Sawyer and Wyatt

In the spring of 2008 a three week-old baby was thrown into a street and left for dead. He was found by the police. This happened about 200 miles south of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Africa. The police took the boy to the closest orphanage where he was gladly taken in.

In the summer of that same year a baby was born about 300 miles south of Addis.  Nine months previous to that his mother was raped and left for dead. She survived. She is one of the rare women who become pregnant through this horrendous experience. She chose to give birth. She brought her baby to the nearest orphanage and asked them to find a father and mother for him. They happily took him and began the process of meeting her request.

Men had left a boy and a mother for dead. God had sustained their lives.

Those two boys represent many who have similar stories. Orphans are seemingly everywhere in Ethiopia. Many orphanages are overcrowded with kids and understaffed with workers. The ones who are not adopted will be released from the orphanage around age 14 to likely become street children.

In spite of the overcrowding and understaffing the caregivers do an excellent job. They love the children well. To the best of their ability, they play with them, teach them, feed them, clothe them, hold them, cry with them, laugh with them, and often pray over them.

We knew all along that Emerson would not be our last child. Our hearts had already turned to orphans in Africa. The sheer number of orphans added daily is overwhelming. AIDS, poverty, and war are just some of the reasons for the growing number of fatherless children on this continent.

We knew there was nothing superior about adopting a child from Africa. It was not a better decision to adopt from overseas versus domestically. We were not feeling more sacrificial, or more spiritual, or more anything. We did not then, and do not now, believe there is a hierarchy of adoption (The lowest level being the adoption of a fully healthy Caucasian newborn in the states and the highest level being adopting an older, severely mentally/physically handicapped, poverty stricken child in a third-world country.)

This was just the best decision for our family.

We had begun the process of adopting from Ethiopia before Emerson became the newest McBaby in 2006. In 2008 we picked up where we left off.   The need to adopt boys in Ethiopia had grown. So instead of adopting one orphan we decided to adopt two.

All of us have been created with an innate longing to gain the approval of our fathers. The love of our mothers is a constant that stabilizes our world and brings much peace to our souls. But the longing for dad’s approval drives us — especially with boys. It seems to be the case for virtually all people in all places. Many of us might still be striving for it years after dad passes from this world on to the next.

Perhaps we want it so desperately because it is a revealer, a window to our soul. I think it’s a reflection of an even deeper longing for the approval of the ultimate father — God.

My four boys often tell me, “Watch daddy.” They’ll tell me to watch their jumping, or spinning, or running, or putting on their socks, or crushing caterpillars, or making bizarre faces, and so on. I laugh and many times join in. The orphan is also asking dad to watch, but the orphan has no father to laugh and join in. He/she has no mother to stabilize either.

The cry of the orphan is an awful sound. Often it is silent outside. Rarely is there calm inside.

Orphans dream. They dream just like you and me. They dream of being a person of significance. They dream of making a profound difference in the life of another. They dream of having a family. But one dream they have is one I have never had. Some are so wounded they have ignored the dream and pretended it’s not there. Most still dream it.

They dream of being a part of a family; of a father and a mother to love them; of the security that comes with belonging. They dream that one day someone will care so deeply about them they are willing to risk life and limb to come in, swoop them up, and welcome them into their new home for good. They dream.

When the time comes for some of these orphans to be welcomed into new homes they have concerns. Will this new family accept me? Will this family grow tired of me and bring me back? Will they discover me for who I really am and kick me out? Will they ever love me the same way they love their biological children? Will they even be excited about seeing me for the first time?

Judith and I wanted to adopt two boys under the age of two. The paperwork is exhausting. We filled out papers, had them notarized, waited for one thing to clear in order to move on to the next, filled out more, notarized more, mailed more, got finger prints, background checks, a complete physical, etc.

It took what seemed like an eternity.

Months after everything on our end was completed we finally got the approval. In December we saw pictures of the two boys we would adopt. We did not yet know their stories. We only knew we wanted them to have a permanent seat at our dinner table.

In May 2009, Judith was unable to fly with me to Ethiopia. Her mother flew with me in her place. I am so thankful to God for this Wonder Woman. Exhausted and anxious, we arrived a full day after we left. After a partial night’s sleep we drove with four other families to the agency office in Addis Ababa.

This was something we had been dreaming about for a couple years. Other families have been dreaming for many, many years. I was concerned that all of the children would be resistant of their new families. This orphanage was good to the children. It has been home to them and they develop significant bonds with the other children, nurses, workers, and others. I was not the only one concerned.

The Webbers (not their real name) are a great couple from North Georgia who were with us the night we all arrived. They came to adopt a sibling group of one boy and his two younger sisters. This soon-to-be mom shared concern over her three new children’s reaction:

“Would they really want to be with us? Would they be excited about seeing us for the first time? Would they really want to leave from here after all? Would they think we are arrogant Americans coming in to save the day when they really didn’t want their day saved?”

She feared the worst.

So on pins and needles we drove up to the gate and entered.  The Webbers had a separate van bringing them. I watched from the inside as these three children sprinted to them. The Webbers barely had time to get out of the van and no time to get a camera. The children embraced them with all of their might. I cried watching this scene unfold. It was beautiful.

The other children ran from inside to our van. Smiles and laughter could not be contained. My boys were not up yet from their nap, so we would have to wait a few more minutes.

Later the Orphanage workers told us that all our children had received photos and information on their respective families coming to adopt them. One girl had a shirt with the screen printing of the family on it. She wore it constantly. The children were told they would be coming to America. That didn’t matter to them. Their uninhibited response had nothing to do with American prosperity and opportunity. It had everything to do with a family that came for them.

With misty eyes I finally met my sleepy boys, Sawyer and Wyatt.

Sawyer did not have the same reaction as the other children. It took days for him to warm up to me. He was great with my mother-in-law. Wyatt was okay with anyone. My boys were only a year old and they were not quite old enough to understand what was going on.

I did not mind. I knew why I came. I came to love them. I came because I want them to have a seat at the table. I came because I want them to grow up without the cry of an orphan. I came because I want them to go no longer without my embrace.

Two days later I was told their stories. Sawyer was the boy abandoned 200 miles south of Addis and found by the police. Wyatt was the child conceived in brutality 300 miles south of the place I was holding him. I thanked my God for sustaining their lives. I blubbered again knowing both are McNeely’s now. I now thank my God for the honor and privilege Judith and I — as well as Dawson, Smyth, Davis, and Emerson — have in expanding our family for these two guys.

Those 11 days beginning on Wednesday, April 29 and ending on Saturday, May 9 were the most confusing, taxing, and enduring days I have personally experienced. Not a day went by that I did not weep with sorrow and cry for joy. I doubt I will ever understand all of it. What I do understand is that at the end of that time Begidu and Mussie came face to face with their mother and brothers.

This is where they belong.

Sawyer Scott Begidu has a first name from a dear friend of Judith’s and a second name from my friend who has walked alongside of me in triumph and tragedy like a brother. Begidu is his given name.  Wyatt Elvington Mussie has a first name from yet another God-send couple to us and a second name from a family who has done more for this little McNeely clan than anyone will ever know.  Mussie was the name his mother gave him.  It means Moses.  She wanted him adopted just like Moses in the Bible.

We are often asked the question, “Why would you guys adopt this many children.”

Why? Because unless we intervened, six boys might not have had a mother to be a constant stabilizer, nor a father to say, “Well done!”

They might have grown up without an identity and belonging. We drove to Augusta, Atlanta, Orlando, and flew to Addis Ababa, because we were compelled to do so. They did not pursue us, we pursued them. We pursued them with a relentless aggression sacrificing money, time, sleep, energy, and overcoming any obstacle that stood in our way.

We did this for the joy set before us of parenting. We did this because we wanted to make sure that six boys would not be left to only dream about a home they longed for. We did this because it is worth it to hear six former orphans cry out “Mommy, Daddy!”

For us, adopting our children mimics a much grander act. I would never demand that you think the same thing we do, but here is what we believe:

God adopted us. Unless He intervened, we would have had no stability or security. We have tried and failed in our performance for Him but one day God will say, “Well done!” We could have existed forever without an identity and belonging. Instead, He (Jesus) became a man just like us, came to earth, and lived among us. He did this because He was compelled to do so.

We did not pursue Him, He pursued us. He pursued us with a relentless aggression sacrificing His very life and overcoming every obstacle that stood in His way. He did this for His Father’s name’s sake and our very lives — the joy set before Him. He did this because He wanted to make sure that His children would not be left to only dream about a home they longed for. He did this because it is worth it to hear former orphans cry out “Abba, Father!”

That is why we adopt. Because He first adopted us.