Patricia E. Clawson
Perhaps more than most of us, Stephen Slack and Mark Richline understand what it means to be an adopted child of God. That’s because both were adopted as infants by godly families in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Now their own families belong to the OPC.
These are their stories.
Growing up, Stephen Slack, 26, often forgot that he was adopted, even though he is African American and his family is Caucasian. “The cool part was even though this is so, I still most of the time don’t even remember I’m adopted,” said Stephen.
When he was at River of Life Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where his father, William Slack, was (and still is) the pastor, Stephen was just treated as the son of their minister, which was fine with him. If he acted up, which wasn’t often, they would call him out. “My local church was awesome in helping to raise me,” remembers Stephen. “The church was just as loving and accepting as my family. Most of all, they always encouraged me—constantly!”
Stephen, now a personal trainer, husband, and father, was five weeks old when he was adopted. His nineteen-year-old birth mother knew it would be a struggle to raise a child after the seventeen-year-old father left, so she placed him for adoption. She also requested that her baby to go to a Christian household. At the same time, William Slack and his wife, Tina, had three children and considered taking in foster children. “My father knew my mother’s heart for children and that she would struggle with giving her foster kids away, so he urged her to consider adoption instead,” said Stephen. “My very first recollections are of nothing less than full acceptance and being just another Slack.”
This fact later gave him a special understanding of his spiritual adoption as God’s son. “Due to the fact that I would forget I was adopted most of the time, this gave me insight into the fact that God’s love for his adopted children is just as potent—to the point of no recognizable difference between adopted and natural children. It’s pretty amazing how close Christ’s sacrifice made us to God—to the point of being a member of his family!”
Growing up in the church, Stephen was taught the truths of the Bible from a very young age. He advises adoptive parents to “be honest from the beginning and raise the child as God encourages and raises his children.” He also encourages church members to treat adopted kids like any other children. “Treat them as if they were not adopted, but this doesn’t mean you don’t tell them, because truth and love are inseparable.”
Stephen’s understanding of both earthly and heavenly adoptions helps him as a parent: “I want to be there for my kids because I realize certain situations could have put them in need for adoption. In other words, I try to enjoy each moment with them because they are a gift, not a right.”
If you ask Mark Richline, our OP missionary to Uruguay, who he is, he’ll tell you he’s “an adopted child of God.” He has been engrafted not only into the body of Christ, but also into the Richline family.
His story begins with his birth mother, who became pregnant by a married man while in her twenties. A member of a Reformed church, she repented and never considered having an abortion, but her parents and church rejected her. Hours before giving birth, her pastor said her sin condemned her. After Mark’s birth, she visited him weekly in foster care and wrestled in prayer. Convinced that the Lord was calling her to surrender Mark, she placed him with Bethany Christian Services and promised God never to search for Mark unless God opened the way.
Meanwhile, Charles and Norma Richline had been unable to have children. As members of Calvary Community Church (OPC) in Harmony, New Jersey, they were advised by their pastor, Lewis Grotenhuis, to apply for adoption through Bethany Christian Services. They adopted Mark when he was three months old and later his sister, Denise.
Knowing he was adopted, Mark was secure in his parent’s love, although sometimes he needed reassurance that he was a permanent part of the family. Once when he was eight, he spoke with his father about his adoption. His doubts were erased when his dad looked him in the eye and said, “Son, you are mine. You belong to me. If anyone comes looking for you to take you away from me, I will run away with you and they won’t find us.” At the age of ten, Mark told his mother he always wanted to live with them and never leave home. She smiled and explained that they knew he was “on loan” from the Lord, and that their labor of love was to prepare him to leave home and serve the Lord.
Mark’s second adopted family was his church. “My church was a safe place for me because I knew I was loved,” said Mark. “Looking back, I appreciated how no one either looked down on me or treated me special simply because I was adopted.”
Unbeknownst to Mark, his birth mother and father, with the blessings of her parents and the church, eventually married, had another son, and lived only forty-five minutes from where he grew up. But for twenty-four years, his mother quietly celebrated Mark’s birthday, and cried over and prayed for him.
Then one morning in October 1992, she felt convicted that she should write a letter to Mark. Mark was completing his service as a missionary associate in Japan when his parents called to say that his birth mother had sent him a letter via Bethany Christian Services.
“I was absolutely blown away by their news,” said Mark. He postponed answering until he could talk face-to-face with his parents. “I would not risk crushing my parents to begin a relationship with my birth mother,” said Mark. He was amazed when his parents encouraged him to meet her.
The night he called his birth mother, he dialed the number, let it ring twice, then slammed the phone down, unsure of what to say. “I stopped to pray and told the Lord that this would be much easier if I knew she was a Christian,” said Mark. Then he dialed again. “I later learned that at that very moment she was standing with her hands raised in prayer, asking the Lord to let the phone ring from me. Suddenly it rang and she answered. I said, ‘Hello Mrs. Saltenberger. My name is Mark, and I’m your son.’ She responded to me with, ‘Praise the Lord!’ From that moment, we were reunited by the grace of God.”
Mark’s birth mom, Joyce Saltenberger, describes her amazement at God’s providential grace. “Answered prayer beyond measure by a heavenly Father who knew fully well, that as I signed the adoption papers, upon inspiration from him, that he would bring us together again, not only in the body, but also fully in the Spirit. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Since then, they have spent hours together on visits, on the phone, and in e-mails. He preached at his birth father’s funeral and officiated at his blood brother’s wedding. “I continue to be amazed at how gracious both my parents and my birth parents have been to me and to each other over these past twenty years,” said Mark.
Mark was twenty-six when he began seeing his spiritual adoption in light of his earthly adoption. He was adopted into a peaceful home, declared by the courts to be a Richline, received a new name, gained brothers and sisters, and knew his father disciplined him to shape him. “I soaked myself in the reality of the God of the universe placing me in his family, declaring to me, ‘You belong to me now. All I am is yours. All I possess belongs to you.’”
May we, like Stephen and Mark, also marvel at our adoption in Christ.
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. New Horizons January 2014.