Note: The names of the people profiled in this story have been changed at their request.
When Shawn and Christine Jones were the quintessential American couple with two kids and a nice house in the upscale suburb of Parker, Colo., they used to joke about adopting more kids.
Fast-forward five years. The Joneses and their four kids—Gillie, 12; Finn, 10; Lila, 8; and Abush, 7—live in a small three-bedroom home in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in central Denver. Their two youngest kids, whom they adopted from Liberia and Ethiopia, respectively, have serious ongoing medical needs.
When Shawn and Christine tell their story, they seem more like a couple on a reality TV dating show than two people who just celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary. They glare at each other. They stare past each other. They interrupt each other’s sentences and lavish each other with praise, with equal conviction. Best of all, they reveal the rawness and uncertainty of their journey as well as its beauty.
Shawn is an assistant principal of local alternative school. He enjoys hiking alone, and excels at dropping historical references into everyday conversations. Christine homeschools their kids and runs an organization that advocates for adoptions of HIV+ children. She is a self-proclaimed IRS junkie and wears a tiny nose ring. Sit back and enjoy the conversation as the Joneses highlight their last five years.
From covenant-controlled to police-patrolled
Shawn: Back then [in 2005] we joked about adoption. When we met someone who had adopted we’d say, “Oh, we talked about it. We’ve thought about it, too.”
Christine: But then Shawn would say, “We just say that to sound nicer than we are.”
Shawn: I never thought we could do more. We had a typical, middle-class, suburban existence.
Christine: But we wanted to be in the city, and we kind of came to a point where—
Shawn: We just knew it was time to move on.
Christine: So he quit his job [as principal of a private Christian school] and we decided to move to the city [where Shawn got a teaching position in a public school]. We sold much of what we had, moved into a house one-third the size we had in Parker, and moved into an at-risk urban neighborhood. Would it be accurate to call it that?
Shawn (nodding): Um. Yes.
Christine: At the same time, we had been saving for a trip to England to visit friends. We had visited in 2001 and 2003, and we were planning on doing the same in 2005. But…I was at a point where we had already sold everything…and so I started researching ministries and places we could go and be a teaching couple overseas—
Christine (laughing): Anyway, through that…I was really drawn to Africa.
Christine: We would fight about it.
Shawn (wincing): I [already] felt “missional” as a teacher.
Christine: I remember during one [argument] I was standing in the kitchen by our coffeemaker. I can still picture it.
Shawn: We were on entirely different planets. She was pimping my resume out and I was like, “Are you nuts? Why would I even apply?”
Christine: And Shawn said, “If you want to freaking change the world, why are we using our tax return and saving for a trip to England? If you really want to change the world, why don’t we do something good with the money.”
Shawn (leaning in): That wasn’t intended to do anything, just to get her to shut up, because I thought her love for England would suppress her “change the world” business. I felt I was already doing enough good. I mean, I was riding the bus to work, changing hearts and minds at school.
Finding an outlet
Christine: In his mind, we’d made [a life] shift, but I was like ‘Let’s keep going.’ So, in January, Shawn was teaching Sunday school and I was in church listening to a sermon. It’s the only time I can ever say I truly felt like God was speaking directly to me. And I came away that day feeling convicted that I needed to stop trying to orchestrate God’s call and to take a step back. And so I told God that I wouldn’t actively go search things out but that if something came across my radar, I would pursue it.
Christine: Then about two weeks later a friend called me to go hear the Watoto Children’s Choir, a Ugandan choir made up of orphans…And during the intermission there was a slide show presentation that showed orphan statistics for Africa, and there was a stat at the time that said by the year 2010 there would be so many millions orphaned by AIDS in Africa. So I started to think, “Maybe it’s orphans.” I came home and I started looking online and searched what African countries were open to adoptions. And I mentioned it [to Shawn]…that night and I really felt…within a couple of days, that that was it. Even as I tell the story, I realize…
Shawn: She decides things very quickly.
Christine: Ever since, I haven’t felt that unrest that I felt then.
Shawn: I was looking at how much adoption would cost…
Christine: We talked about it a lot.
Shawn: Meanwhile back on earth…We have the smallest house we’ve had, the worst paying job, the worst cars, and no room…
Shawn cries at a conference
Christine: In February , there was a church that had an adoption conference and Shawn agreed to go to it. And we also wanted to talk with our pastor. So I got babysitting, and we were going to meet with our pastor for coffee and it was awful. I was sobbing…
Shawn (laughing): [Our pastor] thought we were going to get divorced…She had been busy being on “crazy land” and I was back here on earth and I wanted someone to tell her how unreasonable she was being. Capital C-, R-, A-, Z-, Y-, italics and underscore! I had just left an $80,000 a year job.
Christine: It wasn’t $80,000.
Shawn: I was adjusting for inflation…We got in the car [afterward] and she said, ‘Let’s just go home.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘We’re not going to the adoption conference now.’ And I said, ‘No, I want to go.’
Christine: So we went to the conference. He decided that night.
Shawn: No, I didn’t decide that night. If you’re going to do something…you look at all the things that could go wrong first. You don’t romanticize a decision. You count the cost. Ultimately, my intent wasn’t to disrespect her, it was to get it all out [there]. I was scared and thinking this was nuts. [Adoption] was only for people with large vans. So we walked in and it’s not a fancy conference, just people with a couple tables, black on white slides, but I felt when I walked in as if something was in my throat.
Christine: Like a lump in your throat.
Shawn: A pickle. At every display I felt myself starting to cry. I was pushing it down. I was like, ‘No, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I’m not [an emotional] kind of person. I sobbed all the way through the presentation.
Christine (laughing): He started crying and I thought, “He’s crying at that?’ It was a very weird night.
Shawn: At every display I felt a sense of injustice that someone needed to right this wrong. And in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “We’ll try this [but] it won’t work. We don’t have $17,000.” But I said, “Yes” to at least trying. I mean, I’m a teacher. Every kid needs a home. And part of it was my sense of inadequacy. I remember at the conference there was a dad that stood up. The women are crying and the dads looked scared, and this guy says, “I’m thinking about how we’re going to pay for their braces and college and if our house is big enough, and if the stress of too many kids will ruin our [birth] kids, and if because of race are people going to judge us.” And then I just decided to not fight and be open to the process.
“This little pinchy face”
Christine: So…you told me you were ready to move forward. The next thing was “What country?” So we ended up settling on Liberia, because of the need there. They had just come out of civil war and it was a country with little resource…So then we started our home study and one of the things that’s part of that process is you sit down with a checklist of [medical conditions] you would consider [in the child you adopt]. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered any of it. But Shawn had an uncle with Down syndrome.
Shawn: We grew up knowing you watch out for people who are ‘special.’
Christine: The first time we talked with each other we both realized we would consider just about all of them.
Shawn: Missing one arm. Missing one eye. Missing one leg. Missing one eye and one arm…It was every combination of deformity you could imagine.
Christine: The only two things we checked ‘No’ to at the time were HIV and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). But our social workers talked with us about the PTSD issue, and said there’s a very high possibility that you’ll encounter it [in any child adopted from Liberia]. So we said ‘Okay’ on that, but still no on HIV. We ended up choosing an agency in Liberia specializing in placing children with medical needs, and we had a list of kids. Lila was on that list. She had esophogeal strictures as a result of swallowing lime, but we knew someone here who had a similar condition to hers and we thought, ‘That looks easy. We could do that. [Go] in once a year [for treatment].’ And—
Shawn: I started dreading [Christine’s] screensaver, because it was always orphans staring out and kids pushing forward to get a picture so someone would adopt them…All the sudden there’s this face, this little pinchy face, and I was like ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble,’ and—
Christine: We had talked about a sibling “set,” but when Lila was on her own, we decided we would go through her process first and then start again.
Shawn: For me it was “That ‘squishy face’ needs a home and she doesn’t have a person to take her,” and so it was like, “Who would take this kid?”
Christine: So she came home in October 2006, after I was stuck in Liberia for six weeks [trying to bring] her home. And her medical care was more involved than we anticipated for months and still [is]…It was 30 nights in the hospital that first year.
Shawn: Maybe it was 20.
Christine: It was a lot. Basically her esophogeal tissue got burned and scar tissue restricts it [so] she can’t swallow. She found some lime [as a toddler] and drank it…Through our process I saw medical needs and how so many were waiting. And I heard about HIV again and started researching it and emailing people about day-to-day care.
Shawn: [Christine] is an avid researcher and so I trusted her diligence [on learning about HIV]. I think her research coupled with my skepticism made us a formidable team.
Shawn: Without my being so visionary in my skepticism she wouldn’t have been driven to do such a good job researching.
Shawn: I learned to be careful never to say “Yes” to anything.
(Only Christine laughing.)
Shawn: Just because you nod in assent in a conversation doesn’t mean you need to bring [another orphan] home.
Christine: [I’ve] just learned to take smaller indicators as assent.
Shawn: I worry that I’m going to come home and there’ll be a new child at the Jones’s house. I keep Christine away from babies, especially.
(Christine rolling her eyes.)
Shawn: No, I respect your vision, but when I want to talk about [the possibility of] fostering is when Abush has just worked you over and you don’t feel like you have any energy to lift a finger. Part of my job is to put the brakes on a little bit. I’ve seen too many families sacrifice and say, “This is a good thing, and therefore all other things don’t matter.”
Christine [ignoring Shawn]: So [after Lila was home], I started learning about HIV and felt like I got a pretty clear picture of what HIV would look like in our home. But he really felt like it was one more thing that would stretch our family to the brink.
“Oh, he is ve-ry active”
Christine: When we were deciding about HIV, we decided to write letters to our kids, all four [of them], telling them the whole adoption story.
Shawn: It was about “What does this mean for you?” It was “I had you in mind when we considered this, whether you agree or disagree, I really thought about your personality and who you are as a person and I put it on paper.”
Christine: So, we both went to pick up Abush in Ethiopia in 2007. Noah and Mia showed more stress as a result of that first year when I got stuck in Liberia and then coming back and being away with Lila so much at the hospital [than when Abush came home].
Shawn: Noah thought she was dead [when she was stuck in Liberia with Lila]. But I think we had a ‘phony war.’ We had eight months to a year of false calm.
Christine: That included procedure after procedure after procedure…But when Abush came home there were stresses, too. The HIV has been basically a non-issue. Initially there’s an onslaught of appointments and getting care underway, but it’s not highly medically involved [care].
Shawn: It’s just—remember to give medicine morning and night.
Christine: But his adoption has been stressful in other ways, because he shows a lot more of the effects of his early traumas. He doesn’t sleep through the night still.
Shawn (laughing): At his orphanage, they said, “Oh, he’s ve-ry active.” They seemed to be like, “Oh, you got thatone.” They’re all sitting around the TV and then someone says, “Where is Abush?” It has been a longer curve for him to adjust to family life and for family life to adjust life around him. If his adoption adjustment were a song…sometimes it’s loud. Sometimes its’ quiet. But there’s always someone banging on the drums.
While Shawn was gone for the weekend…
Shawn: Christine won’t stand for things that other people might look past. An insurance bill, an accountant, a nurse that says something insensitive, and needs gentle but firm correction. She’s an advocate for who kids are as people and she’s not afraid of bureaucracy and bringing clarity out of that bureaucracy for other people…If she had a law degree she would be Erin Brockovich.
Christine: When Abush came home I was ready to adopt again. But Shawn said to me “Instead of helping one orphan at a time can you find a way to help more orphans without us adopting?”
Shawn: Why does all her energy and expertise have to be focused on one very strained family system? I just thought why not use that expertise and giftedness to help other families that are out there?
Christine: I knew because we fundraised through both our adoptions, I should take what I knew to help other families. I didn’t know it would be a formal organization. But while Shawn was away for a week [of work-related meetings], I did all the paperwork to establish a 501(c)3. The actual workload doesn’t take so much, it’s the mental wrangling of what I should be doing to make it better and have more impact and that tension of being a mom to my kids. It’s caused me several times to take stock, “Do we continue to do this piece or can someone else do it? If someone else is doing it as well or better, let them!” We’ve kind of come to a point where there is a need for accurate info [about HIV adoption]…and to help families fundraise.
Christine: We’ve always said [international adoption] is about the fourth- or fifth-best solution [for orphaned kids]…A white American family for an African child is way down on the list. But all of the other things that would come before that on the list are not in place for so many children, particularly when it comes to children with medical needs, where what they need medically can’t be provided for them in their home country.
Shawn (nodding): And we’re not done. I can’t believe I’m saying that out loud [The Joneses are considering foster care.]…We feel like it’s a long-term call. [We’ll] probably end up in a forgotten school somewhere. Maybe our kids will come visit us. Or not.
Christine: People would say to us, “I guess if that’s what God has for you, doors will open.” But that’s not true. Sometimes doors don’t open and you have to work and sweat [to open them].
Shawn: I think about that with Abush long-term and if he never reaches a place emotionally where he can have good relationships and marry and have that happen, but we just enter in whatever the results are…I call it “Going Schindler.” Is that fair?
Christine (nodding): Usually my reaction is “Why wouldn’t you just go all out? Forget a dirty kitchen floor!”
Shawn: Mine is, “I can’t do this. I have a limit of what I can do.”
Graffiti removal as a metaphor
Last year, local gang members “tagged” the southeast corner of the Jones’s garage with what appeared to be a thick black Sharpie. Shawn painted over it. When the tagging reappeared…
Shawn: I got so mad that…I tagged the southeast corner of my own garage, “To the people who keep tagging our garage. My name is Shawn. I live here…”
He compares the graffiti removal process to the emotional stages he and Christine have gone through in entering into the pain and need of their two youngest kids.
Shawn: The first stage is “Satisfaction.” “I’m getting rid of this. I’m doing a good thing.” The second stage is “Anger.” When it keeps coming back you start asking, “Who are these people? Who are their parents? Who do they think they are?” The third stage is “Defeat.” “These people and this area are broken and I just want to go somewhere pretty, where I don’t have to see this ugliness.” The fourth stage is…I don’t know the name of this one, but it’s the sense that, “I need to go to and live in broken places.” You’re [cleaning] graffiti and it’s still coming back. It’s not “Teach them a lesson” or “Make it pretty,” it’s “I do it because people who love God go to ugly places and clean them up.” “I can’t have pride in feeling good, I can’t leave, I can’t judge, I can’t teach them. I just show up and paint.”