When Merida was asked to preach at a youth camp on the subject of poverty, he began studying the subject in-depth, looking at the issue from a worldwide perspective.
He started to see, he said later, that "the poorest of the poor are the fatherless." He then examined what the Bible had to say about adoption.
"Basically, I got convicted by my own preaching," Merida told Baptist Press.
Merida and his wife adopted four Ukrainian children -- all siblings -- in 2009 and then a year later adopted a fifth child from Ethiopia. Within a span of two years, their house went from having no children to five children. And he says he wouldn't change anything.
Merida is part of a growing movement within the evangelical community that is giving a new look at adoption from a theological perspective, comparing earthly adoption to spiritual adoption. In his book "Orphanology" (New Hope) coauthored with Rick Morton, Merida makes the case for a Gospel-centered approach to adoption and orphan care.
"I'm hopeful for the future," said Merida, lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C., and associate professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "There seems to be a great interest in caring for orphans among evangelicals. I'm no expert in this field. I'm just a pastor and trying to help people connect the dots biblically, and I hope the next generation will take it further, practicing true religion."
Baptist Press asked Merida several questions about his book and adoption in general. Following is a partial transcript:
BAPTIST PRESS: In your book you say that adoption does not relate to whether you can or cannot have biological children. Adoption, you write, isn't merely Plan B.
MERIDA: I certainly wouldn't challenge people if they were adopting because of infertility. I wouldn't say that's a bad reason. But as you look at the Gospel, adoption, to God, was not a Plan B but Plan A. I just look at Ephesians 1:5 and Ephesians 5:1, with Ephesians 1:5 saying we've been adopted and Ephesians 5:1 saying "imitate God." It has great implications for us. As I say in Orphanology, I don't think everyone should adopt kids, but I think we all should be doing something for the fatherless. Theology is the best reason to adopt, and it's really sad that most Christians think just like the culture on this issue. The cultural reason to adopt is infertility, but we want to think biblically about everything. A lot of people just want enough kids that they can manage. They don't want their kids to mess up their career, they want to live out the American dream. Adoption is certainly not that. It's messy. It's difficult. It's expensive. So, therefore, I think theology has to be what holds you.
BP: In the book, you recount a very powerful story of how your four new children had grown up in such poverty in the Ukraine that they were thrilled to get new clothes. Describe that experience and the biblical lesson you learned from it.
MERIDA: They were wearing the same clothes every day, and we were there for 40 days. Rarely, during that whole time, did they have a different outfit on. Obviously, what they were wearing they didn't own, and they weren't the most pleasant smelling outfits, either. When we were finally ready to go home, we went out to buy some clothes. In the orphanage, you had to leave all your clothes behind you were wearing -- underwear, socks, everything. You couldn't take anything with you. Basically, you're a child and you own nothing. You're leaving behind these old garments, and you're putting on this brand-new wardrobe. The kids, when dressing, were counting their socks; they were so happy with their socks. It was a great picture of the Gospel. As Paul says, Christians are putting off this old garment and putting on new clothes. It's a great picture of what God has done for us in rescuing us.
BP: How is someone who doesn't adopt -- who isn't bringing a child into their home -- to help with this issue?
MERIDA: Adoption isn't the only solution to the orphan care crisis. When you look around the world at 140 million-plus orphans, many of them are not adoptable. They're not available for adoption. And in many countries, you can't bring these children home. And so I think the church should be thinking creatively and intentionally about how to care for these kids in terms of maybe sponsorship, in terms of helping to educate them, in terms of taking the Gospel to them. A big one would be transitional assistance for children who are not adoptable -- how can we get them jobs, how can we get them into society and help them have a successful life? Churches could even underwrite an orphanage.
BP: How would a church underwrite an orphanage?
MERIDA: During one year at Vacation Bible School, we found an orphanage at Indonesia that you could basically support for $12,000 a year. It didn't have a ton of children in it, but had a handful. We decided, why don't we put $6,000 in the budget, and why don't we raise the rest in our Vacation Bible School, with our kids, and try to teach our kids about orphan care? So the offering that week of VBS went basically to help sponsor these kids. The goal was to take trips over there and get to know these kids. Another way a church can help is orphan hosting, which basically is bringing kids to your area a couple of weeks out of the year, and doing a cultural exchange, which is what we did one year. You develop a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and use some of the people in your church to take the kids on activities, and get to know and love them. So instead of taking a trip to the Ukraine, we brought the Ukrainians to us, and amazingly, the majority of those kids found a family in the church and were adopted. That was by simple exposure. If a church could just show its members little Vladimir and little Sergei, a lot of their pre-conceived ideas go out the window and they capture their heart. Anything that a pastor can do to make orphan care real and not just theoretical, the better for his church.
MERIDA: First of all, I would want to commend the pro-life community. I am pro-life as well, and I think the spirit of Orphanology is caring for the least of these and valuing human life. I would say keep speaking for life, keep fighting for the unborn. But with that, we need to carry a sense of responsibility to care for those kids who have been brought into the world and have been abandoned. Let's say Roe v. Wade is overturned and there are more orphans than ever before. Are we willing to pay the price to care for them, to do all that is necessary to provide for them?
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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