Among the numerous efforts to bolster Christian missionary activity during the 20th century, Soojin Chung portrays the transnational adoption movement as one that was deeply informed and motivated by evangelical and ecumenical Christians alike. In Adopting for God: The Mission to Change America through Transnational Adoption, Chung provides a historical account of several leading actors—adoption evangelists—in the rise of the transnational adoption movement, all of whom joined from various corners of the Christian tradition and held unique beliefs about what it meant to carry out one’s faith (4). Despite their differences and, at times, their contentions, Chung seamlessly weaves their stories together to demonstrate how their varying purposes, audiences, and methodologies collectively brought transnational adoption to the mission foreground and led to the propagation of US adoptions from East Asia.
Beyond the impact of adoption evangelists in the mission field, Chung contends that the effects of the transnational adoption movement spilled over into broader societal themes and concerns. Adoption evangelists were pivotal in setting forth a mission grounded in a theology of adoption that shifted negative stereotypes about race, changed perceptions of foreign countries, redefined traditional family values, and enabled women to serve in both domestic and public capacities (14). By taking their expansive outreach and influence seriously, Chung avoids casting missionaries solely as pawns in a scheme of unmitigated cultural imperialism. The mission landscape was far more complex and marked by diverse thought, and adoption evangelists participated in ways that prioritized not only evangelism and salvation but social needs and responsibility (15). As such, Chung paints these characters with meticulous and honest strokes, noting their oversights alongside their achievements, and their harmful assertions in conjunction with their collaborative approaches.
Chung focuses on the transnational adoption movement as it developed among select Protestant groups from 1949 to 1960, paying close attention to Robert Pierce, Everett Swanson, Harry and Bertha Holt, Pearl Buck, and Helen Doss. These adoption evangelists advocated for transnational adoption through a wide range of strategies, such as prompting world-renowned foundations to invest in child sponsorship and adoption programs (21), writing first-person narratives that were captivating and “really real” (129), and relating the kinship and familial intimacy of adoption to global friendship and foreign relations (141). Still, their work was not without flaws. Evangelical Christians often conflated their salvific motives with American ideals (21), and they repeatedly prioritized placing children in Christian households over ones that were financially secure, mentally stable, and non-abusive (71). Ecumenical Christians also struggled in their overt efforts to deconstruct systemic racism, frequently resorting to methods that further promoted racial hierarchies, the model minority myth, and colorblindness.
As Chung stresses, the transnational adoption movement came to mean much more than the phenomenon itself, and it revealed adoption evangelists as major proponents of vast social, political, and economic change (141). Their contributions were consequential and sometimes counterproductive; they cultivated anti-racism while demonstrating paternalism and reinforced traditional gender norms while attempting to abolish them. In each of these depictions, Chung helpfully reminds us that at the center of the movement were the adoptees themselves, crossing into new surroundings with different-looking families and adjusting to a strange world that frequently saw them as exotic, heathens, enemies, and fundamentally other (10). To many Americans, these children were in desperate need of reshaping, civilizing, and saving. Amid renegotiating racial hierarchy, gender norms, and theological motives, Chung recognizes that the movement was and continues to be too big a burden to place on adoptees alone (157). Transnational children may have been the primary subjects, but they were given little to no choice in if and how they participated in their own advocacy and identity formation.
With this in mind, we might consider why Chung devotes most of her text to the stories of white Christian missionaries rather than the East Asian adoptees. Chung does not write about the adoption evangelists because of their virtue or importance to the movement (at least not necessarily); rather, she identifies them because of how they used their power—for better or worse—to shape congregations, institutions, and media in the service of transnational adoption. This is what makes Adopting for God so compelling and noteworthy. Not only does Chung provide us with comprehensive timelines and biographies of adoption evangelicals; even more importantly, Chung critically assesses the consequences of their actions, establishes a connection between history and current trends, and sheds light on rich intricacies of our Christian history that are not widely known and deserve our utmost attention. Adopting for God is a formative text for anyone interested in studying the legacy of the transnational adoption movement in the US, advancing the discipline of Christian missiology, or conducting comparative research of transnational adoption across other racial and ethnic contexts.
In addition to paving the way for future scholarship and research, Chung nudges transnational adoptees like me to share our own adoption narratives and reclaim our agency in spaces where it has often been denied. Taking our cues from fellow adoptees, we may better understand how visible aspects of culture—holidays, clothing, food—interact and inform invisible aspects of cultural identity—race, power, privilege. We may also seek the insight of adoptees regarding themes of belonging in ecclesial and academic discourse. Moreover, we can begin to imagine and strive for theologies and ministries that are by, for, and about transnational adoptees, and Chung equips us with the necessary historical framework to do just that.
Maci Sepp is the recruitment associate at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Date Of Review:
February 17, 2023
Soojin Chung is Assistant Professor in the Department of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific University.
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