Mark and Jennifer Sallade
We are planners. At the Sallade home, we think and we plan. Then we think and plan some more. We have five-year plans, ten-year plans, family goals, and multiple possible future budgets, all carefully crafted to take into account any possible contingency.
So the Sallade family thought.
The family-growth aspect of our plan was (Lord willing, of course!) to have two biological children, two or three years apart, and then adopt a child. It seemed foolproof. The Lord blessed us with a beautiful, biological daughter, Anna Kate. We loved and cherished her. But three years after she was born, there we were, waiting. As so many others have experienced, we waited and prayed, waited and prayed. The Lord was not delivering according to the plan. And with every month, time was slipping away.
Hope turned to disappointment; disappointment became desperation. Friends all around us were planning, praying, and welcoming their third, fourth, and fifth children. We knew it wasn’t true, but at times it felt as though the Lord was passing us by, withholding this good thing we desired. Finally, in the fall of 2011, the Lord changed our tear-filled bedside prayers. Instead of asking the Lord to give us the desire of our heart, we asked the Lord to delight our hearts in him and whatever he had in store.
Adoption became a major topic of conversation in our home. We knew the process could be lengthy, so we began gathering information. But after a preliminary meeting at a local agency, we left unsure and unsettled. One of us (Mark) was anxious about some aspects of domestic adoption, but he didn’t want to disappoint the other (Jenn), whose excitement was growing by the minute. Neither of us could fit the surprisingly high cost of adoption into our budget. This obstacle felt like a door shut in our faces. The Lord was not opening the door to another biological child, and we could not afford the cover charge at the door of adoption. Many adoptive families shared testimonies of the Lord’s provision through churches, grants, and fund-raisers. Our budget didn’t have a line item for God simply providing, and we were uncomfortable with a plan we couldn’t afford.
Then the Lord brought into our path a Chinese woman who shed some light on China’s one-child policy and the country’s many orphans. Our interest was piqued. An Internet search led us to a local Christian adoption agency specializing in China adoptions. In December, we walked into the agency with a list of questions. While we didn’t leave with all of the answers, we gained an overwhelming desire to move forward. The road ahead would have challenges, but we remembered the many (different) challenges of welcoming a biological newborn into the world! Adopting from China’s special-needs program became our heart’s desire!
After praying and talking with family over Christmas, in January 2012 we submitted our application to Living Hope Adoption Agency and the paper chase began. Certified copies of our marriage license, birth certificates, background checks, fingerprints, blood work, and tax documents were just some of the papers we gathered. Friends wrote recommendations, and a social worker interviewed us four times to complete our home study. We completed online coursework and read the Chinese policy on adoption.
In those days, it continued to sting that we were still unable to conceive another biological child, yet we came to thank the Lord that this child would not come from our genes. She wouldn’t be exactly who she is, if she did! Our little one never showed in Jenn’s belly, but she was taking up more and more space in our hearts. Together with Anna Kate, we prayed that God would watch over our child, bring her home soon, and, most importantly, that she would know God’s love. Family and friends joined us in prayer. One couple from church boldly asked the Lord to put a Christian in her life.
Thoughts of our child’s birth and whereabouts were always on our minds. She had likely already been born and been abandoned in secret by her birth parents, probably in a public place where a crying baby would be noticed and taken to an orphanage. Was our child in a well-staffed city orphanage or a poor rural orphanage with many mouths and little food? All of those things that make the first year of a baby’s life the hardest for her parents—selfless care, midnight feedings, constant holding, calming and comforting—were the very things our child may have been missing. We may never understand why our child’s life had to begin this way, but there are a few truths we clung to. God loved our child, and he was caring for her right where she was.
We started the adoption process prepared to pay the expense ourselves, a daunting prospect for a pastor’s family. So we made plans. We slashed our budget, sold big items, took on jobs, and rented out our master bedroom. God blessed our efforts, and our weak faith was strengthened to see him pour out support from many unsought sources: friends and family, anonymous donors, our church, grants, and even small amounts of fund-raising.
Saving for adoption depleted our savings for a second car, but God knew that. Friends from church gave us their old one. A neighbor’s tree fell on our shed during Hurricane Sandy, but God knew that too. A brother from Calvary helped to repair it. Experiencing the Lord’s provision and blessing in this way has been one of the most humbling experiences of our lives. Our faith has grown and our eyes have seen just a little more of how big our God is.
Big decisions were on the horizon. Early one morning, about a year into the process, the phone rang with a possible referral of twin boys. We felt compassion, but were unprepared for their overwhelming needs.
In November we received a call about another child, a sweet two-year-old boy. He was pictured in a bright, clean orphanage and described as happy, healthy, and friendly. We shared the news with family members who were in town for Thanksgiving and began to picture this little one around our home and in our life. All that was left was to send his file for a medical review at the local children’s hospital. We expected soon to call him our son.
But it was not to be. The specialist came back with shocking news. She was certain this child would not survive the flight home, let alone the surgery he needed once he arrived. While we were thankful for a clear answer, it was heartbreaking. We grasped for the words to pray. What should we even ask? We called on the Lord to teach us how to pray and returned to that prayer we recite each Lord’s Day, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Our Savior’s prayer took on new meaning as we realized the best we could pray was, “Your will be done.”
After we had to decline several more files, the phone rang again. Late one night in January, we poured over the file of a one-year-old boy with a repaired cleft lip and palate. Mark was smitten, but Jenn wasn’t sure. We decided to sleep and talk in the morning. But thoughts of this little boy kept Jenn awake crying for the time he had spent without a family, for the surgery he went through all alone, for all of the fun baby things he had missed. The next day we spoke with our medical specialist. She was concerned that he might have a serious neurological disorder, and after much discussion and prayer we said no.
Saying no to adopting a child plays with your mind and heart. How could we say no to an orphan, a child desperately in need of a home? How did we know the Lord wasn’t directing our steps in this path? The truth is, we didn’t. But we prayed and trusted that when the time came, the path would be clear and God’s will would be done. We were so thankful for resources like medical specialists to help us make a decision, but we knew that ultimately we needed to lift our eyes to the Lord. From him our help comes, and in his perfect timing. We braced ourselves for what could have been a very long wait.
To our surprise, only a few weeks later we received another, unexpected match—this one our first girl! Three years old, she was cute as a button with a minor special need—we could hardly believe it! We were out of town with family, so we ducked away time and again to talk and pray. After a flurry of phone calls with our medical specialist, on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, we submitted our Letter of Intent, our official request to adopt Wang, Qi Hong—our own Rachel Elizabeth!
Our home overflowed with joy and thankfulness! But at the same time, stomachs were in knots and sleep was lost as we waited on China to approve our request to adopt Rachel. It seemed as though the Lord was giving us a precious, second daughter and our fearful, childish hearts demanded, “Ours!” So we prayed. “May we be ready for you to give or take as you see fit, and may the Good Shepherd watch over his little lamb.”
Summer was a whirlwind! Our Letter of Acceptance came in record time, only twenty days. We were even able to send Rachel a care package in time for her third birthday. Subsequent papers were processed in a timely manner and we received our travel approval in July. Two weeks later, we were on a plane to China. When the Lord showed us the path, he made us move!
On July 29, we joined a dozen other families in the local Chinese Civil Affairs Office, hearts racing, palms sweating, voices shaking, and diaper bags stuffed. We had spent our morning praying and reading God’s Word, nervously walking the streets around our hotel, trying to prepare ourselves to meet our Rachel that afternoon. Over the past two years, we had read an exorbitant number of books, blogs, and articles. Oh, we had planned. But how would the Lord continue to direct our steps?
We still couldn’t picture exactly how God was going to graft Rachel into our family and especially how the first few hours, days, and weeks would go. Would she reject us, shut down, cry and mourn, rage and scream? Would she be fine at first, then fall apart? Would she be clingy and helpless or strong and stoic? Would the language barrier have us frustrated or would it be no big deal? Thankfully, in those moments the Lord reminded us how smoothly he had paved our way. Our faith was weak and our abilities were meager, but the Lord continued to guide us, one day at a time. We knew we could go to meet Rachel—with all of our excitement, nervousness, joy, and peace—because the Lord, our Shepherd, was with us and with her.
And the Lord most certainly blessed. We will never forget our first glimpse of Rachel. Through a partially cracked door, into a side room, there she was, hair in pigtails, eyes darting around this strange, bustling building. In the first moments of our meeting, Rachel was shy and ran back to her nanny. But at the offer of cereal, she slowly warmed up, and when the time came, she gladly left in our arms. Back at our hotel, we gave her new toys, played, took a walk, and sat down around our coffee table for our first dinner with our new daughter. Later that night, we enjoyed Face Time with Anna Kate and Grandma, who were just waking up back in Pennsylvania. As soon as Rachel saw Anna Kate, she ran off to find the photo book we had sent her. She pointed to Anna Kate’s picture and said, “Jie jie!” (big sister!). It was overwhelming.
The first couple of days came with some high highs and low lows. Rachel easily sat with us, let us hold her, looked in our eyes, smiled, and laughed. She also threw major tantrums and cried, pointing to the door. But we were glad for opportunities to comfort her as she grieved a major loss—her home for the past three years, her “family” at the orphanage, her bed, her language, everything.
While in China, we took the opportunity to visit Rachel’s orphanage. With Rachel on our laps, we made the two-hour trek, passing city after city of expanding high-rises. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Rachel had been enrolled in their preschool program. Former nannies greeted Rachel at the door to her classroom with hugs, kisses, and candy. Rachel burst into tears while the other children gathered around and gave her hugs. It was evident that she had received remarkably tender, loving care.
One special aspect of this trip was that Jenn had a chance to talk to the preschool director. After chatting a while, the director asked Jenn a stunning question: “Are you a Christian?” Shocked, Jenn answered, “Yes,” and, hesitating a bit, asked the director the same question. She said yes! We hadn’t even dared to pray for such a blessing, because we thought it was impossible. We were so thankful for those who were bold enough to pray for such a miracle, and especially thankful to the Lord who had been tending his little lamb all along.
But that was not the day’s only surprise. The preschool director told us of a dear man at the orphanage who was a father-like friend to Rachel. Only moments later, he came running over, overflowing with broken English, telling us of his special relationship with Rachel. “There are nine hundred children at this orphanage,” he said, “but she is my favorite.” He recounted how he was there the day the police officer brought her to the facility. He shared stories of her daily visits to his office. When Rachel still wasn’t walking at age two, he gave her calcium supplements every day until she was up and going. He laughed about her temper tantrums and told us how clever she was. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” he told us, thanking us profusely. We couldn’t hold back our tears as we thanked him—and the Lord.
Reflecting back on that day, we are overwhelmed at how well Rachel was loved and cared for. We had been praying (along with many others!) that our Good Shepherd would watch over his little lamb, Rachel. He not only watched over her, but, it seemed to us, picked her up and held her in his arms.
Isn’t it a privilege to look back in our lives and see God’s guiding hand? For all the details we arranged in this adoption process, the most important ones were those we could never have planned. Before adoption was even on our minds, a beautiful little girl was born in China whose parents could not care for her. While we worried about growing our family, the Lord was providing loving caretakers for Rachel, and the woman who first showed her our pictures was a Christian. For people who like to be in control, we are so glad that we were not in charge of this. The Lord supplied abundantly beyond what we ever could have asked or imagined.
We have been home now for several months, and we have had our ups and downs. She has gone from unsolicited bear hugs, sweet kisses, snuggles, and belly laughs to fussing, crying, clinging, and tantrums. Anna Kate (who was very similar at age three!) and Rachel clicked right away, falling easily into sisterly love. They tickle, tell secrets, chase, pretend, and splash in the bathtub. Giggles abound, as do sisterly squabbles. They have a connection that gives us chills. Watching Rachel find her home in our family is a joy, relief, and reminder of God’s continuing hand in our lives. When we begin to worry about how Rachel’s past will impact her future, we go to the Lord, knowing, “that he who began a good work in [her] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6 NIV).
One truth we learned through all of this is that while the adoption process is unique in some ways, it is also quite ordinary. This is the wildest ride we’ve ever been on. Yet, in a real way, it is but a microcosm of the Christian life for every one of God’s people. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (NASB). From the smallest of daily challenges to the largest of life’s trials, we have to trust the Lord. He has shown us in our Good Shepherd that he is working out his will with perfection. He loves us and is trustworthy. There is nothing safer for us to pray than “Your will be done.”
At long last, with much help from friends and family, we are back to “normal” life, and have begun to look again to the future. But by God’s grace, we do so with new eyes. What is next for the Sallades? We do have our plans. But we trust more than ever that the Lord will direct our steps.
The authors are the pastor and pastor’s wife at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. New Horizons, January 2014.