I recently finished, “Before We Were Yours,” a fascinating novel by Lisa Wingate. Her book tells the story of families severely traumatized by Georgia Tann, widely respected social worker in Memphis until it eventually became obvious she was mistreating children. Tann was at the center of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal of 1950. Though the specific families’ stories Wingate told are fictional they are representative of Tann’s victims.
Tann sometimes had poor children kidnapped from loving homes while others were legitimately removed from dysfunctional families, but each child in her care was neglected and abused as they awaited adoption by wealthy parents. Children who misbehaved or for whom she could not find adoptive parents often suffered severe abuse. Up to 500 children are thought to have died in her custody.
State law at the time kept her from charging Tennessee parents more than $7 for an adoption. Because of this, 80% of children she placed went to families in New York and California, where she would sometimes charge up to $5,000 per adoption, according to The Knoxville Focus and the Historical Quarterly.
Adoptive families did not know how the children had been treated. Famous adoptive parents included: New York Governor Herbert Lehman, and actors Dick Powell and June Allyson. Actress Joan Crawford adopted twin daughters.
Though she began trafficking children in 1924, her crimes did not become known until her homes were shut down in 1950. She was diagnosed with cancer that year and died before her wrongdoings became public and she could be prosecuted. At the time of Tann’s death, her net worth was around $1 million, equivalent to $12.5 million today.
While it seems unfair, Tann apparently got away with her crimes, at least until she had to face God. Still, some might ask how an all-knowing, all-powerful God could allow such horrific behavior? Though I cannot fully answer this question, I want us to consider what the Old Testament patriarch Joseph told his brothers years after they sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” (Genesis 50:20, NLT, my emphasis)
Though we rarely see it clearly at the time, God can and often does use bad situations to accomplish great good. Joseph was sold into slavery, but years later God used him to rescue millions from starving during a horrible famine. Despite all the bad Tann did, placing children with well-to-do families helped change the public’s attitude about adoption, which led to more children finding loving adoptive parents. What she did was very wrong, but God used her reprehensible behavior to bring needed change. Many may question how a good God can allow bad things to happen but both Joseph and Georgia Tann’s stories illustrate God sees things from a much larger perspective than we do.
“What in the world were you thinking, Kenneth Ray… The very idea! What are people going to think when they hear you singing about your mother leaving her family to run off to some bar… And how dare you write about me having four hungry kids?” These are the opening words of Kenny Rogers’ 2012 autobiography, “Luck or Something Like It.”
This conversation occurred in a 1977 phone call shortly after Roger’s song, Lucille, began climbing the charts. Here are the words which offended his mother, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field.” When his mother finally let her son explain he said, “Mom, first of all, you have eight kids. Secondly, it’s not about you. And thirdly, I didn’t write it.” In case you have not figured it out, Lucille was his mother’s name.
Like Kenny Rogers’ mother, all of us sometimes make incorrect assumptions. There is always more to a story than we know at the beginning. But misunderstandings happened long before Lucille Rogers misunderstood her son in 1977.
On the day Jesus was betrayed, his apostles discussed what they would do if he were attacked. They promised to stand with him no matter what, but when the soldiers came to arrest him, his disciples, who had been so sure they would never abandon their teacher, scattered like sparks from a bonfire.
Only Peter followed Jesus, and he did not follow closely. Before that night was over, Peter had denied he was Jesus’ disciple three times. Following his resurrection, Jesus and Peter had a conversation which Peter assumed was to scold him. Let’s read it.
“After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter replied, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then feed my lambs,’ Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ Peter said, ‘you know I love you.’ ‘Then take care of my sheep,’ Jesus said. A third time he asked him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Then feed my sheep.’” (John 21:15-17, NLT)
Jesus told Peter to care for his sheep three times. Only later did Peter realize Jesus had not shamed him but reaffirmed him. Far too often we feel others are putting us down when our perception is colored by our insecurities. Like Peter, many assume God has given up on them, however, the famous apostle’s restoration shows us God is eager to forgive and use all of us regardless of how badly we have failed.