“Thank you for giving me up for adoption": A conversation with Clayton King
For National Adoption Awareness Month, Clayton King sat down for a wide-ranging conversation on Facebook Live about his identity as an adopted child. The video, 18 minutes long, is available above to watch in full. A lightly edited transcript of the Q&A is below:
Nick Charalambous: How did you find out that you were adopted?
Clayton King: I found out from my parents who adopted me. In my language, I refer to my biological mother, or my birth mother, and my biological father. That's one set of parents — they're the ones that created me, physically. And then I talk about my parents, and my parents were the ones who adopted me.
My mom and dad decided early on — I guess before they even really adopted me; before I was placed into their family — that they would always tell me that I was adopted. Different families do it differently. But in my experience, meeting lots and lots of adopted people, and having lots of conversations over the years, in my opinion, it is a healthier thing to tell a child that they're adopted from the very beginning.
So the way I found out was I always knew. I don't ever remember a moment when my mom or my dad sat me down and said, “Hey Clayton, we've got some big news to share. Now that you're 13, you’re old enough to know.”
I've seen that backfire in many cases — not all cases. I'm not an expert on the statistics. I've just seen that create a lot of chaos in adolescents, or even young adults, when they find out later on in life that they were adopted. I just always knew, and always knew that it was a special thing, so that when my mom and dad told me I was adopted, I just remember there being a constant conversation about what a wonderful thing it was to be adopted.
I have always known I was adopted. I've always been proud of it.
One story that still stands out in my mind was I was so proud of being adopted that one day for show and tell, in about the first grade, somewhere around there, I took a Polaroid picture of me and my mom and my dad. I was a little kid in the picture, and I was out by the kiddie pool. I held up the picture at show and tell and said that I was adopted. And one of the kids made fun of me in class — he was a kind of bully — and said that I must have been an ugly kid; my mom didn't love me enough to keep me. She took one look at me and wanted to get rid of me. Just really mean.
After school, my mom picked me up. She could tell I was upset, and when she asked me what was wrong, I told her that this boy had made fun of me for being adopted. My mom said, “Well you go back to school tomorrow and tell him ...” I'm not saying parents should do this, but my mom said, “You tell him his parents got stuck with him, but we had to pick you out like you go to the pet store to pick up the cutest puppy. We knew that we wanted you.” And then she used that as a springboard to even talk to me about how God adopts us into his family.
I have always known I was adopted. I've always been proud of it. I'm still proud of it. I talk about it all the time, and it's just a part of who I am.
NC: Did being adopted add any extra dimensions to the way you saw yourself or your identity? Can you talk a bit about how it impacted you in the way you became an adult?
CK: I lived in a home that had so much love. It was not a perfect home, but it was home filled with affection, and my mom and dad were committed to each other and to Jesus. So my identity was really more wrapped around my family of origin. So I had a grandmother and a grandfather. One grandfather I never met. He died before they adopted me. I was very close with my grandmother and became very close with my grandfather after his conversion to faith in Christ as a 60-year-old man — 59 or 60. Then, my grandmother on my dad's side was one of the most faithful saints that I've ever met. It was just a really great family unit.
So identity for me didn't really even become something I was aware of, probably until I was in my late high school years, early college years. That was where I began to feel some curiosity because I started preaching at 14 as an evangelist traveling all over South Carolina, North Carolina, eventually all over the Southeast, and eventually all over America, and then eventually the world, and I just started wondering how how many people I've spoken to, and what are the chances that some of my biological relatives were in the room? What are the chances even that my biological mother or my biological father is in the room?
I’ve been adopted by parents, and I’ve been adopted by Jesus.
But the cool thing was even as I began to kind of wonder — little things, like you go to college and they start asking you questions on your paperwork, “Does your family have a history of this that or the other.” I have no clue! I don't know what my family history is. I don’t know if I'm predisposed to certain heart diseases or high cholesterol. A lot of people told me over the years, “You know, you should go back and check your family history and go back and find your birth parents so that you know that.” But then other people say, “Actually, you’re probably better off not knowing because if you don't know you'll take care of yourself better.”
Even though I have those moments where I would question a little bit of my family origin, I had this firm foundation of a family unit that I have been able to stand firmly on. And even over the last few years, as I’ve lost many of my family members, I still feel like that foundation is firm, and I'm still standing on it. So as a man, I know that I've been adopted twice: I’ve been adopted by parents, and I’ve been adopted by Jesus, and that's really kind of the anchor and the bedrock of my identity.
NC: Does it change the way you worship knowing that you are an adopted child?
CK: Yes, absolutely. Yes there are moments in corporate worship, and in private worship, when it’s just me and the Lord — and I’m an emotional person, I have a really hard time hiding my feelings — but there are moments when I will literally break down and just weep.
The first time I heard a song that we sang here at our church, at NewSpring, about the orphaned child being given the father's name, I was sitting on the front row, and I was about to preach here at NewSpring, and it was as if somebody pushed a button inside my soul, and I couldn't even control the tears because I knew that is it. That's me, that's who I am.
If my biological parents are watching right now, “I love you.”
And so, oftentimes, when I'm preparing a message, it’s just me early in the morning at 5am in my study, or if I'm in the car driving somewhere, and I'm talking to the Lord out loud, I'll have these just little vignettes where the Spirit of God will almost trigger something in me, and I will realize how profound the concept of me being adopted into God's family is to me because I have received unconditional love from my parents, and I think it's maybe easier for me to receive unconditional love from God.
And — I do know this is unique to my story — some people have a hard time believing that God really loves them. I can honestly say I've never struggled with that. I struggle with other things, but that has been a part of my spiritual journey that's always … I won’t say that it's made sense because I'm still amazed that God would love me unconditionally, but I've never had a barrier from believing that, because I knew that my mom and dad did not have to take me, but they chose to take me in. And so, somehow, that's been a defining word for me that's been almost a defining direction of my life. And so I believe that I've been able to receive the love of God because I received it from my mom and dad, knowing that they didn't have to love me, but they chose to.
NC: So it sounds like you never did learn the identity of your birth mother and birth father, right?
CK: That's correct. I know a little bit about the the story, but I have never met them, and I've never pursued meeting them.
NC: What if you had the chance to say something to your birth mother and birth father. What do you think you would say to them?
CK: Well, I've thought about it a lot. It's curious for me to think right now that they literally could be watching. Like, I can literally be addressing the woman who gave birth to me or the man who fathered me. Because I know a little bit of the story about my adoption, what I would like to say to both of you is, “I love you. I love you.”
And maybe I'm just pretending they're watching right now, more of a psychological role-playing thing that we used to study back in psychology class, but like if my mom or my dad, my biological parents, are watching right now, “I love you.”
Thank you for not taking my life. Thank you for not doing what was more convenient for you.
“First of all, I do not harbor any anger or bitterness toward you for giving me a chance to live. (My situation: my birth father found out that my birth mother was pregnant, and he left, broke up with her and said, I don't want anything to do with with my son.) I'm not even angry. I’m really not. I'm not angry about that. I’m not.”
And to my birth mother, I'm imagining that she's watching right now, “Thank you for giving me up for adoption. Thank you for doing the difficult thing. Thank you for knowing that you could give me a better chance at life by giving me to a family who could not conceive.”
My mom and dad tried for almost a decade and were incapable of physical conception. My mom did have a couple of miscarriages, so they could conceive, but she couldn’t carry a baby to term. So to my birth mother I would say, “God used you and your story, and just because you messed up, you didn't give up. You got pregnant, but you didn't abort me. Thank you for not taking my life. Thank you for not doing what was more convenient for you. Thank you for giving me a chance to live.”
And I would even say this to my birth mother, “The hundreds of thousands of people, literally, hundreds of thousands of people, that I’ve seen come to faith in Christ in 30 years of ministry, if you had chosen what was convenient in the moment, instead of what was better for the long haul, I know I would have been able to live and experience that.”
But also I want to say, “you have a part to play [in that], and I believe you're going to share in that reward.”
And I just believe that my birth mother is a Christian because I prayed for her for years and years and years. And talking about it right now makes me want to go find her. Maybe I will. Maybe that will be my catalyst.
Adoption is a great way that we can change the world through the kingdom of God and the Gospel.
NC: What advice or coaching would you give to parents who have adopted children or are thinking about being adoptive parents about celebrating adoption, especially if they have biological children of their own?
CK: The first advice I would give is pay attention to the personality of your adopted child because there's really more than one way to skin this cat, to borrow a phrase.
So I am an extreme extrovert. I've never struggled with being too humble. I’ve always struggled with overconfidence. That’s my personality, so things that would rattle other adopted children didn't rattle me. My parents knew that about my personality, so they knew I think even from a small age, this boy is loud, and this boy is big. Everything about this boy that God’s given us is sort of larger than life, so we're going to tell him this, and then he's going to know that that's a part of his story.
Other children are much more meek. Their personalities are different. They process things a lot slower. I process things very quickly. Know the personality and the disposition of your child. The same way that you celebrate a birthday, the same way that you celebrate a milestone, you may want to approach it that way. I think also, when siblings are involved — if there is more than one adopted child in the home or maybe naturally born siblings — make sure that you incorporate the siblings into that conversation of celebration. For me it would be impossible for someone to make too big of a deal of something with me because I'm over the top. Let's throw a party. Let's go crazy. Other people don't like that. Some people are wired differently, and so a celebration may be something more low key, something smaller. Just pay attention to the personality of your children.
Some people adopt, not out of a sense of calling from God, but a sense of almost guilt.
Also, I will say this to families who are thinking about adopting: I am a big advocate for adoption. It's a wonderful gift. It's a great way that we can change the world through the kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I'll also say that it's difficult. It’s very tough. it's tougher now even than when my parents were adopting, and that's unfortunate. This is another conversation, but I feel like there are some things our government could do to make adoption easier, and to make it more affordable. But I have so much respect for parents that do foster care, especially with special needs children. Make sure that you pray about it because I’ve seen the good, and I’ve seen the negative side of adoption and foster care.
Some people adopt, not out of a sense of calling from God, but a sense of almost guilt. “Well, we have some extra money. We've got extra bedrooms. Why don't we just adopt? Why don't we do foster care?” Unless you really prayed through that, unless you’ve really thought through the way that it changes your life, it can end up sort of biting you towards the end of it because it's not as easy as just saying, “We think we might like to adopt.”
The process can be years and years and years long in the making, and in the foster care system — which is a wonderful thing that we're able to do, as far as families to take in children that don't have stable situations to live in — foster care has its own unique set of challenges because you can be a foster family for a child, and there's no guarantee that that child will actually stay in your home long term, or that you can actually legally adopt that child as your own. So I would say, do your homework and make sure you pray through it and talk to other families who have been in the foster care system or who have adopted. Let them share their story with you, so you can feel out some of those very real emotions before you go all the way in.
If you're feeling that nudge and that tug on your heart that adoption might be in your future, go with it
NC: Are there any books or resources that you would recommend in preparation for adoption?
CK: I mean there are literally endless resources. The first place I would say to start just simply is Google it. Bethany Christian Services is one of the most respected and revered adoption agencies. They are a Christian-run adoption agency, and they can not only help you if you are thinking about adopting, and praying about adopting, but they can also give you some great wisdom and counsel, biblical counsel, about foster care; about that process of adoption, especially international adoption.
I've got some very good friends right now who are in the process of adopting, and we've been able to walk through that with them. They are a newly married couple. They’ve been married about two years — I preached their wedding — and they're right now waiting for a child to be placed. They have a sort of — I forget the exact name — an open adoption so that the mother of the child actually gets to place her child in the family that the mother picks, which is a really interesting way [to do it.] And I love that: For the mother to have some sort of directional influence in the life of their child.
So there are so many different ways out there to do it. If you're feeling that nudge and that tug on your heart that adoption might be in your future, go with it. Pray. Begin to seek out counsel. Check out some of these good agencies. They can recommend great books to you, talk with you.
In our case, I was adopted through the state of South Carolina, and my mom and dad had a social worker that they kept up with until I was 18 years old. She still came to our home and did home visits. And I can remember sitting with her in our in our home, and I can remember the affection that I knew she felt for me because she really cared about me. It's just been a great experience for my life, and I'm so excited that we can champion this cause because it's such a great way for the church to really rescue the orphan and do what Jesus commanded us to do through Scripture.