From Orphan to Miracle
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Like most adopted children, Judge Joseph Wood longed to know his birth parents as a child. He shares the story of his struggles and God’s hand of providence in his life.
From Orphan to Miracle
Dave: Well, I will say this: one of the things that I never foresaw happening in the Wilson legacy was adoption and foster care.
Ann: Yes; I think it’s been one of the greatest things that we’ve experienced as a family.
Dave: Yes, so what am I talking about?
Ann: We are talking about our middle son Austin and his wife Kendall have adopted two boys. It’s interesting—
Dave: Well, the second one is in process;—
Ann: Yes, they are fostering.
Dave: —they are biological brothers.
Ann: That is fun. The cool thing was for them—even in high school, when they were dating, they talked about this—they always had this felt call that they would adopt someday.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: They’ve been married over a decade. It’s such a beautiful picture of this little blond-haired, blue-eyed sort of family adopting these two little boys from Mexican descent. It’s just such a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God—it really is—when you see them walk in or jump in their SUV—and again, never really thought of that for the Wilsons.
We’ve got a guest with us today who has already told us the story, a little bit, about adoption. We’ve got Judge Joseph Wood with us. I love saying, “Judge,” because I don’t think we’ve ever had a judge on here before. Thank you for being back with us on FamilyLife Today.
Joseph: Excellent; excellent. So glad to be with you and your FamilyLife Today audience. It’s a privilege.
Dave: I tell you what—just looking over at you—you just exude joy; doesn’t he?
Joseph: Oh, gosh! [Laughter]
Ann: You guys, this man—
Dave: The smile is just—
Ann: —and his wife June; you’ve been married how many years, Joseph?
Joseph: Twenty-nine years; she’s got me!
Ann: She’s pretty amazing.
Joseph: Twenty-nine years; oh, she is.
Ann: You have three daughters;—
Joseph: Three daughters.
Ann: —three grandchildren.
Joseph: Three daughters like her, so they keep me on point all the time—and three grandchildren—that’s exactly right.
Ann: I wish you all could meet Joseph; because when he looks at you, he has your total attention. Joseph, like when we were having lunch, you really see people; you want to hear their story—
Joseph: I do.
Ann: —and you’re passionate about that; that’s been fun.
But you have a pretty weighty title too.
Dave: Yes; what is the title exactly? I know it’s—
Joseph: County judge; so I am Washington County Judge, here, in Arkansas.
Dave: Explain exactly a county judge, because you think of judges in different ways;—
Joseph: That’s correct.
Dave: —so I’m not sure we understand exactly what a county judge is.
Joseph: In the state of Arkansas—and probably a dozen states—they are the chief executive of the county; they are the ones who preside over the county.
Dave: We’ve already heard a little bit of your story, which you wrote a book/a children’s book—called (Joey’s Journey) [the book series]—Saving Joey: A True-life Story and a sequel called Adopting Joey. The neat thing about your book is, when you start reading the book—and I know a lot of children have read it, and teachers have read it to children—they don’t know it’s your story,—
Joseph: That’s right; that’s exactly right.
Dave: —which is amazing. Again, we don’t need you to tell the whole story again; but the fact that your mother, who you’ve never met,—
Dave: —left you in a box in the snow, on a front porch in Chicago, and waited and watched to see if anybody would pick you up.
Ann: —in the middle of winter.
Dave: You were saved—
Joseph: That’s correct.
Dave: —by a man who found that box; we’ve already heard that story. You got to meet him, just ten years ago, by finding who he was. What a/I mean, what an incredible story!
Ann: But you really grew up in an orphanage for ten years.
Joseph: —ten years before I was adopted.
Dave: Take us back from there. Cesar [spelling uncertain] finds you; they decide to put you in an orphanage. How long were you there, and how did you end up getting out?
Joseph: So again, not knowing how old I was when they got me—but they thought somewhere within a couple of weeks—no umbilical cord or anything like that, and no records; so that is all we know.
Dave: So you really don’t know your birth date?!
Joseph: Don’t know the birth date.
Dave: What day do you celebrate?
Joseph: The 20th, which is the day that the people came and got me, started foster-caring me: Loretta and Sylvester; they were married. She wrote in her high school year book: “Loretta: I want to be a teacher, and I want a house full of kids.”
My dad was a construction worker and built a large part of the city of Chicago. The story as Grandma and my dad tell was that:
Oh, my gosh, your father hated coming home from work; because your mother put him back to work. [Laughter] She wanted to get pregnant and have a kid; she wanted a house full. She had graduated from high school; went on and became a teacher. Five years of marriage—and no kids—so one day, she was like, “Well, let’s go to the orphanage; we can get a little girl. You’ll be a great dad. We can foster care.”
They decided to go to the orphanage downtown. She sees all these kids—you’ve got to know my mother; she was a teacher; she loved children—and she saw all of these children.
Ann: And she wanted a girl?
Joseph: She wanted a girl; but when she got there, and saw all of these kids, she wanted all of them—that’s what the story is—she wanted all of them. She said, “No, I want to foster this little boy right here”; so they started fostering me.
Within a couple of months of bringing me home—she’s relaxed, because she’s got a kid—Dad is like, “Yes! She’s got a kid”; and “Ah!” she gets pregnant. [Laughter] A year later, she has my brother. She gets pregnant again; she has my sister. She gets pregnant again; she has my brother. She had three kids, back to back, after starting foster-caring me.
It caused a little concern with the orphanage people; because they were like, “Okay, now that they have their own kids, will they turn this kid back in?”
Dave: Oh, yes.
Joseph: They continued to foster. At ten years old, they said, “No, let’s go ahead,”—because they had been moving; they had to keep moving to different places—even more real was, at ten years old, they were going through a divorce. At that age, in the ‘70s, you didn’t have a single mom, with a bunch of kids, adopting a kid; but again, my mother was a force of nature. She was: “No, this is my kid; I have watched him and had him. I did everything but birth him.”
I always knew I was adopted, but I didn’t understand what any of that meant.
Joseph: Even at ten years old, when I was in the court room, and they were saying, “Your name is going to change,” I didn’t really understand what that really meant. It was really around 11/12 when I started: “Man, I’ve got brothers and sisters/they really don’t look like me; they don’t act like me.” Mom was trying to help me understand: “Well, you were given up for adoption. We came, and we loved you; so we’ve got you.”
I was always loved by these guys; but I always wondered: “Man, let’s go find out what happened to my parents.” My mother was like, “Why don’t you turn 18? We’ll get a private investigator; we’ll help you do all that.” Well, I could not wait to turn 18—slowest years of my life were high school, because it could not go fast enough—because I wanted it to hurry up.
So 17 years old, 11 months, 29 days: “Mom, do we have the money? Do we have the private eye?” My mother was like, “What are you talking about?” “You said, when I turned 18, we could go and find my birth parents and try to…”—she just broke; it just broke her, because she—“You didn’t think I was a good mom?” It had nothing—again, it was this identity thing—so I never/I was very gracious to my mother, very grateful. I used to thank her all the time; she would: “Stop thanking me!”
But again, I knew I could be still in this place; so I had to start going around her, because it was still in me. I wanted to know who and what: “Alright, they’ve got files in Springfield, Illinois—they are sealed files—but I am going to go down there. I’m old enough. I had to do the draft,”—I mean, sign up to be eligible—“I can get student loans; I can drive a car and get a gun. I want to know what my information is, so I’m going to Springfield. Boy, I’m not letting my mom know.”
Well, finally, I got it in my head: “I’m coming home for spring break.” Called one of my buddies: “We’re going to Springfield. We’re going to stay down there until they give us our records. Seven o’clock tomorrow morning”; he said, “I’ll be there.”
Seven o’clock in the morning—a little before then—I get a phone call. The house—it’s the neighbor across the street—“Hey, Joey, can you take me downtown to work? My car is not working.” I say, “Hey, I’m not going that way; I’m going down to Springfield.” She said, “Oh, well, is Loretta up?”
I said, “Yes; Ma!”; I gave her the phone. “Why don’t you ask Joey?” All I know is she is telling her: “He said he is going to Springfield or something.” “Springfield?!”—I hear my mother say.
By this point, the door is knocking; it’s my buddy. We are getting ready to go to Springfield. She gets off the phone—[to the neighbor] and she says, “Well, I’ll take you,”—she gets off the phone; she starts, “Kevin”—she calls me Kevin when she’s getting to a point; it’s Joseph Kevin [Laughter]—“Kevin, Miss Helen says you’re going down to Springfield. What’s in Springfield?” I’m like, “Oh, she told.”
Well, now, my partner is in the house; he’s like, “You ready?” I’m like, “Well, Mom, I’m going down to Springfield to get my original birth certificate—whatever it is—they sealed the file and all.” She just broke and cried; I’m like, “Oh, Ma! I’m not going.” He’s upset, because we’re not going; he was like, “I could have stayed in bed. It’s seven in the morning.” Anyway, it was just a long journey on that.
Ann: Joseph, what is it in kids—probably in all of us—that wants to know the beginning and wants to know who their biological parents are?
Joseph: I’ve met some folks, who don’t want to know. They know that they’ve been given up for adoption, and they don’t care; because in their mind, they are thinking, “Well, if they loved me, they would have kept me.” I do think it is a façade; I think it’s—they don’t want to, because it is hard—
Joseph: —when you start really grappling and wrestling with that.
Growing up, especially my teenage years, when you are going through all these changes anyway—puberty, identity, hair on your face—you are just trying to figure out this—
Ann: —and you’re trying to figure out who you are.
Joseph: —who you are; absolutely.
Dave: Now, did you go through some struggle;—
Joseph: Oh, absolutely.
Dave: —because you feel like it was connected?
Joseph: You go through regular stuff, anyway, as a teenager.
Joseph: You just add that piece on because, at least, if you knew your mom and dad/you grew up with that—and you started to see hair coming on your face or whatever—you can look in the mirror and say, “Yes, that’s/I’m getting that from Granddaddy,” or “That part I’m getting from Mom.” But when you are adopted, you don’t have/you have no sense of that.
I tell you the struggle—the biggest was—trying to come to a place, where I say, “Okay; was I a product of rape, or incest, or an interracial relationship that wasn’t acceptable?” I only got to a place, where I could say, “I guess it didn’t matter; she had me.”
Well, when I met Mr. Cesar, the guy who found me—and I started sharing that, my whole life, I kind of had that in my head—he said, “No, she did more than had you; because she put you in a place where you could be found. She must have loved you, because she could have left you in a black plastic bag and left you in the alley; and I would have never found you. You would have froze out there.”
It just took it to a whole other level of this woman—again, it wasn’t the way I wanted to be loved or thought—but again, she could have aborted me. I’m such a pro-life person, partly because I am here because of that. Regardless of the circumstance, I’m here; and I thank God for it. But now, even more so, there is a guy Cesar; and people who came and got me; and an orphanage committed to taking care of kids, who were abandoned or parents who couldn’t take care of the kids. So that’s, again, orchestrated by the hand of God.
Ann: It sounds like your adoptive parents were pretty remarkable.
Joseph: They were; they are.
Dave: Here is what I would ask: “What would you say to the adoptive parents, listening, that have a child; and maybe their child is doing the same thing you did: they want to know?”
Joseph: Yes; sure; yes.
Dave: Your mom was sort of hurt by that. What would you say to the adoptive parent? How should they respond?
Joseph: Like you respond to anything that your kid is going to work through and work on; you’ve got to love them along. You’ve got to give them a little bandwidth, so they can spread their wings. Because, again, you restrict them so much they may not be able to fly. You want to open the butterfly cocoon, and let the butterfly get out; but if there is no struggle in some of that, they won’t be strong enough to fly. But also, that protection piece—I didn’t understand protection of your kid until I started having kids—[Laughter]—yes, now, I get why Momma was the way she was.
I think if you’ve got a kid, who is in that search, you set the parameters as best you can and allow them that space that you are going to help. Again, it’s not about you, per se; it’s about you both. It’s about: “What does that relationship look like for both of you guys?”
My mom and I got together and became even tighter after I started having kids, because I got what she was trying to do—was protect me—but then she got that it wasn’t about me leaving her or me wanting—I’m 18; I’m not trying to find another parent to tell me what to do or how to do—[Laughter]—but she didn’t get that at the time.
So talking to those, who may think about foster care, in particular adopting, if you get to that space, “How do you love your kid enough to let them go?”—which is ultimately what we end up doing anyway. At one point, they will find a spouse and move on and all; but hopefully, you’ve given them enough where they want to stay tethered, and come back, and call back from time to time.
Dave: Yes; I was thinking, when you answered that question, it’s really the same advice you would give any parent—
Joseph: Absolutely right.
Dave: —with their own biological child. They are at a stage, where they have to become an adult. They’re becoming an adult; it’s a little scary, as the—
Dave: —mom or dad, because you are like: “They are pulling away; they are making decisions.” You’ve got to let them fly!
Joseph: You do.
Dave: At the same time, you have enough boundaries so they don’t crash.
Joseph: They know they can come back, or call, or something like that.
Ann: I love the fact that—I mean, you are in a government office; you are very successful; and you are using all the gifts that God has given you—and yet, you take the time to write these two books, Saving Joey and Adopting Joey. You take these books into schools—
Ann: —and even around the world, and you read to kids. Talk about that/of the response of the kids.
Joseph: Wow; so I do that, because that’s who I am—since I was growing up and Mom said, “You need to watch your brothers and sisters; I’ve got to get a second job,”—I was told to be involved in the community in which I lived and “Watch over your brothers and sisters.” I was told to do it because I was the oldest.
Well, I started a youth organization; and I thought that would be a good place to keep my brother and sisters. Well, it grew fast.
Ann: Wait! Wait! Wait! So you started this.
Joseph: That’s right, this teen group in Chicago.
Ann: How old were you?
Joseph: I don’t know—probably 14/15—in fact, it got so big so fast that the adults would have their town hall meetings; and I was their liaison for the young people. I would come and speak to them about what we see/or what the young people are seeing with the gangs and the drugs.
Well, now, going to the schools, I thoroughly enjoy just being out and talking; but it’s also my way of giving back, which was given to me—there was a community; and law enforcement; and an orphanage; and people, who came and said, “I’m going to get a kid as opposed to having…”—again, we have our own biological kids; there was no choice in that—but for somebody to go and say, “I’m going to give my time and my love to someone.”
If I can share that—and the kid who may be in foster care—I go, and I read.
Joseph: After that, it may be a group of third graders. I’m reading; at the end of the story, and I say, “The little kid in that basket—that was me,”—there’s an “OH!” It’s the teacher that is like, “That’s you?!” “Yes, ma’am.” You see the kids, though—the kids—all of a sudden, a hand goes up—“I’m in foster care,” or “I’ve been adopted.”
I know, long after I’m gone, they are still having that organic conversation about—“What does that even mean?—that every kid doesn’t have a mom and dad that is just with them, that you, almost, take for granted?” “No; some have struggles, or some…”—just to know that is happening, and they can go home and they can talk; maybe, it’s happening.
I’ll go and visit churches or men’s group—and we talk about that—and “How do we take some of that, as part of a community, to say, ‘I may not be able to adopt, but I can foster,’ or ‘If I can’t foster care, I can, at least, volunteer and take somebody to a ball game’?” It changes lives. It changed my life, obviously.
Ann: And it’s obvious that your faith—and your wife June’s faith—that’s who you are.
Joseph: That’s who I am.
Ann: Why is that important?
Joseph: Well, one, from the very beginning, I was told—I had a minister, who used to work for me—I was just struggling with a lot of this shortly after I found out that I was abandoned. I said, “I’ve got to make some calls; I’ve got to find out who this guy is.” He said, “You’re struggling with it, because you are going on a reverse plan.” I was like, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “As a minister, you see people struggle with trying to figure out identity.” He said, “Most of us are born to our mom and dad, and we see dad as like God—he is big; he is strong; and everybody looks up to him—as we get a little older, we realize that dad has a lot of flaws; and momma calls him out on those flaws. Then they start their journey to find Christ and God.” He said, “You went in reverse. God had His hand on the very beginning in your life, and you are just on this journey, trying to figure out who your earthly father is.”
Again, I know God has had His hand in all of this—so I think the faith walk has been, from the very beginning, it’s kind of helped get me through my teenage years and writing to God about—“Why me? Why did I get to this spot? Again, I guess it doesn’t matter; I’m here, and You’ve been watching over; and You’ve kept me.”
I got my master’s in Christian Leadership. Again, we spent a lot of time—got a number of men’s groups; I do Bible studies in the morning with folks in different states—it’s just what keeps me moving. If I can continue to share the heart to someone—that if they can see Christ in me—then that’s our call; right? He said: “Keep your light on,” “Be the salt,”—that’s what our call is.
Dave: What’s truly interesting—there are so many facets of your story that you can step back—I know you’ve done this your whole life—and go, “Wow! Look at God’s hand.”
One of them that’s very interesting is the people that saw you. One the passages I love in Scripture—and I’ve preached on it many times over 30 years as a pastor—is the end of the first chapter of James, where he says, “This is what real religion is…”;—
Joseph: Wow; wow.
Dave: —you know? He talks about keeping a tight rein on our tongue, which is interesting; he goes right there—but then he says, “Caring for orphans”—
Dave: —“and widows in distress.” And you were an orphan; somebody cared for you.
We know God was above the whole thing; but there was a person—and a name and a mom—and then your adoptive parents. I just think we, as followers of Christ—you just said—turn on the light and be the salt. We are called/—
Joseph: That’s exactly right.
Dave: —the church is called to see orphans and care for them. You are sitting here today, a judge in Arkansas, because somebody did that.
Dave: That’s our call!
Joseph: Absolutely right.
Dave: If you are a follower of Christ, you can’t walk by.
Dave: That’s why we believe in life from conception to the grave. It doesn’t/that’s why we come alongside and say, “God put me beside this person, and I have eyes to see. Am I going to act?” When we act, life change happens, like yours.
Joseph: In Washington County, Arkansas, which is where I am the judge there, the Court got together; they put a resolution together that we are going to be known as a pro-life county. We are the first pro-life county in the state of Arkansas.
Again, I am a longtime advocate for life and pro-life marches in DC—it’s always sub-below zero—to see the women and young people out there, that just says: “Yes, His life; we’ll go,” and “He will have His way.” You talk about Scripture; this year, we are going to stand on Esther 4:14: “For such a time as this.”
Ann: —“time as this”; that’s good.
Joseph: Well, Esther was an orphan.
Joseph: Just look to see, again, she didn’t think a whole lot—I never dreamed that this would be the work that I am in—being as a deputy secretary or judge—but she didn’t ever think she would be queen either. But God orchestrates some of this. At that time, it was for her and some of those people in that area; but she did not know that work would end up impacting generations thereafter.
He’s going to have His way, and He is going to use His people. Stay on your journey, and open up, and be used by Him. He will. I just—again, I am grateful—I have been blessed; and if He takes me, again, right now, I know I’ve been blessed.
Ann: Well, God is really using you.
I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t this be a great thing to do with your kids?—to buy Saving Joey and Adopting Joey—read it to your kids and talk about it.” I think this begins in our homes, of talking about our responsibility, as believers, to see the orphan, to see the abandoned, to see the widow, and to say: “Kids, how can we impact? How can we love?”—and even, this is a hard one—to be open-handed, of asking God, “God, what do You have for me in this area?”
Joseph: Wow; wow.
Ann: Because, Joseph, your story is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing all that God has done in your life.
Bob: In the book of James, Chapter 1, we read that pure and undefiled religion is taking care of the orphan and the widow in their need. I think Ann Wilson’s charged all of us to be asking, “What’s our role in that as a family?” That’s a great conversation for us to be having with our kids and to be thinking creatively about how we can help the orphans and the widows in our world.
And reading books together as a family—the books that Ann was talking about: Saving Joey and Adopting Joey—these books tell Joseph Wood’s story. That’s a great starting place. These are books we have available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online to order your copy of these books; the website is FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to order. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call to order the books, Saving Joey and Adopting Joey: 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, this is a big weekend for us, here, at FamilyLife. We have seven Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways happening all across the country—Williamsburg, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; San Antonio, Texas; Sacramento, California; Portland, Oregon—thousands of couples joining us for what has been, for more than 40 years now, a transformational weekend getaway for couples.
David Robbins, who is the president of FamilyLife, is here with me; and David, our hope/our prayer is that this is going to be a life-changing, marriage-changing weekend for these couples.
David: Oh, man, it’s so encouraging to have this many Weekends to Remember going on in one weekend. We invite you to pray; but we also invite you to think about in the year to come—to check it out—because there is a totally refreshed experience. The same timeless truth is represented at the Weekend to Remember; but we have worked hard—really, we started before the pandemic—but the pandemic break of Weekends to Remember allowed us to complete a refresh of the Weekend to Remember that I think you would be very encouraged about. Certainly, our teams have been out there, loving [to hear] how people are enjoying it.
I got to speak to a couple, who had been married for ten years, and the wife told me, “You know, I learned this weekend that I don’t need to panic in our pain. Our issues are common and expected in marriage; and there is always hope, because of Jesus and Jesus meeting us in our time of need.” That’s how Meg and I have been ministered to at Weekends to Remember as we’ve gone before as participants. Time and time again, God meets people where they are at.
We invite you to pray, and we’re excited about this weekend. We invite you to check out the 55 locations we will have in the spring and see if there is one near you coming that you’d want to join.
Bob: In fact, you may want to think about giving a Weekend to Remember as a gift to children or friends during the holidays; you can get a Weekend to Remember gift card. Maybe, give it to your spouse as a way of saying, “Let’s get away together for a weekend in the spring.” Get more information about the upcoming Weekend to Remember schedule and about the Weekend to Remember gift certificates when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
With that, we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and we hope you can join us Monday when we’re going to talk about what we can do, as parents, to help all of us—our kids, ourselves—stay focused on Jesus during the Advent season. Clayton Greene is going to join us with a great new idea. I hope you can be here as well.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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