Wednesday, November 26, 2008


(If this post seems a bit odd, that's because I originally wrote it for a different forum.)

About this time in the year of 1969, Joe and Joanne Magruder started to make arrangements to adopt a child. They had a healthy, brilliant and beautiful daughter, and they wanted her to have a sibling. Because they were very socially conscious people, somewhat idealistic, staunch members of a faith community, and also partly because Joe was a social worker, they decided that they could provide a loving home to a kid who might otherwise be raised by the state of California. Since they had a girl, they were disposed to adopt a boy, but neither one of them had thought much at all about adopting a non-white child. That was the adoption case worker’s idea.
When she sprung it on them, they were immediately amenable. Their faith life and their commitment to social justice and racial equality had prepared them, despite their privileged white backgrounds, to be open to this idea. Interracial adoption had been unthinkable just a few years before, and was still plenty unthinkable for lots of Americans. Two years after my adoption, the historic statement by the National Association of Black Social Workers was published in 1972, which took a “vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason.” ( Interracial adoptions again became very uncommon for a number of years, until more adoptions were handled by private agencies.
I was blissfully ignorant of all this, of course. I liked our collie dog, Missy, and I hadn’t learned to complain about the vegetarian diet yet. I loved to wear overalls (nothing has changed), and my big sister, Marie, taught me all kinds of useful stuff. In 1971 we got a little red haired addition to the family, Ann, (who married a Norwegian bachelor programmer two years ago), and we were five.
Over the years we learned to ride bicycles, and to cut swiss chard in the garden for stir fry. My dad experimented with computers (card sorters!) and solar water heating projects. My mom taught piano and allowed us to fast for a day with her in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers. We were SERVAS hosts ( and had frequent international house guests the whole time I was growing up. We loved to swim, and camp, and visit our grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
My maternal grandfather was an Iowa farm boy of Danish descent who was too dyslexic to have gotten very much education. He couldn’t really accept me as a member of his family, and I felt his ambivalence, but didn’t associate it with race. I found out years later that my maternal grandmother, who was an Iowa farm girl and a devout Christian had told him, “That child is your grandson. Jesus said to suffer the little children, and YOU WILL SUFFER!” So, that was that. We all got along splendidly. All of my aunts were pretty and professional. All of my uncles knew everything there was to know about all kinds of things from how to plumb a toilet to how to make a killing in real estate, train a dog, or sharpen a knife with a whetstone.
School was odd sometimes. In 1997, when I was 28 years old, I was interviewed by Parade Magazine for an article on transracial adoption. The reporter asked me if being transracially adopted had made things odd for me socially when I was in school. I responded that it was a little hard to say. I had by then found that being double jointed, having a lazy eye, being Quaker, being bi-racial, being a good speller, eating a vegetarian diet, playing the violin and not being good at sports were also contributing factors to my unique social status in the school. Not having a TV was the topper! Kids were curious about my being adopted, but I had always heard it spoken of positively, and so didn’t have any hang-ups about it. In fact, adoption was spoken of so positively in our faith community and the family that my older sister once demanded, “What’s wrong with ME? Why couldn’t I have been adopted?”
Now I am grateful for all of the challenges that I had growing up, because they made me who I am and I like who I am. Without any grand plan or political agenda, my adoption was part of the movement of this country towards greater equality, inclusiveness, and living up to Christ’s directive to love one another.

In 2001 a childhood friend of mine got in touch with me after several years of lapsed communication. I was deep into my Master’s thesis on ecospirituality. Could the church rise to the occasion and become ecologically conscious? I’m happy to say that we’ve come a long way, baby.
My friend, whom I had gone to Sunday school with, had grown up to be lesbian, she said. I supposed that congratulations were in order. She wanted to have children, she told me. I thought that she, like many others over my lifetime, wanted to ask me about my experience of being adopted. Instead, she asked me to be a sperm donor and auxiliary parent!
I thought about it and prayed over it for a while. She and her partner were very understanding and tolerant of my taking this time to process my thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t that I was worried about a lesbian couple raising kids, but I do think that procreation is a very serious and holy undertaking, and I’d had parents when I was born who weren’t up to it. I wanted to be sure that I was sure. I needed to offer the decision up to Spirit. The Bible was very helpful. What a lot of different family configurations there are in the Bible!
We met and ate together. We talked very clearly and intentionally about what our expectations were. I asked about their finances, and other things that you ordinarily wouldn’t ask friends about. They needed to know about my medical history. Had I used intravenous drugs or had unprotected sex? I gave blood to find out if I had the sickle cell gene. We were clear that we would tell the child the whole truth from the beginning, and that I would be involved in their lives. My father, who by now had moved into adoptions and child protective services as a social worker, was very supportive and interested. He had helpful suggestions and good questions. My sisters and mother have also been very supportive. Love makes a family.
And, seven years later, I have a daughter and a son. I have attended their births and been part of their growing up. Their biological mother and I are both mixed race, African-American and white, so the kids are too—only they are two generations more mixed—blended! Their other mom is Latina, and the kids are growing up bilingual, because Spanish is spoken in their house almost as much as English. (It was a sad day when my daughter figured out that I couldn’t follow her three year old Spanish.)
They are precocious, beautiful children, and not nearly as unusual at their schools as I was when I was their age. 40% of kids who attend Berkeley High School in California check more than one box on the “Ethnicity” section of their registration forms. I imagine that will only increase by the time my kids are high school age.
Their mamas can’t marry one another yet. Their marrying is as unthinkable to some people as a white man marrying a black woman was sixty years ago. While most ethnicities were evenly split on the recent Prop 8 vote in California, African-Americans voted against same sex marriage by 78%. Apparently many didn’t see it as a civil rights issue. Some of the great black churches that were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago spoke out against same sex marriage.
Indeed, it seems that nearly every religion in the country is troubled by questions pertaining to gender, sexuality, and how best to faithfully proceed, and how to hold the church together. The ordination of women and homosexuals is contentious for some. Same sex marriage is a challenge for others. Some look to the book of Leviticus for guidance, tradition, and history. (Let us hope that the penalty for ‘rounding the corners’ of our beards has changed…) Others look to the example that Jesus set by associating with those whom society had deemed untouchable, and his teaching that the Law is one of compassion lived in the heart rather than legalistic piety forbidding one from healing on the Sabbath, or touching a bleeding man thrown into a ditch by robbers. One senses that these issues having to do with gender and sexuality are really only the flashpoint, though. The underlying issue is one of how the church can be relevant in a post-modern, pluralist society. The only way forward is with compassion on all sides. Christ’s teaching and example will never be irrelevant. God is not changeable, though our understanding is.
Martin Luther King, Jr. often said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” King couldn’t publicly acknowledge the homosexuality of his friend and strong proponent of nonviolence in the movement, Bayard Rustin. ( Rustin himself said in 1987, “The barometer of where one is on human rights questions is no longer the black community, it's the gay community. Because it is the community which is most easily mistreated." (Note that he said “barometer”—he wasn’t trying to set up a comparison of grievances!)
I am grateful today that paradigms do shift. I am grateful for an arc of history that bends towards justice. I am confident that despite its foibles and failings God still loves this great nation and is always accompanying us as we stumble towards righteousness. I am grateful that my kids will have the example of a bi-racial man as president, and before too long, a woman. Mostly, I am just grateful for my kids.


Blogger Tim Cravens said...

What a beautiful testimony! Thanks for sharing all of this.

8:49 PM, December 02, 2008  
Anonymous Betsy Blake said...


I linked to you through quakerquaker. What an awesome article. What cute kiddies. I was very interested to learn more about your growing up. As I scrolled through your article, initially, I saw things like "unprotected sex" (?!)and KNEW I had to read the whole thing. I am glad I did. I like the ways you share your experience, the bright and uncomfortable places and the ways you arc toward the Truth, like, "I think this is IT? What do YOU think?" I like the ways you try to discern God, while acknowledging God's great mystery. Right on. What a great morning read. Thank you. Love from Greensboro.

6:38 AM, December 03, 2008  
Blogger cherice said...

Amen, Friend! Ahhh, a breath of fresh air. It's so cool to hear about your experience as an adopted child and a loving albeit unusual father. And interestingly, I just read an article about Bayard Rustin the other day because I'm writing a paper on Gandhi and came across one on Gandhi, King, and Rustin. AND we might be moving to Berkeley next year...except it looks like perhaps you're in DC now? Anyway, I hope our paths cross again, Friend. If you're in NJ in the next 6-8 months, look us up! And we may contact you when we get around to adopting--to hear your perspective.

6:19 PM, December 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for your post. It's beautiful.

2:15 AM, December 05, 2008  
Anonymous mkaffeine said...

What beautiful children. And how lucky they are to have so many loving parents!

8:47 AM, December 15, 2008  
Anonymous Sara Burke said...

Hi Carl!

You and I know each other a little bit from various Quaker moments -- most recently we chatted at Beacon Hill Meeting when you were passing through, and you knew my mom (Stephanie Kennedy) from Strawberry Creek, and we were at the same intense little YFNA gathering a million years ago... But I am writing now from another Quaker vantage point, as Co-editor of Peacework magazine at the AFSC. I want to sound you out about an interview idea for our April issue which will have a focus on the politics of sustainability. If we can get her to agree, would you be interested in interviewing Juanita Nelson? Okay, enough typing in this eensy comment box. Contact me if you might be interested in this idea, or in exploring other ideas for getting your writing into Peacework, or if you just want to tell me how you're doing in DC! (Big switch from Nevada City -- I used to be a student at JWS so there's yet another point where our strands have twined...)


Sara Burke, Co-Editor, Peacework Magazine
American Friends Service Committee
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02140

12:43 PM, February 24, 2009  
Blogger dharmachris said...

Thank you for this post. My friend Zan recommended this blog to me, apparently you inspired her daughter to attend Woolman for a semester, but the post on adoption most resonates with me, as my wife and I have been joined with our son for over a year now after adopting him from Guatemala. Thanks for the honesty and gratitude; I hope our dude looks back on us with similar love and gratitude.

12:26 PM, July 16, 2009  

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