Biola students and professors seek to honor God’s call of adoption

The Christian’s call to care for orphans is greater with more and more countries restricting internaional adoptions.


Nicole Foy, Writer

Alli Mahnke saw her two youngest sisters for the first time only four months ago.

They haven’t actually met face-to-face and they aren’t officially sisters yet, but Mahnke and her family have loved the girls since the arrival of the long-awaited email containing two shining faces and two precious names: Johane and Lourdia.

“I practiced saying [their names] hundreds of times, drew their faces in sketchbooks and imagined what it would be like to hold their little hands,” the freshman nursing major wrote in a follow-up text message. “We tried instantly to memorize every curve, every freckle, every braid.”

The Mahnke family’s waiting game is standard fare for international adoptions, some of which can take up to several years to match children to potential families, meet the requirements of both countries involved and eventually finalize the adoption. For the families at Biola that have experienced adoption firsthand, the wait time is nothing compared to the lifetime impact on the child and the family themselves.

Long waiting times typical for international adoptions

For now, memorizing their faces from photos and sketches is all they can do, as Johane and Lourdia are still in an tiny orphanage outside Port Au Prince, Haiti waiting to meet their future parents and siblings that already miss them immensely.

With two years passed and a mountain of paperwork still to process, it will likely take an additional year of rules, background checks and signatures to finally bring the girls to their new home.

“You know where they are and that they are yours,” Mahnke said. “But you don’t get to hold them and say hi and talk to them … That is hard.”

Adopting families usually aren’t matched to a child until at least a year into the process and are then obligated to wait.

Answering God’s call to care for orphans

Although sophomore psychology major Rachel Styffe and her family waited just as long for her three adopted siblings, their story is still unorthodox in comparison. The Styffe family, working with Saddleback Church in Southern California and the government of Rwanda, were instrumental in the establishment of the country’s first adoption agencies — opening the doors for hundreds of families to adopt. The Styffes have no doubt that God had a hand in bringing them together.

“We prayed about it and were meeting different kids, and we felt called and really led to adopt Noah, Cynthia and Erica,” Styffe said. “After returning for several visits, God made it more and more apparent that these we were the right kids for our family.”

But even though the adoptions were finalized years ago, the Styffe family hasn’t left Rwanda behind. Rachel and several of her family members still advocate for adoption in Rwanda, seeking families for orphans among the local churches as Rwanda is now closed to international adoptions.

Rachel is especially passionate about emptying orphanages and holding Christians accountable to the command in the Bible to care for orphans. Instead of perpetuating orphanages, Rachel emphasized the necessity of placing children in loving, Christ-centered households.

“Children need families. There are 143 million orphans in the world and there are 2 billion Christians … but we are not fulfilling James 1:27,” Styffe said. “Where is the disconnect? We could have all these children adopted.”

When Jason Oakes, a professor in the biblical studies department, was considering adoption, he too found a confirmation and call to care for the orphans while reading a scripture passage about the fatherless. He and his wife felt a strong conviction to adopt immediately and let the finances work themselves out.

As they considered adopting from Ethiopia, Oakes and his wife felt drawn to adopt older boys who had a less likely chance of finding a family.

Six months later, Yihun and Elias were added to the Oakes family. They are now 7 and 8 years old.

“She chose me to be her daughter”

Senior psychology major Danielle Chichester understands this lack of a family firsthand. Neglected and emotionally abused by her birth mother, Chichester found herself searching for the parental love and protection she had never been given.

"She would go in and out of rehab, so I was always being cared for by someone else," Chichester said. "I would grasp for that mother figure in others, and I would look to them to take care of me and show me how to do things … I never really thought that I would actually get it."

When Chichester was 15 years old, she left her home to live with relatives in New Jersey, where she attended church for the first time. At church, she met a woman who became a mentor and eventually the mother figure that she had always looked for. At 20 years old, Chichester was officially adopted by her mentor, Janet.

“Knowing that she chose me to be her daughter … that she would sacrifice her life to be my mom is a picture of how God adopts us as his family,” Chichester said. “He chooses us.”

Now, Chichester hopes to take her past experience and focus on caring for children who age out of the foster care system and are left with nowhere to go.

Adoption as a reflection of God’s grace

Erik Thoennes, another professor in the biblical studies department, also has adopted three children — Caroline, Paige and Sam — from Taiwan. From the other end of a situation like Chichester’s, Thoennes explained how his immediate love for his children, before he even met them, mirrored our status as God’s adopted sons and daughters.

“It was wonderfully like our relationship with God: We are not home yet, he hasn’t come and brought us home yet,” Thoennes said. “But we are his and he loves us and he is working to prepare a home for us."

“They just always belonged to us”

Although adopted children may enter their new families at different ages and from different places around the world, they are all sent by God, according to Gavin Sweeney.

The freshman communication studies major explained that even though he remembers picking up his adopted sister, Samantha, from China when he was 6 years old, he could never consider her to be any different than his younger biological brother.

“The way that we say it now, is that she has been my sister all along, she just got delivered in the wrong place,” Sweeney said.

Perhaps Sweeney’s explanation helps outsiders understand why the Mahnke family felt love, not surprise, when they finally saw their new daughters’ faces.

“It was like they just always belonged to us,” Mahnke said. “We weren’t looking at new faces at all, but family."

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