It is not often in life when you have the choice to discover something about yourself, which could potentially rock your equilibrium and throw you into a completely unknown direction. Do you stay comfortable in the known, never really risking what it would take to understand a mystery, or do you trust in a faithful God, taking the chance that after the door has been opened, only one thing is certain: life will never be the same as it was before?
That was the position Father Chris Culpepper (52) found himself in 22 years ago, when as a 30 year-old youth minister at Saint Andrews parish in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, he received a call out of the blue from his parents asking him to come over to talk and go for a walk.
“That’s always how you know something happened in my family when you’re asked to go for a walk–usually it’s good, but sometimes you don’t know. And so, we went for the walk as we always did, and they asked me if I knew a lady named Sharon Kolb. And I mean, I was racking my brain from all facets of my life and just could not come to recognizing the name. And they said, ‘Well, she’s your birth mother.’”
Chris’ birth mother was reaching out to connect with him and he had to decide whether he wanted to follow up with her or not.
“I mean, there’s not a word to describe what that meant. And they said, ‘You know, we’ve always been open with you about it [your adoption]. You’re a grown man. You can do what you want to do with this information.’ And again, just out of the deepest sense of respect, my first thought was, ‘I don’t know what to do with this,’ like, ‘Lord help me here ‘cause I’ve got no idea.’” Chris also added that his parents were lovingly and completely supportive of the decision he made, whatever that might be.
Chris had grown up learning to take 24 hours of time to think through big decisions, so he returned to that practice.
“In that 24-hour period I went home, prayed, contemplated, and thought. The scripture the Lord gave me was pretty simple and profound. ‘Who are my mother and brothers? …but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.’ [Mark 3:33-34] And that was enough, you know, that was enough.”
Over thirty years before this moment, Sharon Kolb had a decision to make. She had returned from a trip over Christmas with her best girlfriend and had wondered if she had been frequently sick during the travel due to car sickness. Finding herself still sick after returning home, and missing her period, she and her friend knew she was pregnant.
“My friend asked me on the phone, ‘Well, how can you be? I mean, you’re not dating anybody. How did this happen?’”
“And then I told her about the rape.”
Sharon was date raped when she was 18 years old. She had known the guy for several months before going out together for the first time on Halloween night when he raped her.
“I went home and didn’t tell anybody and lay down on the bathroom floor. I can remember this so clearly. I put my cheek on the cold tile and thought, ‘What? What do I do?’” she said. “Well, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t tell anybody.”
Sharon had not realized that while she told her friend about the story, her mother was around the corner listening in on the conversation. The next day, her mother told her she had heard everything. The two of them went to her uncle who then found the man who had raped her, and he confessed.
Some family members offered different suggestions for keeping the baby—some even offered to adopt the baby, so as to keep him in the family. None of these options set well for Sharon.
“And then another uncle called, and he said, ‘I can get you an abortion.’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that. As bad as what happened to me, this child had nothing to do with that.’ I told my mother that I wanted to birth him and put him up for adoption so he would have a mother and a daddy. So, I started praying then that he would be raised in a Christian home, that if I didn’t know him on earth, I would know him in heaven.”
“In my head I kind of separated what happened to me to what I could do for this baby. How could I give this baby life and a mother and daddy?”
However, it was difficult emotionally for Sharon as she processed through the questions and discouragement anyone in her position would have had. She had just graduated from high school but wondered about a job and her future, realizing college was now on the back burner. And there was anger: “This man had taken my first born away from me.”
She and the family decided to have the baby at Florence Crittenton, a home for mothers in her position in Lynchburg, Virginia, far away from their Gastonia, North Carolina home at the time.
“I was scared to death, alone and confused, and seriously, I did not know anything about being pregnant, birthing a baby, or even how you feel with a baby growing inside of you.” Sharon recalled the first time she felt the baby kick and the intense emotion she felt throughout the whole experience of carrying the baby. She had even researched ways to induce early labor to abort which led her to feeble attempts like getting under the bed and doing pushups with the bed.
But one day she finally did go into labor and was rushed to the hospital and placed in a separate ward. “They pulled my name tag out a little bit so they would know that I was from the Florence Crittenton Home and told me that I couldn’t see him after he was born, but I insisted. My Mother and Daddy came up and they brought him in so I could see him while the nurse held him–she didn’t want me to hold him or bond with him or anything.”
Sharon gestured with her hands and fingers: “I took his little hand, and he wrapped it around my finger like this. And so, I had a touch. And then nothing else…until we were united.”
Chris and his birth mother, Sharon, are sitting on a bench together in a prayer garden at the Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina where the missions conference, New Wineskins, was being hosted. Chris had attended the conference and had tagged on a visit with his birth-mother who lived in the area. They are completely at ease with each other as they tag-team telling the story of how they reunited for the first time since Sharon last touched his little hand as a newborn.
After the adoption, Sharon went on to marry and have another son and a daughter. She began to have a yearning to connect with her son and researched to find him. She had left a message with his adopted parents conveying that she was working in Christian ministry, and she learned enough from them to know that he had been raised in a Christian household, which was an answer to prayer. Then she waited for a response.
This information relayed to Chris and the confirmation from scripture motivated him to pick up the phone and call her, but no one answered the phone. He left a message and then hung up, waiting for the unknown.
Sharon later listened to the voice message and asked God, “’What do I do, what do I do?’ And I heard God’s voice so clearly, God spoke to me and said, ‘I’m giving you the desires of your heart. Pick up the phone and call your son.’”
The next morning Chris was getting ready for work when the phone rang. Providentially, his wife, Margie, was pregnant with their second child, Caleb Isaac, at the time. The thoughts of pregnancy, birth, and life were very much on their hearts and minds as Chris answered the call. “I answered the phone, and I heard her voice and there was just this flood of tears. Because one of the interesting things about being adopted is you don’t know anybody who looks like you at all in the world. And the only person I knew who resembled me at all was my daughter, the only child we had given birth to at that point. And so that was kind of the only part of me that I really had to hang onto. And so, when I heard her voice and we started talking… again, there are no words to describe that.”
Tears were streaming down both of their faces as the story they shared unfolded.
Sharon said, “We talked two hours that morning, two hours that night, and two hours the next day.” They went on to eat lunches together over the phone and correspond in all manner of communication. Throughout the process of becoming acquainted with each other, Chris was careful to respect and honor his mom and dad; neither he nor they quite knew the full story of why Sharon gave him away. When the full story was shared to him by Sharon, all the pieces started coming together.
“The more I heard about the story…ok, she was actually date-raped…and then the trauma, and then the healing and how all of that took place… that was when the depth of appreciation grew for what she endured, what she suffered, loving me enough to keep me and give birth to me in spite of all of that.”
The next unknown milestone for each of them was how they would react to seeing each other face to face. After a bit of doubt and second guessing, Sharon came to visit him in Fort Worth, Texas. The big moment came in the airport as Chris held his daughter, Sarah Grace, in his arms (Chris confessed he did that just in case either of them felt awkward to hug each other). Sharon looked around the airport and had begun to think that Chris had decided to not meet her when she heard a voice behind her, “Sharon.” She turned around and her first instinct was to grab Sarah Grace and said, “I have a granddaughter, yeah! I have a granddaughter here, yeah, yeah!”
From that point on it was easy between the two of them, meeting everyone on both sides of the family, and visiting each other regularly. When Chris visits his birth mother now, it is like a big family reunion—a whole new side of him and his life that he never dreamed he would discover.
“You know, God is the author and giver of life,” Chris said as he turned to look at Sharon, the woman who had made the courageous decisions to give him birth and then give him up for adoption. “Jesus promises us abundant life and for anybody–man, woman, unborn child–you know there is healing and there is hope and you are the testament to this. I mean, you are the incarnational real deal, testimony to that truth,” he said to Sharon.
“She carried me because she loved me and the reason that she loved me is because she understood how Christ loved her.”
Sharon then reflected, “Nine months of my life was nothing compared to the life that he’s lived and the love that he got from a mother and a daddy that wanted children and couldn’t have them. Nine months was nothing. You know, the way I think about it is just through the lens of scriptures. I mean, you go to Genesis and in the very first chapter the Bible declares, ‘In the image of God, he made them. Male and female he made them.’ And when we embrace that most fundamental truth, we really do realize that every single life matters. Every single life has value from conception to natural death. It matters, you matter. God has a plan. God has a purpose. Like, there’s no such thing as an accidental birth. There’s no such thing, ultimately, as an unwanted child, even if a mom and a father can’t raise that child, that child is wanted. So, in that way, you know, not only does God have a plan and purpose for life, but there’s healing and hope in Christ Jesus that meets every single place of brokenness in which we find ourselves. It’s not that it’ll be easy, it’s just that he’ll be with you and that’s all that matters.”
The prayer garden is nestled next to a babbling creek whose sound seemed to increase in volume as their voices became more quiet, more intimate. And then, an unexpected punctuation to the time together arrived in the form of a hummingbird. The whir of the bird was initially mistaken for an annoying insect buzzing behind Sharon’s head, but then it made a brief appearance in front of both, and then headed off its busy way. “When we see hummingbirds, it reminds us of my grandfather,” Sharon said.
“One of the really fascinating things about this,” Chris said, “and now we’re to the point where I’m beginning to know her and her family situation enough to know that it was her grandfather who was primarily responsible for walking her through that [the pregnancy]. He became the father figure in her life, and he was the one who told her ‘This is not your fault.’”
Chris added, “You know, my parents couldn’t have their own kids, so even having my sister and me to adopt was grace to them and life to them, you know, and healing and hope. And there’s so many parents or married folks out there in these circumstances who can’t have their own kids. Every life matters. Every life is wanted and the Psalm talks about, you know, ‘I knew you even before you were in your mother’s womb.’ I mean, there is such an immutable and an eternal reality involved in every single life that that inhabits flesh and walks the earth.”
Twenty-two years ago, after he had stepped into the unknown and decided to connect with his birth mom, Chris discovered a new relationship with Sharon along with a whole universe of family members. Making that decision led to this moment in North Carolina where they could wipe their tears as they finish telling their story, hug, and step out of the tranquility of the prayer garden before joining more family for a dinner feast.
Father Chris Culpepper is the Rector of Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Sharon Kolb is retired and lives in the Charlotte, North Carolina region. She is the mother of three children, one stepchild, and four grandchildren.