As a child, I remember thinking repeatedly that something wasn’t quite right with my family. I was born in Busan, South Korea, into what was a happy marriage between my biological mom and dad. But those recurring thoughts became a tragic reality when my mom and dad divorced soon after my younger brother was born because of unfaithfulness, money, alcohol, and broken promises. The one image that has stuck with me about this particular time was that of a mom and her two baby sons - abandoned and evicted - desperately in need of a helping hand.
After the divorce, I lived with my grandma in Busan, but my brother went to live with an aunt in Seoul. I was a stellar student, but the one thing that dragged me down in those elementary school years was the fact that I had no parents to call “mom” or “dad.” As a child, I blocked out these feelings of irritation and pain by being preoccupied with my studies and saying I didn’t need parents. I also went to a small church that my grandma sent me to (for some reason) by myself. Here, I received my fill of parental care through the adults because I was one of only two or three kids there.
When I was in third grade, my life encountered the unthinkable and the unexpected. During a family gathering for New Year’s, I was reunited with my brother and my biological mom. I also met the man whom I now call dad (I will refer to him as dad throughout this story). All I remember from this time was feeling happy to have people who I was able to call my “mom” and “dad.” I had a family again and nothing else mattered.
My life changed completely. I moved to Seoul to live with my new family, started speaking English at home, absorbed American culture, and started introducing myself with a new name: Russell Midomaru.
The initial years of my life with my family went very smoothly. I attended a U.S. school on a military installation. I learned English quickly, performed well in school and joined activities from tennis to student leadership panels. My reunited brother and I did everything together. All seemed well.
Midway through middle school, however, someone came up to me and asked why my last name changed from one year to another in our yearbooks. The words “divorced,” “adopted,” and “step-dad” still echo from that conversation. I knew these words and ideas to be true, but when someone articulated them to me in front of my peers, reality hit me hard.
My family became a topic of shame and one to avoid at all costs. In South Korea, your family ties become fodder for gossip, especially around the topic of adoption, as Korea still holds strong beliefs about the importance of bloodlines and ancestral history.
At this point of my life, two particular things resulted:
- I stopped attending church because I grew to resent the very people — students and parents alike — who I believed were my friends and should have embraced me, but didn’t because I was adopted. I judged and defined God by those people.
- I concluded that I had to live for myself. The world is a place of unrest. Some people will do whatever they can to get what they want, even if it meant trampling on others. I had to be selfish even if I wanted to be generous.
I preoccupied myself with academic and extracurricular achievements. Math and tennis became my primary places of refuge and empowerment. I grew prideful because I took on the role of “dad” at school, such as translating or speaking for my mom during meetings and filling out every form. I also excelled in all that I did, whether it was school performance, tennis, or managing friendships, to make up for what I felt was shameful about my family. I wanted to prove to others that my past didn't hold me back and that I was much better than those who were so “righteous.” I also told myself I would never be like my parents and thought: “Freedom awaits once I get into college. I can escape from this mess called home and family.”
THE CROSS ADOPTION
By the time I started attending UCLA, I had stopped going to church for 4 or 5 years. My mother and my brother had become professing Christians, but I still retained my desire to stay away. Although I never denied the existence of God, I believed that God must have decided to leave the world alone after His creation morally and ethically defiled it.
Around week 2 or 3 of my freshman year, a friend brought me out to a campus ministry gathering. At the time, I hated it. I resented Koreans and I disliked Christian circles. I had brought my emotional baggage along and couldn’t help but put up a huge wall around everyone there.
That same weekend, I followed my friend to a local church. I had originally gone to see a fellow high school alumnus at the church, but God had a wake-up call ready for me. The pastor preached on the topic of adoption into God’s family, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like a key was unlocking something deep within my heart. For the first time in my life, the word “adoption” sounded beautiful and loving — the way that I had always believed it should be.
The key that unlocked me was God Himself. The fact that my earthly dad had adopted me as his own, without ever asking for any blood child of his own from my mom, paralleled the fact that God our heavenly Father calls us His own through His Son Jesus Christ without asking us for anything. A surge of memories reminding me of how I had chosen to treat my mom and dad traveled from my heart to my head. I felt helpless. I felt so sorry because I had resented them for so long and had never given them a chance. The cross of Christ presented itself perfectly before me as I heard the message of the Gospel and thought about the kind of love — although imperfect — my parents were living out for me.
God knocked at my heart and my walls of pride were shaken. I found a willingness to work with a vital character trait — humility. I had known my flaws all along, but I hadn’t wanted to admit them. Throughout the rest of my time at UCLA, I served in a campus ministry, developed new friendships, went on two overseas missions trips to Cambodia and Nicaragua, and found a faithful community at a local church.
I am now a UCLA graduate, working and growing a passion for my career as well as for pastoral ministry. Looking back, I see that I had made myself the victim in my situation through self-pity. I had been wanting to seek reconciliation with my parents and my self-created shame, but I chose not to do so because of my pride. As John Piper puts it, “The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride.” Christ ultimately fulfilled that worth and need.
So what about my family now? Jesus is working in His mighty sovereignty. My relationship with my parents has become much better, especially after graduation. Although my dad had always rejected any exposure to Christianity, he is now attending church regularly and studying the Word. For another, I told my mother not to blame herself for thinking she was not able to give me the parental love and family I had wanted. It was awkward for me to tell her this because I had never expressed internal thoughts and feelings to my family members. But by God-given courage and humility, I was able to tell her that I truly acknowledge the tremendous love she is living out as a mother for her family.
Christ is the initiator and the perfecter of our faith. I have gained Christ and He has been watching me the whole way through these tumultuous times in my life. I have been a troublemaker: stubborn and prideful. I didn’t want to surrender to His grace. 1 Timothy 1:16 speaks volumes to me: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.”
He has been so patient. He is refining me through this Gospel truth. Currently, I have a church community I can call my home, lifelong brothers with whom I share my life with, friends to serve alongside with, and opportunities to exercise and grow in His love.
One of my favorite life verses is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.” The past is past, and God calls us to rise and live out the freedom we have in Him. The life I have is not my own but one that thrives on God’s grace alone, for He has adopted me and given Himself to me for eternity.
Russell Midomaru is a graduate of UCLA and attends Oriental Mission Church.