The story of baby Moses being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter resonated with Kelley Nikondeha when she heard it told in Sunday school at her Catholic parish.
“I instantly recognized that this was my story,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “My mother didn’t pull me out of a river, but I imagined that the current that brought me to her was just as mystical and intentional. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that I understood that Jesus was also adopted. How could I have not realized this? But once I did I sat down and reread the Gospels through the eyes of adoption.”
What she took to heart from the Old and New Testaments shaped her life and her career and led her to write “Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World” (Eerdmans, $16.99).
Making belonging visible
The book brings to life what she calls “a potent metaphor” for building community and repairing divisions in the world. It’s belonging that mends the world, she said, and adoption is a way of life that makes belonging visible. It’s more than one mother relinquishing her child and another mother receiving the child as her own.
“It’s sacramental in nature and a visible sign of an inner grace,” she said. “It builds a sense of belonging that cultivates healing, and binds people by daily fidelity and deeper ministries.”
The understanding of belonging also led her back to the Catholic faith of her childhood.
Nikondeha, 49, and her family live outside of Phoenix five months of the year, and the rest of the time in Burundi, her husband Claude’s home country. They have dual citizenship.
She was adopted as an infant and grew up in California. The spirit of her own adoption formed her heart for her own family and for her work as a writer, speaker and co-director for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise that she founded in Burundi (in east Africa) with her husband. She is also co-founder of Amahoro Africa, an ongoing conversation between theologians and practitioners within the African context.
The couple met when he came to Santa Barbara to attend a conference on reconciliation.
“I was interested in reconciliation in terms of being in good relationships with one another, and in racial reconciliation in our country,” she said. “Claude, coming from Burundi, was someone who understood tribal reconciliation.”
They kept in touch after he returned to Africa; their friendship grew, and they eventually married. The heart of their work together illustrates her personal and theological perspective on family, connections and belonging.
Mother ‘out of nothing’
Ironically, the couple did not expect to have children, she said. A family just did not fit into their plans.
Then they met a missionary who ran a home for abandoned babies. She insisted that Nikondeha visit, and Nikondeha was moved by the condition of so many of the children who had been neglected or malnourished. One boy was healthy but alone, and Nikondeha hoped that someone would adopt him. She visited him many times, held him, rocked him, took him out under the trees. The nannies called her “Mother” when she visited him.
But she didn’t feel like anyone’s mother, and she struggled with what she felt God was calling her to do. Her assurance came in a gentle whisper in her heart: ex nihilo. God created out of nothing.
“Out of my maternal nothingness, God could create a mother,” she wrote. “If I would summon the courage to make room for this boy, I was assured God could create again.”
That wasn’t all. An HIV-positive baby was orphaned when her mother died in childbirth and her father died soon after. Both parents had AIDS, and their child was not expected to live much longer. The Nikondehas wanted to take care of her for the time that she had left.
After all the paperwork was cleared, the couple flew back to the United States with their son and daughter, Justin and Emma, who was no longer HIV positive. The children — who Nikondeha called “shocking gifts” from God — are now 14 years old.
The adoptions pleased her parents.
“In an unphotographed moment, I entered the church. Soon after my birth, the good women of Holy Family Adoption Agency in Los Angeles made sure I was baptized. A priest sprinkled holy water on my forehead and the church embraced me. I slipped into God’s family almost unnoticed. This was my first adoption.
“A few weeks later, a woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness; now I was twice adopted. By the time we left the building, with her cradling me in the crook of her arm, I belonged. That’s how sacraments tend to work — altering reality in an instant.
“As I grew, I discovered my story to be counter-narrative. Relinquished by one. Received by another. Early on, I was already learning an alternative story about family formation that would set the trajectory of my life. I belonged despite biological difference. My family pushed past the fractured ways of the world with a fierce fidelity. In doing so, they taught me that anyone could belong — could be family — and I believed them. What growing up adopted taught me is that I could find belonging in unexpected places. It is with that adoptive awareness that I learned both a life lesson and a scriptural truth: belonging is a choice, a series of habits, and a way of life that cultivates healing.”
“They knew that my adoption experience was absolutely positive and to them that was confirmed when my husband and I were willing to replicate that for our own family,” she said.
Nikondeha had been baptized and raised as a Catholic. Her parents were involved in the Charismatic Renewal of the 1970s and left the Church when she was in middle school. Years later Nikondeha enrolled in Fuller Seminary for a master’s degree in divinity to deeper her spiritual formation.
‘Who is my mother?’
She was in her mid-30s when she started craving a return to her Catholic roots. Memories of rosaries, votive candles and receiving Communion beckoned her on an Ash Wednesday to enter a Catholic church. There, surrounded by the scent of incense, she found “Christ hung over the altar, welcoming me home.”
Nikondeha had never sought out her birth mother, but found in Mother Church, she said, the birth mother that she never knew she needed.
She began planning her book four years ago, gathering biblical narratives of estrangement, rivalries, reconciliations, adoptions, inclusion and healing. Moses in the basket. Rachel adopting the child of her maid. Naomi, a full-blooded Israelite, assuring that her grandson, whose mother, Ruth was a Moabite, will not be left out of the lineage.
In the New Testament, Jesus is adopted into the lineage of Joseph after being relinquished by God his father. Given by God, received by Joseph.
“It was through the story of Joseph that I first recognized Jesus as the adopted one,” Nikondeha said.
There was more.
“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Jesus asks in the Gospel of Mark. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, even my mother.”
St. Paul preached to the Galatians that God sent his son so we could all become God’s adopted ones. Through faith, they are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Belonging to Christ and descendants of Abraham, they are God’s adopted ones and full heirs to the promise.
“Writing has allowed me to go deeper into how I understand my own story,” Nikondeha said. “And I want to contribute to a wider conversation. I want to see people reclaim adoption in the story of Scriptures, and see that they have something to offer communities and churches. We don’t often think of adoption as a sacrament that you break open and give, and I hope that people will start to think that way.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.