BRENHAM, Texas- Jay and Suzanne Faske will soon be the parents of 15. It's true that this number hardly snuck up on them, but they still contend they never planned a big family, and actually felt overwhelmed after the birth of their first son.
Jay even says he's tried to preserve the status quo, drawing the line each time another was added. Getting pregnant was never at issue here-the Faskes had their last of two biological children 14 years ago. The other 13 have come by serially adopting orphans from India, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Colombia.
Jay admits his tactics have included bribery. Once, when the Faske family already numbered in the double digits, he called a family meeting. "He told them they had two choices," Suzanne says. "Either they could have a swimming pool, or we could adopt more siblings for them. But not both."
The children cast their votes on strips of paper. "Not one voted for the pool," Jay says, still in disbelief. He and Suzanne have continued to welcome new additions-sometimes taking in children others were adopting but gave up on. That's how they got Tabitha, who will become their 15th child when her paperwork goes through. Both admit to being soft-spoken. They lead by example.
One recent Sunday afternoon the Faskes drove from their home in Brenham, Texas, to a nearby city park. They disentangled from two black SUVs like mini VIP delegates to the UN, mom and dad behind the wheel on security detail. The kids darted over picnic tabletops with mud-splattered soccer balls, eluding children of a dozen other big families, whose parents never planned on being that big, either, yet have now adopted worldwide.
Part of an adoption support group called Forever Families, they came from as far as San Antonio to meet in this small town of 13,500 east of Austin. To outsiders, the town's singular claim to fame might be as the birthplace of Blue Bell Ice Cream, but the Faskes and other families believe they watched the birth of a movement bigger than just the Central Texas Christians who've woken up to orphan ministry.
The awakening accelerated as two orphan groups visited Central Texas from Kazakhstan in 2003 and from Ethiopia last July. The result: a multinational array of more than 100 children from four continents in several dozen families, most unconcerned with orphans five years before.
That change is part of a full-bore attention shift among Christians nationwide toward "orphan care"-a word for the multifaceted approach beyond simple adoption that is commonly emphasized in this month's National Adoption Month publicity campaigns.
In 2002, the Faskes were in the heartrending process of finding a family for Rachel, a little girl from China with arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder that gave her clubbed feet and a dislocated hip at birth. It was unlikely any family would take her. Making matters worse, China clamped down on its adoption laws in response to what it saw as the stigma of outpacing Russia for the first time in number of adoptions. It capped the size of adoptive families at four children.
"We applied even though we knew China wouldn't let us adopt her," Suzanne says. (Rachel would make their ninth.) "But they would have to go through the process of telling us no." The Faskes hoped to find Rachel an adoptive family in the meantime. "Then the whole SARS thing came up," Suzanne says, which threw the official adoption board into a panic. It announced it was closing for six months, but it also gave the Faskes an answer they saw as miraculous: a unanimous yes.
Not long after this in 2003, the Faskes got a call from Paul Pennington, director of FamilyLife's Hope for Orphans, a branch of Campus Crusade for Christ, asking if Suzanne would head an orphan-care pilot program in their church, First Baptist of Brenham. That this idea might be ill received wouldn't compute to a stranger in the church now-after all, a majority of kids in the sixth-grade Sunday school class speak a language other than English-but the first meeting was a flop, with plenty of chairs set up and only one person showing up.
Demoralized, Suzanne couldn't understand: "The statistics are that 30,000 orphan children die a day. Who could read that and not be motivated?"
She took a different approach: Laying the groundwork for what became Forever Families, she sent letters to other adoptive couples in Central Texas asking if they'd be interested in creating a support group that would give their children a way to interconnect. This time, everyone showed up.
When an agency asked if Suzanne could find six homes for a group of Kazakh "waiting children"-those looking for adoptive parents-it was this core Forever Families group that managed the agency's one caveat: Your deadline is in three days.
Within 48 hours, Suzanne says those six spaces had been filled and she had requests for 24 more. They raised $48,000. That Sunday, the Faskes' Bible study leader, Robert Taylor, broke down in tears after he asked her to read a verse from Isaiah about adoption. He told the class he felt God was calling him and his wife to adopt.
Slowly the Faskes realized this was the beginning of something big. By the end of the 30-day camp, all 30 Kazakh children would have adoptive parents. When the parents later traveled to Kazakhstan, that number would grow again to 41. It also would earn Suzanne the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's annual award.
"It is incredible how they are able to recruit families," Pennington says of the Brenham group's efforts. "These kids were not adopted as infants. The probability of children over the age of 3 to 5 years old getting adopted is remote at best. But believers don't adopt the way the culture does."
Believers didn't adopt like believers, though, when Suzanne was asked this year to find host families for 30 Ethiopian children.
In many ways, Ethiopian orphans might appeal more than Kazakh orphans to a Christian couple: Ethiopia is a Christianized nation in the Horn of Africa whose orphanages enjoy diverse international support from groups like the Gates Foundation. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, is a majority-Muslim nation out of the former Soviet Union's grip for just 16 years. Abuse is a common starting point and prostitution a common endpoint for orphans, with many fed a continuous stream of MTV on orphanage TV sets.
Despite this, Suzanne says church after church turned the Ethiopian children away. There was a big elephant in the room: the biracial issue. Kazakh children have light skin. Ethiopian children do not, and the difference can have an effect on both children and parents.
Suzanne sought advice from the Dyes, a couple who had adopted two Ethiopian children the year before. Kris Dye, in turn, talked to her pastor, James Beam of the Church of Christ in Hearne.
Hearne, an old railroad town 60 miles from Brenham, still nurses unhealed, Southern white-black racial wounds, and Beam says he long tried to leverage the church's influence into a soothing balm. The two groups have warred with violence and words, fueling an out-of-control conflagration that sucked in local leaders and pastors.
Recent years had turned litigious, culminating when the ACLU filed a high-profile lawsuit in 2005 against the district attorney and a federally funded drug task force after police arrested a considerable percentage of the town's black youth on the word of an informant who later recanted. This was on many minds when Suzanne spoke to Dye about bringing the children to Hearne.
So when Dye called Beam, she knew where to aim. Beam told her at first his mind was made up. "I reminded her that we'd already adopted once," he says, admitting he used this personal merit as an excuse. "Then Kris said, 'But you haven't adopted a black child.'"
Beam says he immediately called a friend, whom he asked to read Proverbs 24:11-12 from The Message version. She complied: "Rescue the perishing; / don't hesitate to step in and help. / If you say, 'Hey, that's none of my business,' / will that get you off the hook? / Someone is watching you closely, you know- / Someone not impressed with weak excuses."
He wanted to hear that last line, and when he did, he "realized I'm supposed to set an example. . . . I'd been praying and praying for God to break down the racial barriers in Hearne." This, he saw, was his chance.
It was Kazakhstan déjà vu: Enough Central Texas people stepped forward that their program even took in children from two other programs that looked destined for failure, and all but one of the 30 orphans found parents.
Paul Pennington gets swept up in the excitement every time he talks about what happened in Central Texas. He's convinced these stories will snap Christians out of complacency. He tells anyone who'll listen that "it will introduce the church in North America to authentic Christianity."
Beam also sees the adoption movement spreading and says he isn't sure where, or how, God will work next-he points to his own church: "Who would've thought Hearne?" He had but one complaint that Sunday in Brenham. "Sometimes I think I'm going to be 70," he said, imitating a grandfather and barely containing his excitement, "and still be paying for college."
On Nov. 12 Hope for Orphans will spearhead its second national orphan adoption awareness campaign, working to reach upwards of 10 million people, primarily by radio. Media partners will direct listeners to the campaign's website, cryoftheorphan.com, where resources have been pooled and made available.
Hope for Orphans, born in 2003, now partners with over 125 churches. Some are small, like Mount Zion Methodist near Baltimore, Md., where church members have forged a longstanding relationship with a children's home in Namibia (see "One church, one orphanage," July 23, 2005). Others are large, like Rick Warren's Saddleback Community Church, which has taken the lead in mentoring churches to address the HIV crisis through church-based orphan ministry. But the focal point remains grassroots-on encouraging average churchgoers, holding workshops for lay leaders across the country, and mailing out packets and DVDs.
The Central Texas adoption record, Paul Pennington says, is extraordinary but not solitary. He points to partnerships with churches in Minnesota, Colorado, and California. In September, 140 people from 30 churches and 23 cities showed up for Hope for Orphans' new workshop in Irvine, Calif. Jason Weber, a Hope for Orphans senior manager, says that while "the potential impact of 30 churches in one region . . . is hard to predict," he can't help but think big: He's seen single churches initiate ministries that took in 60 or 70 orphans.