Transracial adoption enlarges congregations
by Jane Greer
On June 1, twenty-five children gathered at the front of the sanctuary at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington D.C., for a dedication ceremony. Half were children of color, and half of those were transracial adoptees. The diversity among the children was a source of joy to parishioners, many of whom have been working a long time to build a more inclusive congregation.
Transracial adoption is changing the face of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country. Although the adult population of Unitarian Universalist churches is predominantly white, the religious education classrooms now contain children with a variety of backgrounds, including a growing number of transracial adoptees. While there are no statistics documenting the number of transracial adoptees in Unitarian Universalist congregations, the anecdotal evidence indicates that the number is growing, as is the number of transracial adoptions in the United States as a whole.
All Souls, in downtown Washington, D.C., is just one of many congregations experiencing a growth in transracial adoption among its congregants. All Souls has a very diverse adult population, drawing members from both the inner city and the suburbs. It was this diversity that attracted adoptive mother Erin McVadon Albright to the congregation. Albright, the mother of three adopted sons—two Mexican, and one Mexican American—was immediately struck by the multicultural congregation. “At the first service we attended, I remember looking around the congregation and realizing that my kids would not be the only people of color.”
Albright is not the only adoptive parent drawn to All Souls because of the diversity. Dave and Bill Kerlina moved from western Michigan to the Washington area because they wanted their family, which includes two adopted African American sons, to live in a multicultural environment. They were attracted to All Souls because of the diverse congregation. “As a white parent, I’m grateful to the All Souls congregation because they can provide more insight into our children’s cultural background,” says Dave Kerlina. The congregation also provides important role models of color for his sons, he says. “The black role models they see at church are different from those they see in the mainstream media. I think it’s good for them to see successful people of all colors.”
River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, also has many transracially adopted childrent. Approximately fifteen of the 325 children enrolled in the religious education program are transracial adoptees. The adult congregation, unlike that of All Souls, is overwhelmingly white. Says the Rev. Ginger Luke, minister of religious education, “Adoptive families come here and when the parents walk into the RE classrooms, they’re delighted to see children of all colors. They’re looking for people who look like them.”
Transracial adoption began as a social phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s with the adoption of Korean infants orphaned by the Korean war. A new wave of adoptions started at the close of the Vietnam war, when hundreds of Vietnamese orphans were sent to American adoptive homes. Since then, adoption has spread to other countries where the United States has not been involved in a war. Often, these countries are suffering from widespread poverty or undergoing political or social upheaval.
International adoption brings with it moral complexities, says Luke. Many parents struggle with the idea of taking children out of their own culture. “People are trying to look at the bigger picture, not just their own desire to have a child.” But, she adds, in many cases, they’ve come to the conclusion that the children need more than their own communities can provide. Adoption, in that case, can offer a positive alternative for both parent and child.
Not all transracial adoptions take place abroad. Many occur in the U.S. when a family adopts an American child of color. The number of these adoptions has increased due to a shortage of available healthy white infants. However, with the increasing number of biracial marriages, it is no longer unusual to see a child with a parent of a different race.
The concept of family is also being enlarged by the growing number of single adults and same-gender couples adopting children, all of whom were previously discouraged or actively prevented from adopting. With the liberalization of adoption laws in some states and countries, same-sex couples or singles interested in adopting are now able to do so.
Domestic transracial adoption has not always been viewed favorably. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement objecting to the adoption of black children by white families, claiming that such placements would eventually lead to “cultural genocide.” Black children, they feared, would grow up unprepared for the realities of a racist society. Since then, the NABSW has revised its position, and condones transracial adoption when black families are not available.
Transracial adoptions are helping to make the UUA more racially diverse. Says Joseph Lyons, of the UUA’s Young Adult and Campus Ministry Office, and himself a transracial adoptee, “If the UUA can stay committed to young adults, churches will become diverse without even trying.” Lyons is referring to the high attrition rate with UU youth in general, and especially with youth of color. He adds, “The window of opportunity for retention with white kids is larger that that with youth of color.”
The Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Staff Group, and the adoptive mother of a Chinese child, is more cautious in her outlook about the UUA’s diversification as a result of transracial adoption. “My hope is that the growing number of transracially adopted kids will motivate congregations to deal with antioppression and antiracism issues,” she says. “My fear is that people will look at how diverse our children are and say, ‘that’s enough.’”
Families thinking about transracial adoption need to consider carefully
the matter of race. James Coomes, a UU transracial adoptee who is a social
worker and consultant to adoptive parents, says there are two traps that
parents often fall into. The first is to believe that race doesn’t
matter, and the second is to talk about it too much. In the latter case,
a balance needs to be struck between a child’s ability to hear and
understand the race issue, and a parent’s need to talk about it.
Coomes says that the most successful transracially adoptive families approach
the matter with humility. “These are the families who admit they
don’t have all the answers but are willing to explore the issues.
It’s a learning process for both parent and child.”