remarkably old story.    The Apostle Paul in his writing to the Corinthian church defines the Gospel as the historical events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth (1 Corinthians 15:1-4.)    I share Paul’s conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.     It is this historical event of Jesus’ death and the belief many of us share of His resurrection that is the historically defining moment of the Gospel.

               The death of Jesus is brutal and horrific.   Why?    

 Believers in the resurrection seek to explain it through theology.    Many times we use metaphors to make sense of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.   Adoption is one of those metaphors.     Paul uses adoption as a metaphor five different times (Romans 8:15; 8:23; 9:24; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5.)   Most scholars will place the dates of Paul’s writing in the first century so the Adoption metaphor of the Gospel has been used for approximately 2,000 years.    Ms. Joyce accurately points out that the Roman culture did not understand adoption in a similar way as Twenty First Century Evangelicals.   For the Romans adoption many times was of adults being given full status and inheritance, but not entering into a family as a child.  

               Yet, Paul was an Old Testament scholar.   As such his mind would have remembered metaphors of adoption in older Jewish literature.    In two notable sections of the Old Testament Yahweh God’s relationship to humanity uses adoption metaphors.   One is A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling (Psalm 68:5.  New International Version.)”   Many date this Psalm to the reign of King David (approximately 1,000 B.C.) though there is room for discussion.    

 The second one states,On the day you were born, no one cared about you. Your umbilical cord was not cut, and you were never washed, rubbed with salt, and wrapped in cloth.  No one had the slightest interest in you; no one pitied you or cared for you. On the day you were born, you were unwanted, dumped in a field and left to die.

“But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood. As you lay there, I said, ‘Live!’  And I helped you to thrive like a plant in the field. You grew up and became a beautiful jewel (Ezekiel 16:4-7.  New Living Translation.)”   The history surrounding Ezekiel’s writing put it during the time of Babylonian Exile of 597 B.C.

Ms. Joyce quotes me quoting J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, “Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better grasped than our grasp of adoption.   Adoption is the highest privilege the gospel offers.”    Packer’s book was first published in 1973.   

Thus I think there is great evidence among the historical literature of both broad Judeo-Christian thought and Evangelical thought that adoption is a metaphor of Yahweh God’s relationship with humanity that is much older than the contemporary American Evangelical International Adoption Movement.   

Painfully, I must admit though I had read the historic literature, I missed how powerfully historic the metaphor of adoption has been upon Christian thought until 2011.   I am guilty of making the old Gospel of Adoption read like a new gospel simply because I needed conversion again in my life.   

               One of the reasons many have reacted so strongly to Ms. Joyce’s book is it hits home to our deepest beliefs and experiences.    We have been converted.    Yet, we need to be converted again.   We are not all God intends.   We hunger for more.  


               For instance, as my family left Africa’s Great Lakes and has started over in North America’s Great Lakes friends on occasion give me honor in the transition.    They many times speak of my courage and compassion.    I think they exaggerate.    I may be a bit like those of old who know in their hearts that the numbers of times I may have acted courageous are dwarfed numerically by the number of times I acted cowardly.    I also know the number of times my compassion was dulled.     If there is any accuracy to describing our journey in East Africa with the words of courage and compassion it is not by my strength.   It is character that was shaped by others.

               My African Great Lakes community has many bzee (wise elders) who I was fortunate to follow.   They are men and women of great compassion and courage.   Their stories are amazing.   If I have a few of their traits it is simply osmosis of 19 years.

               Secondly, the greatest intimacies of this community were shared with those who shared a common faith.   We believed the good we did was not of our own, but of the Holy Spirit living in us.           
               Thus this old Gospel of Adoption is very personal.   It is where our community became new.   We were converted.   I was converted.   I missed a lot in the past.   I’m thankful to have shared a journey of sitting under trees.   I hope for another day.   


As we go on this journey we find that old presuppositions are not true.   The way we judged the world, others, and ourselves was flawed.   Ms. Joyce’s third chapter, “Suffering is Part of the Plan” takes on the holes in Calvinism and the pragmatics of Predestination.   True to her beginning presuppositions she does not point out the holes in the arguments with an open Bible.   She well uses pragmatics.     Ms. Joyce quotes Brian Luwis of America World Adoption stating, “God knew there was going to be a Fall…  It’s part of His plan that other families raise other children, because he knew that this world was going to have sin…  When we know that suffering is part of a loving God’s plan than we can understand that the existence of orphaned children is not an accident or failure of God’s plan (page 97.)”   (It appears the quotes were compiled together from interviews and writing.)

Allow me to use an open Bible to demonstrate the fatherless are not God’s intent.   The word “predestined” can only be found 6 times in the New American Standard Bible (Acts 4:28; Romans 8:29, 30; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:5, 11.)     Of the times “predestined” is used it is close to adoption metaphors of the Gospel in Romans 8:15, 23; and Ephesians 1:5.   

Some other words that may give insight are “sovereign” (used 297 times in the New International Version), and “grace” (used 124 times in the New International Version.)     There is a bigger theological picture than predestination and adoption.    The dictionary defines sovereign as “One that exercises supreme, permanent authority.”   It defines grace as “Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people.  The state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God.  An excellence or power granted by God.”  (  

Predestination and adoption make most sense when we understand them in the bigger picture of God’s sovereignty and grace.    God has all authority.    Yet, He allows the consequences of sin to come upon His creation.    He does not force His creation to be like programed robots.   We make choices.   Those choices have consequences for us and others.   Also, this world is just full of chaos.  For instance, wars, poverty, disease, and natural disasters.   It is impossible for any to be free from the effects of sin and unpredictable chaos.   

The Ezekiel 16 adoption metaphor offers insight.    Ezekiel told this metaphor not to make adoption a predestined way to take away the pain that comes with adoption.    He told it as metaphor to illustrate Israel was like an adulterous wife.    The baby found in a field had been abandoned.   God nurtured the child to adulthood and married her.   Yet, the wife committed adultery and left her husband’s love.    God then punished adulterous Israel.   Yet God would also forgive and restore Israel.

Pragmatically, Evangelicals make both a Biblical and pragmatic error when we assign tragedy to the predestined will of God.    It is never God’s will for tragedy to befall children.    Being fatherless is not God’s intent.   

The choice we have when fatherlessness happens is the place where with an open Bible we can seek to find answers.   


Jana and Ruth with Senator Mary Landrieu, 2004
               Ms. Joyce in her book points out that the American Evangelical International Adoption movement is very well connected with one another.   I think her perception is accurate.    My career was spent in East Africa, but when she describes Rwanda almost everyone she mentions is a friend or acquaintance.    I was also surprised as she discussed the broad pictures of the movement with how many of the players an isolated African missionary like I had met.    This experience of a community under the trees creates great empathy.

               For instance, while Jana grew up in Africa I grew up in Minnesota which has one of the highest per capita adoption rates in the United States.   Besides our own adopted children and foster child; Jana has an adopted brother, and I have an adopted sister.    Empathy is the emotion of the day for a community under the trees, and our community is one that promotes adoption.

               Ms. Joyce’ book is a difficult read.   Her critics have pointed out that the book is heavy on anecdotal evidence.    They point out there are other adoption stories worthy of attention.   I agree with both Ms. Joyce and her critics.    Part of the reason that reading The Child Catchers is so painful is because I too could fill a book with anecdotal stories that are both disastrous and inspiring.   

               One area that Ms. Joyce well points out is the need for clarification of numbers.  I admit I’ve been confused for years.   I’ve noticed a struggle with definitions.    Part of it is contained in different cultures sense of empathy.   Part of it also is contained in vision casting and even International Non-Government Organizations marketing.    One can quickly find numbers in the millions of children in vulnerable conditions.   Some of that is poverty.   Some of it is due to children who may have no father in a patriarchal society.   Some of it is due to children who may have no parent.    Yet, in the above mentioned conditions of poverty, fatherlessness, and parentlessness in the context of a clan based society a child may not necessarily be a “true orphan” where there is no adult caring for the child.   Most of the time when the numbers are tightly defined there are millions of children in vulnerable conditions, but typically only thousands that have no adults within their extended family offering care.    To reason well under the trees our community needs clear numbers.    


Missionary mentor to many, Wendell Broom
               One of the reasons we need clear numbers is the task is very complicated.    A missionary friend of mine uses a phrase to describe recent mission’s trends of “the amateurization of missions.”   Ms. Joyce well raises the issue a few Evangelicals are debating, but many missionaries are whispering.    Missions over the last 20 years have significantly changed.    

               She writes, “many churches in recent decades have traveled overseas in unprecedented numbers…’volunteerism’ vacations in developing nations…. Volunteerism frequently amounts to deprofessionalization of missionary work, a shift from career missionaries who learn the language, culture, and laws of the country to amateurs combining sightseeing and charity…   volunteerism is often centered around orphanages, with wealthy Westerners paying to spend time on their vacations or mission trips playing with institutionalized children.  Too often… the emotional needs of the tourists are the key focus of these trips as visitors seek personal fulfillment by forging immediate emotional connections with orphanage children.   But after the tourists leave, the children suffer yet another abandonment, leading to a pattern of intense connection and loss that is detrimental to their emotional wellbeing and development (page 7.)”


               In the past the better mission’s thinkers I knew advocated three purposes for short-term missions.   The first was a vision trip to expose donors to opportunity.   The second was an internship to train a new generation of missionaries.   The third was a project when there was a task that needed outside expertise.   With a clear perimeter short-term trips were kept focused and followed the adage of “do no harm.”   Most of the better mission’s thinkers I knew thought only a very small number of people had skill that required outside expertise.   Thus “short-term projects” were very limited in both number and scope.  Today, most short-term mission trips fall in the old category of “project” yet the vast majority of those coming to do a short-term missions project have no skill that could not be found in the local community.    In all practicality at best they hurt the local economy by taking away a local job.   At worst they create immense confusion and undermine good strategic long-term development.    

               Ms. Joyce points out what many missionary friends have pointed out privately.    Volunteerism is an industry and requires industrial strength infrastructure.   One of the infrastructure components is orphanages.    A few years ago I heard a wise old missionary state, “If you want to increase the number of orphans in a community start an orphanage.”    His point was well taken.    There are thousands of ways to help, but creating an orphanage undermines the extended family and community that has the capacity to nurture vulnerable children.  

               I was thrilled to read our old missionary mentors words restated in Ms. Joyce book by UNICEF’s Doug Webb stating, “If you build an orphanage, it will be filled with kids (page 155.)” 

               A few times I’ve heard discussions about ways to lessen the extent of damage done by volunteerism.    Yet, almost all the suggestions on limiting volunteerism usually run right into concerns about limiting travel, communication, and the freedom of religion.   I’m puzzled by a way to slow the damage and respect basic human rights. 

               Yet, Ms. Joyce well raises an issue that should not be ignored.   That
she so well raises such an issue to Evangelicals like me from a secular perspective is especially insightful.   A wise mission’s supporter of mine in critiquing volunteerism once said, “It is all about the slide show.”    When volunteerism is done for the purpose of meeting either the emotional needs of donors or volunteers the discerning quickly calls a spade a spade.

Approximately 2,000 years ago Peter the Apostle raised a similar issue.   He wrote “Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls.  Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world (1 Peter 2:11-13.  New Living Translation.)”

I believe similar counsel is needed today.    The social pressure among Evangelicals should speak into volunteerism and demand higher standards.


               Among my missionary friends in Rwanda a frequent topic of conversations was defining missionary.   Our call, vocation, and culture were rapidly shifting.   I stuck to an old theological definition my mentors taught me.   I argued a missionary was one sent by the Holy Spirit for the purposes of making disciples and developing churches.   The implications were that we became cultural insiders.   Also, the processes that we engaged upon made us put down roots and build systems to break cycles of poverty.

Africa Inland Mission Founders
A few of my missionary friends argued for a definition of missions based upon economics.    They refer back to old “faith missions” where a missionary goes to the mission field financially supported by family, friends, and local churches; but with no guaranteed salary.     They argue that what separates missions from Christian industries is the economy of trust.    As I read Ms. Joyce’s book I realized in a greater way my friends who argue for missionary economics have quite a point.

               Ms. Joyce points out throughout her book that ethical compromises are likely when benevolent missions require businesslike efficiency.     A mission’s economy is just the opposite.   When one is sent by family, friends, and local churches who trust you there is liberating freedom.    The faith missionary does not need to be economically efficient.   Thus he can speak truthful but unpopular words.   He can also put down roots and last out the fads.    Lastly, he can be part of enduring answers.   The process may take years or generations, but only a faith missionary has an ethical hope of succeeding while the business like efficiency of an industry will likely lead to compromises.   

               One of my hopes from Ms. Joyce’s book is that more Evangelicals will wrestle with the economies of Christian industries vs. missions. Then with an ethical compass guided by the Bible choose mission economies.   


Gabriel Mugisha Jacobs with the Rwamagana Hospital nurses who first cared
               As we sat under the trees there was a unique place of labor.   Some translate Umuganda as “community work,” but that seems far too simple of a translation.   Yes, we started with labor, stopped for conversation, had a little chai on occasion, continued the conversation, and concluded usually with a shared plan of more community labor.    Yet, we also debated.   I loved all my neighbors, but at times that was difficult.   We didn’t share the same beliefs.   Some made fun of my beliefs.   They probably thought I made fun of theirs.   Some of us were ornery and argumentative.   At times we were unreasonable.   Many of my neighbors were like family, and we knew each other’s failings.   (Mine included.)    Yet in the end whether we believed an old Gospel or not we lived out grace.    We forgave one another and made a choice to do community work for the good of our children and grandchildren.   Usually we were laughing as we made that choice and started the next round of community work.

               As many are critiquing Ms. Joyce’s writing I as an American Evangelical who is also part of the International Adoption movement think she has a great amount to contribute to our conversations.   I hope she and those like her will feel welcome in our shared discussions.

               The critique I do offer Ms. Joyce is that her book does not fit well in our East African tradition of sitting under trees.    There are some suggestions made, but they are few.    Also, I can’t imagine any of our bzee not accepting her help.   I ask for her to engage our vulnerable children with substantive action.     I hear the bzee say, “Karibu sana.”   (You are very welcome.)

               My intent in writing some missionary reflections was to be brief and I have been lengthy.   I wanted to clarify the Gospel, and I hope history will report I did that well.   I also wanted to affirm my missionary colleagues (as Ms. Joyce did a masterful job of laying a foundation for our vocation among those who may not share our beliefs.)    In the tradition of my vocation let me offer some missionary suggestions.

               To clarify I in no way define missionary by nationality or economic wealth of the sending nation.    As our family has relocated to the United States we are still missionaries by both theological and economic trust definitions.    With this definition I am in the process of calling my brothers and sisters from Africa’s Great Lakes to join us in the USA as missionaries.    There is a universal need for our vocation.

               To address the issues of vulnerable children in the context that we know well of Africa’s Great Lakes I offer three suggestions.

2010 Oklahoma Christian University Rwanda Graduates
First, poverty and her repercussions are the root cause of the numbers of vulnerable children.    The root causes must be addressed.   Frequently those causes are rooted in political and economic dysfunction.     The answer is to build enduring institutions.    My friend, Andrew Mwenda said it well, “Leaders make things happen.   Institutions make them last.”   For some of us missionaries the Lord has given us an opportunity to like our forefathers counsel leaders.    We must well use that privilege to gently speak for sound policy.     For others in the region who may not have a missionary call their voice and labor is still needed under the trees.    We missionaries will always be about church development.   Yet, other labor is needed.   National policy must be developed.   Schools must grow.   Business must thrive.   In such a climate the number of vulnerable children will decline.

               Two, as Ms. Joyce well points out many of the millions of vulnerable children do have extended family that provides nurture.   One simple pragmatic answer to functional extended families in poverty is the growth and continuation of child sponsorship programs.    There are many good child sponsorship programs out there.   If you are interested I can make some recommendations, or you can do your own research.     Relatively small donations can do wonders to help children with functional extended families go to school, learn employable skills, and break cycles of poverty.

               Lastly, despite all of our best intentions and hopes there will be a
Our family, Christmas 2011
reality of some children who land in tragic situations with no extended family to care for them
.    I believe the best answer for these situations are the old ones of faith.    Communities of faith (I’ll even include mosques in the pragmatics) can develop networks of families who can immediately foster children when they fall into these situations.   No child should ever be without some type of family.   Then it is time to let government systems go to work.   Investigations need to be made.   As time discerns the situation re-unification with an extended family may be possible.   Yet, if it is not the very best answer is adoption.   Children belong in families.    The complexity of poverty and culture mean that some children will be adopted domestically in their passport nation.   Others will be adopted internationally.   The point is not an either or.   The hope is that under the trees our community will find enduing answers so that our children can flourish.

               Thank you Ms. Joyce for giving us so much to think through.   You have made us wiser.  Karibu sana.   Please stop by our home if you are nearby for a cup of chai.


  1. Dave, I appreciate your reflections, and hope to read the book. God's blessings on you, Jana and family. It was great to see Sophia back here this summer! Lane

  2. @MzeeDaveJenkins gives a thoughtful and substantive response firmly rooting adoption in Biblical narrative and the nature of God. Read the article and feel his heart for the children, their families, and their community in Rwanda and beyond.