Three weeks after Joseph and Laura Thigpen, members of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, brought their two-year-old daughter home from Ethiopia after a grueling four-year process, the Ethiopian Parliament voted Jan. 9 to ban all foreign adoptions.
Photo by Michelle Nachnani
Joseph, Laura and Eliza Thigpen arrive home at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Dec. 16, after a four-year adoption journey.
The couple, who had just let out their first “genuine sigh of relief” Dec. 16, now asked about the millions of children left without families, “Who holds their breath for these orphans?”
Adoption was always part of their plan – an issue they said would have kept them from moving forward in their relationship, even when they were dating.
They learned that poverty in other countries makes it impossible for locals to pursue domestic adoption in their own homeland. This knowledge affirmed the call to adopt internationally.
“We resonated with this,” Laura said in an email to the Biblical Recorder. “We, too, were once the orphan in a far-away land in need of a foreign adoptive parent. We, too, relied, and still do, on a Father to come to us when we could not go to Him.”
In September 2013, the Thigpens applied to their first adoption agency. It took nine months to complete a home study, file a petition to the United States Customs and Immigration Services to bring an orphan from Ethiopia to the U.S. and mail a dossier to be authenticated.
“The paperwork process of international adoption goes a little like this: hurry up, then wait … hurry up, then wait,” said Laura.
By August 2014, they were placed on a list of families waiting for a referral of the child they would adopt. They were 39th on the list.
“Each month would go by, and we would hope to hear of movement. Some months we would move a few numbers, and some months we wouldn’t move at all,” Laura said.
Then, in November 2015, after waiting for more than one year and being told to expect a referral soon, Joseph and Laura learned the placing agency they were working with would suddenly be closing Dec. 30, 2015. They were devastated.
“Our agency had given us a few options: remaining with them, but using another placing agency, putting us at the end of that waiting family list, which already had over 100 families; switching to an entirely different program (country) that they offered; or losing all of the money we had paid in agency fees by leaving that agency altogether for a new agency.
The Thigpen family celebrates their first Christmas together, just days after bringing Eliza home.
“We had a strong resolve to remain with an Ethiopian program, but knowing it took us a year to move from 39 to nine on a waiting list, we could not imagine waiting behind a hundred or more families. We cried out to the Lord in absolute desperation.”
Within 24 hours, a friend connected them to the organization from which she and her husband adopted two Ethiopian children. The agency needed a family that was ready to adopt a new child in their orphanage.
“After praying and seeking a lot of wisdom and counsel from pastors, friends and family, we felt certain the Lord was leading us to forsake the $8,000 we had paid in agency fees and switch to this new agency. Of course, making a change requires an update to all of the paperwork – home study, immigration petition and dossier. So, we followed that call once again to ‘hurry up and wait!’”
Joseph and Laura completed their home study update and were ready to receive their referral by the first week of January 2016.
“We were excited, exuberant even to finally see the face of our child,” Laura said.
But the week before, an uprising began in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the government office that handles adoption paperwork in Ethiopia, suspended all processing of paperwork. The child, too, waited to receive a signature that would permit her referral for international adoption. Her paperwork would not be signed for another year.
A community in prayer
By August 2016, Joseph and Laura felt more desperate than at any other point in their journey.
“We felt we had been fighting an invisible war for three years with a harsh, shrewd and relentless enemy. We felt battered, and despair seemed unsettlingly close when we felt we needed spiritual reinforcements,” they said.
The couple asked a group of about 35 friends to pray and fast together one day a month. They prayed for specific needs for the adoption and for a particular little girl in the orphanage. The agency had requested prayer for the child, who was struggling to gain weight.
Things started looking up. In January 2017, Laura and Joseph attended the Evangelicals for Life conference in Washington, D.C. At the event, co-hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family, speakers and panelists talked about the warfare surrounding the adoption process.
“Their words were affirming and encouraging to our weary souls,” Laura said.
During their stay in Washington, D.C., the couple met an Ethiopian waitress. They shared the story of their adoption journey with her, telling her how long it had been and about the signature for which they were waiting. Laura remembered the waitress tearfully pleading, “Thank you! Please don’t give up! Those children need someone. Don’t give up!”
“Her tears and her words became treasured gems we hid in our hearts,” Laura said.
Days after returning home from the conference, on Valentine’s Day, Joseph and Laura received the notification that several children’s paperwork had been signed, and they would receive their referral.
Upon receiving their daughter’s file, they studied every detail of her photos, praising God for His sovereignty. Their daughter had been born in October 2015, just two months before their first placing agency closed.
“It would not have been a possibility for us to adopt her had we been or remained with the other agency.”
They also discovered that the little girl they and their friends had been praying and fasting for was this very child whose file they held. “The Lord had been answering so many prayers,” Laura said.
Still, the waiting persisted. Paperwork needed to be updated, translated and processed.
By May, Joseph and Laura were “drained, weary and exhausted physically and emotionally” and decided to take a week-long vacation to rest. Upon returning home, they received an alert from the U.S. Department of State. The Ethiopian government had temporarily stopped processing adoptions.
Throughout the next few weeks, with help from friends, family, their church and other organizations, Joseph and Laura sent emails, tweets and letters to Congressional representatives, urging them to help more than 200 families bring their children home.
As cases began moving forward, the Thigpens faced another obstacle: Ethiopia’s rainy season. From August to October, weather can shut down the courts in Ethiopia, further extending families’ waiting time to appear before a judge.
“People would ask how we were doing, and we would often reply, ‘We’ll breathe when she’s home but probably not before then,’” Laura said. “We felt like we were holding our breath not because we thought the Lord would forsake us, but because we had to move forward. We couldn’t stop to think about the ‘what ifs,’ and we certainly could not act like the fight was over.”
A family comes home
Joseph and Laura finally flew to Ethiopia Nov. 30. On Dec. 5, they were legally declared parents.
“There were several times we looked at each other, in awe of the fact that we were holding our daughter – the tiny little girl we had been praying for, pursuing relentlessly and actively waiting for four long years.”
The family – Joseph, Laura and Eliza Talitha – arrived home in North Carolina Dec. 16.
The couple said their adoption process led them to understand Romans 8 as a theological embodiment of their present reality. “We are eagerly waiting for our adoption as sons to be completed, hoping for what we cannot see, not knowing for what to pray,” the couple shared in a written statement to the Biblical Recorder. “We understand that in the adoption process we were never waiting on people or paperwork but on Almighty God, His plans and His time.
“We groaned regularly, wept often, suffered setbacks and heartache, longed deeply and learned to trust the Lord in a profoundly better way.”
Their journey also gave them perspective on being pro-life that they had not previously considered.
“Being pro-life is costly, and it requires a vision of humanity that is real, authentic and raw. … Being pro-life is not just sparring with lawmakers or law enforcers over legislation, neither is it just caring for the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed. We saw firsthand how the enemy not only takes pleasure in preying on the weakest and most vulnerable – he takes pleasure preying on human beings created in the image of God. This enemy worked diligently to thwart our efforts to bring our daughter home. But God is the relentless and just avenger for the orphan.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Seth Brown, BR Content Editor, contributed to this story.)