The McElhany Family Story

How two families are joined in the hope of His victory through the loss of their daughters

I (Abby) will never forget that morning that my husband Matt and I, sitting as a newly married couple in the sanctuary of Zion Church of Millersville, full of hopes and dreams for our future, listened to Mark and Kristin sharing about what it was like to live out a pregnancy that threatened to end at any moment. Two very different couples brought together in the same moment as family at Zion Church.

Many things that Mark and Kristin shared that day were profound. But it was their perception of their situation that pierced me. The truth of their reality they never hid nor sugar coated. They would trade places with another couple in a heartbeat. But it was not just their own painful heartbeat that was at stake, it was their first daughter’s heartbeat that was truly being threatened with the abnormality of her physical condition. They would have given their own lives to sustain hers. But they knew that every day they felt her move inside Kristin’s womb, sensed her presence through God’s grace, and got closer to the chance of maybe holding her, alive, they would have never traded for anything. Even for a normal pregnancy.

I sat there in our pew, watching Mark and Kristin treasure unborn life and walk out a crushingly unfair situation in their own lives, but so openly relying on God for a faith they could not produce themselves. I knew in my heart of hearts, in that very moment, that this was the church home I wanted us to be at, especially, if we ever had to experience what they were going through. Mark and Kristin gave a call to the family of members at Zion Church to not only walk out this heart wrenching experience with them, but to arise and receive the gift of life that their first daughter was (and is).

Could we have sensed while watching Mark and Kristin that we would also experience a similar loss?  Maybe we did. Or maybe God was just letting us know through Mark and Kristin’s living testimony that the family at Zion Church was the church family we would need if we did. Compared to Mark and Kristin, our story of loss was through adoption circumstances, but the same God of healing and restoration was present for both. He is our connection.

When I first learned of Mark and Kristin’s pregnancy with Victoria Grace, my heart just started bleeding for them at the loss of their first little girl. Perhaps deep in my heart I was ultimately afraid of the same situation happening to us. The dream of having girls of my own was no fleeting thought. Having been raised with three brothers and no sisters, I wanted at least one little girl as long as I can remember. Two daughters would play it safe, at the very least. So when we found ourselves in a similar situation to Mark and Kristin with two biological sons close together, I really, really, was hoping for a girl next.

While watching a family from Zion Church adopt their first children from Ethiopia, the call of adoption (which had also been special dream of mine) started sparking to life. Eventually, and by God’s grace alone, those sparks turned into a raging inferno of passion and revelation into our Father’s heart for his children (and our heart for ours). We felt very strongly that God had a little girl out there for us, one who had specific medical needs and was around a specific age. But to be honest, I really felt like there were two little girls in Ethiopia for us. We could only qualify for one internationally however, so we waited to see what God would do.

Sooner than we anticipated, we were looking at pictures of a precious, fifteen month old little girl with soft brown hair and a slightly dimpled smile. She had come through some medical challenges, and there would be more to come, but she started thriving under the care of our adoption agency and her pictures showed it. Our dream came true! Actually two dreams came true! An Ethiopian adopted daughter! We knew right away what we wanted to call her, Talitha kum Victorious. Victoria is my middle name, which means victory. God’s victory has always been something I have paid special attention to throughout my life because of it. Victorious is the state of God in the past, present and future. He just is Victorious. Talitha kum was what Jesus spoke over Jarius’ daughter in Mark chapter five, and it means “girl arise.” We knew that only God in his victory over sin, over death, and over broken families could call up our daughter from another country and continent. We started to dream with Talitha kum specifically in our hearts, now with her face etched onto them. I started buying little dresses with butterflies on them, and some purple hair ribbons (purple was the color we felt was Talitha kum’s, if you could feel a color for your child; Mark and Kristin sensed purple and yellow for Victoria Grace). A little bracelet was picked out by her older brothers, and the planning began for a handmade, hardwood bunkbed for her dolls, maybe for her first Christmas from her daddy.

We waited in eager anticipation for a call from our adoption agency. All we needed was a date from the Ethiopian courts for us to come to Ethiopia to meet and legally adopt her. We were so close we could taste it. Would we have her by Christmas? Maybe even Thanksgiving?

But we never received that call. On August 1, late in the evening, we received word that our daughter had actually been taken back by her Ethiopian mother. There was no way for us to adopt her or have further contact with her from that moment on. She would never know that she was ours, if only for four months. We were shocked, crushed, broken, confused and just plain sad! God had spoken to us about Talitha kum; we had her name even before we had a face! And in one sharp breath, she was just…gone.

Our family at Zion Church was praying and mourning with us within minutes of hearing our news. The following Sunday morning, we found ourselves back in the pews at Zion Church, letting our lead Pastor Steve, Mark’s father, cover us during our sorrow by making the announcement that Talitha kum could not come home to us. He shared that her home would remain in Ethiopia with her mother, which we were truly glad for her! Mark’s mother Joyce cuddled me through the intense waves of emotions that just kept coming during that service. After church, I checked my email, and found a note from Mark and Kristin, who were staying in Peru while Mark was conducting his doctoral research. They were also there seeing how God had opened doors by using Victoria Grace’s life through Victoria’s Little Lambs Fund. The email was titled “may you give justice,” and Mark wrote:

“Dear Matt and Abby,
My dad told us what was going on with you, and our hearts are with you trusting in God through this… I was reading my notes of the testimonies at Sunday School the Sunday we left, and you shared about how [Oswald] Chambers encouraged people to give justice but not look for it. Just thought I would send you a note thanking you for being a family that gives justice, and may you continue to do so through all the hopes and disappointments that we endure when ministering God’s justice in a broken world. May you have the grace to trust in Him as the One who is just. Grace to you, Mark”

Needless to say, it was a hard couple months afterwards, and we just simply wrestled with our life. We debated about keeping Talitha kum’s name for the next daughter, but in the end, we realized that Talitha kum, the little girl we lost the chance to adopt, was our first daughter, our very first, as only God can knit families together. God never promised us two physical daughters; in fact, He never promised us any daughters at all. But He did promise us that we were not alone in our brokenness, as Mark’s email was a testimony of. We prayed God would protect Talitha kum with her medical condition in the years to come and to bless the life she has with her Ethiopia mother. We will always be praying.

Mark and Kristin came home, and soon after, we got another phone call about another little girl. In fact it was an infant. God had come through again. We had a second daughter, and she was ready for us. We gave her an Ethiopian name which means “hope,” because God’s justice brings hope. But more importantly, God is just simply our hope. While waiting to bring our second daughter home, we wanted to thank God for the gift that Talitha kum was to us. So we had an idea.

Every time God blessed our family with a child, we would make a donation in their honor to a ministry, such as a local pregnancy center in honor of our biological sons. We do this as a thank you to God, however small it might be, in hopes that others would receive some of the precious grace that we have in the lives of our children. But God supplied us with a special first daughter under special circumstances such as her medical condition and having to “say goodbye”. We had to trust our butterfly to the Father in a different way than our other children, like Victoria Grace. So in a purple and yellow card, we gave a special gift to Victoria’s Little Lambs Fund in honor of our daughter, Talitha kum Victorious. By God’s grace, her story with us does not end there, but will touch other hurting children’s lives with what we could give in thanks. God be praised for his gift of victorious lives for our children, because He simply is victorious, and our children are simply His.

To God be the glory, great things He has done!
The McElhany Family