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Leading by example

How one ordinary couple with extraordinary compassion helped build an adoption-friendly church

Leading by example

|BEL AIR, Md. -- Harford County, MD., is one of those fast-growing exurban areas attractive to families with young children. Located north of Baltimore and just west of the Susquehanna River, it's a land of forested rolling hills, farmland, leafy neighborhoods, and small towns playing a losing game of tug-of-war with strip shopping centers, malls, fast-food eateries, and housing developments.

On Churchville Road stands an old church, Mount Zion, and the church graveyard, which contains a secret known only to historians of abortion and those with long family memories: One grave is that of a 19th-century woman buried there after undergoing an abortion. Now the church has another almost-secret: In the past year, families in the church have adopted nine children, and about 20 church families in all have adopted.

That's an outstanding performance. While it's common for Christians to praise adoption, at least 80 percent of American churches do not have a single family that adopted a child during the past year. Mount Zion is different for one outstanding reason: the example one family has set.

Terri and Jim Cooney bought their Harford County home for $20,000 37 years ago. Built as a three-bedroom split-level at the end of a cul-de-sac, the house has grown over the years. A living room addition gobbled up a chunk of front yard, a den and bedroom ate up the garage, and another bedroom took a chunk from the back porch. The three bedrooms are now seven, barely enough to keep up with Cooney family growth.

At first in their home the Cooneys were an ordinary family, with a mom and dad and two children, one boy, one girl. The only fact that might set them apart demographically was that they had adopted their daughter. Then came the 1980s and the advent of what Tom Wolfe called the "splurge generation." But instead of splurging on luxuries, the Cooneys began splurging on children, adopting eight over the next 20 years, all African-American and most with some kind of mental or physical handicap.

It's Jan. 6, a cold Friday, and the Cooney day is off to a lazy start. Friday is the only day of the week when five of the younger kids, ranging in age from 9 to 17, take a break from structured homeschooling and work on individual projects. Three others are working or studying away from home.

At about 10 a.m. Joshua, 17, wanders into the kitchen, talking softly to himself. Tall and broad-shouldered, he dwarfs his petite mom by more than a foot. When urged to greet a visitor, he dutifully holds out his hand and stares at some unknown point on the floor until gently reminded to make momentary eye contact. After pouring himself a bowl of cereal and milk, he stops at the threshold between kitchen and dining room to slurp the excess milk out of the bowl.

Although Joshua suffers from multiple handicaps-autism, mild mental retardation, and severe bi-polar disorder-he hates being in a school with other handicapped kids, so he's at home while the Cooneys search for a better situation for him. His bedroom is one of the "nook and cranny" rooms that sprouted off the house as the family grew. A color television and a small DVD player sit side by side. The DVD plays Pete's Dragon continuously, while the TV is turned to a different program. Joshua often faces his bed, where the board game "Magic Kingdom" is laid out. He monitors both screens and plays the board game at the same time.

Rachel, 14, wanders in next. Born in Ghana, West Africa, she was deliberately burned eight years ago by a witch who had been having prophetic dreams that something bad would happen to Rachel's mom-and then made the prophecy come true by burning the daughter. Pictures taken before the incident show a beautiful round-faced little girl with a broad smile. Those taken afterwards show a girl whose face was completely burned away, except for her eyes, a spot on her cheek, and a strip of skin near her hairline.

How she came to the attention of Jim Cooney, then 60, and Terri, then 55, is a long and winding story, but at the crux was their decision to add a child with daunting medical needs to a situation that already was chaotic at times. "We had rough years," Terri says, "years with violence, aggression, and holes in the walls. But God was so clear every single time."

The Cooneys trusted that through Jim's medical insurance they could deal with the costs. They rejoiced when their 4-year-old saw Rachel for the first time and said, "Oh, your face!" before adding, almost in the same breath, "Do you want to sleep in my bed?" Rachel became a U.S. citizen last June on Jim and Terri's 37th wedding anniversary. "It has been wonderful, miraculously wonderful," Terri says.

The Cooneys now have three daughters between the ages of 14 and 15 who have to deal with not only the usual volatility of that age but also bi-polar disease, partial fetal alcohol syndrome with resulting memory and learning difficulties, dyslexia, and Rachel's surgeries. Sometimes it can be hard for Janée, whose mom drank when she was pregnant, to see her sisters doing Algebra I and II, while she's still struggling with division.

On this particular Friday, Janée doesn't bother to eat breakfast. She tumbles out of bed and shuffles into the kitchen, her long hair mussed from sleep. She's intent on finding information about the tse-tse fly, part of a homeschool project on Africa. She hunkers down at the large, plastic-draped dining room table, reading about tse-tse flies, while her brother Stephen, 12, argues that he's seen tse-tse flies in Maryland, which leads him into the subject of his neighbor's Madagascar roaches, which he's sure are poisonous. Janée wearily rolls her eyes and shrugs as though she's heard that kind of silly talk way too often.

Stephen weighed only two pounds when he was born with cerebral palsy and "windswept" feet (both turned the same way) that meant he would never walk, doctors said-so when he saunters into the kitchen for breakfast, it's a big deal. Not content with the cereal choices, he holds open the refrigerator door and sees some leftover sauce that would be great on noodles. "Can I make some noodles?" he asks.

When his mother agrees, he gets out a small saucepan, fills it with water, and turns on the burner, playing with the steam as he waits for the water to boil. He plans to spill an entire bag of dry noodles into the water until his mom shows him that he only needs one cup. While they cook, he finds a jar of white sauce in the refrigerator, puts some in a bowl, and heats it in the microwave. As he puts the jar away he asks, "Can I use this sauce?" as if a bowl of it weren't already bubbling away in the microwave.

Meanwhile, 9-year-old Isaac, the sixth child of a drug-addicted prostitute, is eating a Pop Tart. "He's very ADHD," Terri says. "His focus is miserable. But he's a wonderful kid." He proudly shows off a large pyramid he's constructed from small magnetic blocks and strings a snaky length of fabric across the width of the den, where he anchors it on a doorknob.

One anecdote helps explain the attitude that helps the Cooneys press on: Soon after Rachel arrived, Terri and the kids were walking down the street. People began staring at faceless Rachel. "I saw they were staring and she was moving closer to me. I said, 'Rachel, they aren't staring at you. They're staring at me. They're asking, "Why is that old white woman with all those cute black kids?' And I just say, 'Try to figure it out.'"

Members of Mount Zion have been trying to figure it out for nearly 20 years-and many have gotten the message, with the Cooney family helping the church develop a heart for adoption. Terri says, "God has used us to knock down the reasons people might use to disobey the call: too old, house too small, not prepared to meet the needs of special-needs kids. People saw that God could meet needs."

She adds, "In part, because of us, [people learned that] just because God is telling you to do this, it doesn't mean it will be easy or quick." At Mount Zion, "We talk about, pray for, and rejoice over every single adoption. The church has developed the amazing heart for these kids."

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @susanolasky.