Big Family, Special Needs

[Frederica Here & Now Podcast; Jan 29, 2009]

F: I’m in Bel Air Maryland coffee hour after the liturgy on a Sunday at Four Evangelists Ukranian Orthodox Mission. The pastor here is Fr. Gregory Czumak, who’s my spiritual father and confessor. I came here to have my confession and to worship here with my daughter Megan who’s in the choir here. She loves the mission experience, so as Holy Cross has gotten bigger, more established and more official, she really likes coming here to Four Evangelists.

I’m sitting here with Mary Klopcic. You were chrismated when?

M: May!

F: Only May? Five months, or six… did you major in math? I didn’t! Wait, seven!

M: [laughing]

F: Of course, you have an unusual family, and people notice that right away. You have ten children, and six are your own…

M: They’re all my own!

F: Oh, God bless you, that’s true, they’re all your own. Six are biological children, four are adopted children. You put the words to it, tell me about your children.

M: We like to say that our six biological kids are the ones we made all by ourselves—our “homemade” ones—and the other four we picked out of the catalog. [laughing] Our four adopted ones have special needs, although our oldest one has resolved most of his special needs.

F: What is his name and what was his condition?

M: JT’s been diagnosed with ADHD, reactive attachment disorder, and a bunch of different things, but we’ve worked really hard. We do a lot with diet, we have an excellent counselor, and we had him on medication for awhile. We were able to even out his moods and issues. Now he’s doing fantastic, and I don’t even count him among my special needs anymore. It’s really cool to have one get better.

F: That’s really wonderful.

Oh, hello Adam! This is my grandson, Adam. [to Adam] Was it a safety violation Adam? Do you know what this is, Adam? This is a recorder, so when you touch it, it makes scratchy sounds. I’m talking to Mrs. Klopcic.

My grandson, Adam, wants to show me how I can draw a star, [to Adam] but right now I’m going to talk to Mrs. Klopcic.

Adam is one of my two grandchildren who had a diagnosis on the Autism spectrum. Now, you also have an autistic child?

M: Philip is definitely on the autism spectrum, plus he has mild retardation and a language disability. Philip is a big alphabet soup, he’s got a lot of issues. Miriam we adopted from Hong Kong, and she has Down Syndrome. Ruth we adopted domestically, but her family is from Cameroon. She was molested as an infant and has some ongoing psychological issues she’s dealing with.

F: So you really did pick them out of the catalog, you chose each of these children!

M: We did, with the exception of Philip. We were told that Philip may never walk, and that’s what we were prepared for. And within a few months of getting here he went through what Tad calls the brother school of physical therapy. He was walking, running, riding a bike, but he wasn’t developing intellectually. Physically he was doing great. Emotionally he was tantruming a lot. He has a lot of learning disabilities and not developing very well.

F: Do you homeschool all ten of the children?

M: Yes, except for the six-month-old. [laughs]

F: [laughing] Who’s waiting her turn!

M: She’s learning a lot about milk. [laughs]

F: [laughs] All kinds of chemical and biological knowledge about milk! She looks wonderful and healthy and happy. She’s obviously not suffering from having the attention of 9 older brothers and sisters.

M: We sit her on the table in the dining room and they just come by one by one and entertain her all day long. She smiles at them and plays; she’s a very happy baby.

F: To have a large family and to adopt special needs children is a choice. Tell me what went into your decision.

M: Well, interestingly, Tad is one of five. Two of his siblings were adopted from Korea. God just put it on my heart a long, long time ago that I wanted to adopt children with special needs. When I met him and we started talking about it, I realized that he just always thought that way. He thought that’s how you have a family—you make some, you adopt some, and then you have a family. So we had already discussed that before we got married.

We tried to conceive for a couple of years, and then we went to fertility testing and were told that we were both infertile and wouldn’t be able to conceive. At that point we looked at each other and said, “No problem, we’ll just adopt.”

F: So you adopted your oldest before your first biological child?

M: Yes, and we had him for four weeks before we found out I was six weeks pregnant with Ben. We just kept that going, you know, layering them in. That happened more times than I could say. [laughs]

F: What kind of comments do you get from strangers? Do people object or try to tell you about the population explosion, or something like that?

M: Actually, surprisingly no. I have a lot of friends with large families that have had to deal with those kinds of comments. I never have. Usually people will say it’s a blessing. The first thing people will say is that they’re so well-behaved. I guess if they weren’t well-behaved I’d get more comments. [laughs]

F: What kind of behavior tips can you pass on? The audience is really listening now. They are well-behaved! They face forward during church, they stand quietly—what’s your trick?

M: Well, in terms of church behavior, I’m a little embarrassed about that. Tad was a priest in another denomination before we came here.

F: What denomination?

M: Charismatic Episcopal Church. We always sat right up front and Daddy was at the altar. All eyes were on us and expectations were really high. I worked really hard to keep them in line. I felt bad; we were almost more about behavior, than getting something out of the service. They’re actually misbehaving more now, but I’m pleased that they can let go a little bit and enjoy the liturgy. They can color if they want to color; the expectations aren’t as high.

F: And this is one of those relaxed settings, too. The church meets at a school, not the auditorium, but this is a teacher’s lounge, or something like that—a multi-purpose room with carpet and a little kitchen attached to it. It’s not as restrictive as a normal church setting. I know my grandchildren are certainly coloring on the floor and enjoying themselves in various ways.

M: And that’s one of the things Megan likes about it. She said the kids are more comfortable here and we don’t have to worry about who we’re interrupting.

F: That’s definitely true. They can see Father Gregory, whereas at home there are so many people you can’t always see the altar.

So your daughter was born six months ago? She looks huge!

M: She is huge! We call her Princess Plump. That’s her name. She’s huge!

F: This is not necessarily the end? You might adopt some more or have some biological kids? Do you have a limit in mind, or is it just more the merrier?

M: Well, Tad has said he’ll go to twelve and renew the contract. At one point I thought we were going to have sixteen children, but the bottom line is we let God control our family, and that’s our philosophy. He’s going to open my womb, he’s going to close it. I’m 38 years old and we’ll see how many fertile years I have. Right now they’re coming about two years apart.

We often have people contact us about adoptive situations. We had Noah for eight months and then lost him; it was kind of a private arrangement with his grandmother; we had no legal rights, so we lost him. She just took him and we never saw him/her again. After that, we just said “We’re out of the adoption business.” But the truth is that we’re in God’s business, so what we think doesn’t matter. In fact, we have another adoption situation presented to us and that happens fairly often to us… maybe about once or twice a year, “We have this hard to place child, are you interested?”

Sometimes the answer is definitely “no,” but in other cases we’re thinking it’s the right situation for us.

F: I guess you have to see that God is bringing them to you. It’s up to him. Otherwise your heart would be on a rollercoaster ride all the time—trying to commit, getting pulled in and pulled back again. It’s a serious business being a parent, and I don’t see how you could do it without believing that God brings the children to you. It’s just not the “American” way these days, though. My son in Atlanta has five children, and no cars fit anymore! You can’t put five car seats in the back.

What, in conclusion, would you want to say? Maybe some listeners have one or two kids and are thinking about having a bigger family. What would you say to encourage them?

M: I would encourage anyone who feels like they’re called to have a large family to just pursue their hearts. It takes a mom and a dad, for one thing. You just can’t do it alone—it’s so hard. So I would encourage people to work on their marriages if they want to have a large family. That’s the one thing.

F: The husband and wife are the foundation of the home, and you can’t do it without both of them being very involved.

M: And you can’t do it if you’re not rooted in your faith or rooted in something bigger. That definitely makes it a lot easier; you can depend on God when one of you falls short. And one of you is always going to be falling short!

F: And being able to forgive yourself and pick up and keep going, too!

M: There’s a lot of joy in it, and there’s a lot of challenges with special needs. One thing that Tad and I are always worried about is people who go into special needs adoptions thinking that their love is enough—and honestly it’s not. That’s why we’ve had these disruptive adoptive situations that we’ve seen. Your love can’t heal autism. Your love can’t do a lot of things we want it to do.

F: I was just writing a passage saying that God is not angry or wrathful towards us, but that it will feel like wrath towards those who resist him. Just like fire gives us light and warmth, fire also burns you. But it’s the same fire. I was trying to express this to an editor, and she said, “But if it’s God’s love, how could it possibly not feel good?” The example came to me like this—these special needs kids—what is the disorder—reactive affection disorder? You show affection, and it’s frightening, and they try to pull away. Intimacy is painful to them. And you just try to hold them and love them and you think that will work. In some cases kids get older and start attacking the parents. It’s good to know that love is not enough.

M: Our love is not enough, but God’s love is sufficient. It’s our perspective on God’s love.

F: And our emotions are not enough… you just can’t transfer your warm feelings. Has Orthodoxy in particular brought anything new to you?

M: Interestingly, I just talked about JT who has been completely freed from special needs. Part of that healing was entering the Orthodox Church. There was this idea in our other church that if we just prayed enough, he would get better, or that our faith wasn’t strong enough, he wasn’t doing enough, we weren’t doing enough, we weren’t doing it right. Nobody really said that but that was the way ministry happened.

When he came here, his first comments to us were, “I really like Father Greg.” “Why do you like Father Greg?” “Because he’s not always trying to fix me.”

F: Oh wow!

M: It’s just that idea that “I don’t need to be fixed,” seemed to fix him! Just being able to be who he was! If he was having a bad day, he was having a bad day; he didn’t need a prayer for demonic attack. And not that the spiritual warfare isn’t within the Orthodox church, but I think the liturgy itself combats a lot of that without having to overtly go into the charismatic movement.

F: Isn’t it something? I’m reading a book by a friend who was big into the charismatic movement 30 years ago, wondering where it went? I think it was focusing on the gifts rather than the Lord. And here we are in the Orthodox church and people are just going to be broken and that’s the way it is. It’s not this “fix it right now” attitude.

M: It’s not only that, but the way the Orthodox look at it, everybody is sick, so everybody needs healing. The state of being human has that inherent sickness in it, so it levels the playing field for everybody, and kids like JT. He can say, “Oh, the Orthodox church looks at my mom the way they look at me.” We’re both working it out. That was so freeing to him.

F: All the prayers apply to all of us. And we do believe in the gifts and healing and things like that. But there’s patience and acceptance of the way we are. It’s not just accepting, though, it’s recognizing the way we are and laying it front of the Lord.

M: People ask, “Is where you are, your current church, charismatic?” and I’ll just smile and say, “It’s the most charismatic place I’ve ever been in my life, but it doesn’t look anything like what you mean when you say that word.”

The first time I ever came to Divine Liturgy, I thought, “Wow, the Holy Spirit is here!” We worked so hard in the charismatic church to make the Holy Spirit show up, and all I had to do is walk in the Orthodox church, and I didn’t do anything! God brought me there, God is there.

F: It’s that mighty rushing wind. I think in part it’s that we all focus on God. The energy just flows from us to the altar, instead of from the music minister and worship designer anxiously trying to make the customers have a good emotional experience. That just thwarts the Holy Spirit. But the mighty rushing wind flows from us to the altar and back again.

Anything in conclusion you’ve got to say?

M: I had a prophetic ministry in the charismatic church; I was recognized for my prophetic gifts, which I had shut down the past two years we were there because I intuitively sensed that the way the charismatic church was dealing with the prophetic was all wrong. That’s because it’s not about me. I was trying not to give a word on command, or give a word about people. Coming to Orthodoxy for me was a rest. Nothing was about me, the service wasn’t going to be made or broken depending on whether or not I gave a word. I don’t think I gave a lot of false prophecy, but there certainly was a lot more of me in it than should have been. There’s a lot of pressure. If people listen to this and they hear me talk about this, certain people will be shocked to hear me say this. They won’t understand what I’m talking about.

F: I can picture myself 30 years ago, “Why are you thwarting the Holy Spirit?” The liturgy is like a mountain railway, and you get on the train and it carries to the top of the mountain. You don’t have to do anything or produce or create some spiritual event. It’s so freeing to just be yourself.

M: The real work comes in your private prayer life, then. I need to get Jesus out of my head and into my heart.

F: Get your thinking into the heart where Jesus dwells.

M: That’s hard work, but it’s done in private. In the charismatic church, everyone was trying to do that as a body, but it comes out as confusion.

F: I think we’ve got enough kids here that we’re going to have to wrap it up. Thank you so much for your time, Mary; God has really blessed you with this family.

M: Thank you, it was fun.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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