To many Christian evangelicals, their commitment to finding homes for the world's orphans is something to celebrate – and they will, gathering at hundreds of churches across the United States to direct their thoughts and prayers to these children.
But the fifth annual Orphan Sunday, Nov. 3, arrives at a challenging time, and not just because the number of international adoptions is dwindling.
The adoption movement faces criticism that says some evangelicals are so enamored of international adoption as a mission of spiritual salvation – for the child and the adoptive parents – that they have closed their eyes to adoption-related fraud and trafficking.
Some adoption advocates in evangelical circles have angrily rejected the criticism. But the president of the coalition that organizes Orphan Sunday, Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, has urged his allies and supporters to take the critiques to heart. Alliance partners, he says, should be eager to support a broad range of orphan-care programs.
"When the dominant feature of our thinking becomes 'us as rescuers,' we're in grave danger," Mr. Medefind wrote on the alliance website. "What often follows is the pride, self-focus, and I-know-better outlook that has been at the root of countless misguided efforts to help others."
One leading critic of the movement comes from within evangelical ranks – David Smolin, director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at Baptist-affiliated Samford University. Professor Smolin and his wife adopted two daughters from India in 1998, then learned that the girls had been abducted from an orphanage where they'd been placed temporarily by their mother.
The evangelical movement "uncritically participates in adoption systems riddled with child laundering, where children are illicitly obtained through fraud, kidnapping, or purchase," Smolin wrote in a law journal article. "The result is often tragically misdirected and cruel, as the movement participates in the needless separation of children from their families."
Many of Smolin's concerns were reinforced with the recent publication of "The Child Catchers," a book about the evangelical adoption movement by journalist Kathryn Joyce. It details cases where foreign children adopted by evangelicals were mistreated and looks at problematic Christian-led adoption initiatives in such countries as Ethiopia, Liberia, and Haiti.
The evangelical adoption movement, writes Ms. Joyce, has provided millions of new advocates for a global adoption industry "too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money, turning poor countries' children into objects of salvation, then into objects of trade."
Medefind wrote a detailed response to the book, crediting Joyce for providing an "important warning regarding potential hazards, excesses and blind spots" within the movement. But he also accused Joyce of overstating international adoption's negative aspects while downplaying its benefits.
Christian engagement in international adoption goes back many decades, notably to the efforts of a devout couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, to promote adoption of Korean orphans in the 1950s. Only in the past 10 years, however, has there been formalization of a Christian adoption/orphan-care movement.
In 2007, the Christian ministry Focus on the Family hosted a summit on adoption issues, and in 2008 it launched "Wait No More," an initiative encouraging evangelicals to adopt children from the US foster care system.
In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, approved a resolution urging its churches to promote "an adoption culture."
One prominent evangelical adoption advocate, Dan Cruver , writes in his book "Reclaiming Adoption" that the ultimate purpose of adoption by Christians "is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel."
For some adult adoptees, these aspects of the evangelical approach are troubling.
Amanda Transue-Woolston, 28, was adopted as an infant by a conservative Christian couple. She speaks respectfully of her adoptive parents, but has abandoned their particular faith for far more liberal Christian universalism.
"My belief is that heavy Christian applications don't help with an adopted child's identity," she said.
At the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a prominent adoption think tank, executive director Adam Pertman commended the efforts of some major Christian adoption agencies to expand programs aiding orphans in their home countries. Initiatives by such agencies as Bethany Christian Services and Buckner International include promoting domestic adoption and providing support for orphans' local communities.
Bethany and Buckner will be participating Nov. 21-22 in a first-of-its kind conference in Kenya aimed at promoting domestic adoption in East Africa.
Bethany's president, Bill Blacquiere, says many smaller US adoption agencies – Christian and secular – lack the resources and motivation to work on in-country alternatives to international adoption. Some agencies, he said, are lax about checking whether children they place for adoption are part of trafficking schemes and lax in training of adoptive families, who in many cases are adopting children with serious physical or emotional challenges.
"A lot of people opened shop and did adoptions quick and easy and made a lot of money," Blacquiere said. "That's not how adoptions should be done. It's not supposed to be easy."
Blacquiere also said religious evangelism should not be the primary motive for any adoption.
If current trends continue, expanded alternatives to international adoption will be needed. The number of such adoptions by Americans peaked at 22,991 in 2004, just as the evangelical adoption movement took off, and has dropped annually since then, to 8,668 last year.
Private adoptions of infants in the US also are declining, though authoritative statistics are lacking. Thus the US foster care system – with about 100,000 children waiting for adoption – offers the most options for evangelicals heeding the call to adopt.
Jedd Medefind, in his response to "The Child Catchers," expressed hope that the overall movement will be seen in the long term as a positive force.