Beth Russell with her daughters
Jaden and Lily
When Beth Nonte Russell traveled to China in 2000 to help her friend Alex adopt a baby girl from an orphanage there, she thought only that it would be a fascinating adventure. But her friend, who had planned the adoption for many months, panicked and began to have severe doubts about adopting the frail infant. Russell, a former Capitol Hill staffer, not only felt an immediate bond with the baby she named Lily, but was amazed to sense that their relationship had begun more than a lifetime ago. Author of Forever Lily: An Unexpected Mother's Journey to Adoption in China, Russell  spoke to Beliefnet about her spiritual awakening, her foundation for adoptive families, and her belief that love never dies.

Listen to Beth Russell:
"My Friend Changed Her Mind"
Access to a Past Life
Praying for the Highest Good
Helping the Children Left Behind

This is a very surprising adoption book. It's about your spiritual journey to meet the child you were destined to have.
I didn’t set out to write a book about adoption. I thought of it as a spiritual memoir, if anything. But my publisher felt the natural audience would be adoptive parents, so they kind of went down that road. But I feel that as people get to know the book, it will become more known in spiritual circles as being about the transformation that can occur suddenly and what happens as a result. 
You didn't go to China to adopt a baby yourself, but to help your friend adopt. Then she backed out of the adoption. What happened?
"My Friend Changed Her Mind"
A friend of mine asked me, sort of out of the blue, to go with her to China where she was adopting a child. Her husband couldn't come with her because they already had a child at home. I love to travel, and I thought, Well, this could be a really interesting thing to witness. I agreed to go, not knowing much about adoption, certainly not international adoption, or even the situation in China pertaining to the girls there. So I went into this very naively.
When we got to China, my friend, who had been beforehand exhibiting some nervousness, and seemed to have some cold feet, she had a breakdown of some sort where she changed her mind about the adoption. She came to the conclusion she could not go through with it and couldn’t take the baby home. 
By that time, which was just about 24 hours after the baby was brought to her, I already felt this strong connection with this child and I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen to [the baby] if she was sent back to the orphanage. I saw the conditions there and I just knew I could not live with myself if I did not try to somehow bring her out.
It sounded like you had an immediate spiritual bond with the baby.
I did, and it was totally unexpected. I had three stepchildren going in to this whole scenario. I helped raise them, and they were in their late teens at the time and had sort of moved out of the nest. And my husband and I were really looking forward to having our lives back, in a sense. When I felt this bond with this child, I was really overwhelmed by it. It was certainly not something that I thought would happen. I don’t consider myself a baby person. Or I wasn’t at that point. I think I’ve become that. For me to feel so strongly about this child was something that took me completely by surprise.
You also describe a series of very vivid dreams you had in China. Do you think they were giving you a message?
I began, as soon as we were in China, on the plane actually, to have these dreams all having something to do with China and ancient China. At first I really didn’t understand what they were. I have always had a vivid dream life. So until this unfolded, I really didn’t see the connection of the dreams to what was happening during this trip. It was more than dreaming. I felt that I was being shown a past life experience. As I looked back even two years before I went to China, I could see other dreams and other experiences that were also related to this. Dreams about China, dreams about babies, dreams about rescuing babies. All these strange things that didn’t add up until this trip unfolded.
The reason that I was able to sort of piece it together is that for a good period of time I wrote down all my dreams and was able to go back and look in my journals. And then I saw how this all had really been building for some period of time beforehand. 
So you think that you had a past life connected to the adoption of Lily?
Access to a Past Life
I do. When I got back and I realized "I have somehow gotten access to a past life experience," I could see how that experience led to what was unfolding in the present day. The connections were undeniable. I had been living my life as I think most people do, which is thinking that what we have now is sort of discrete—that we were born at a certain time, we will die at a certain time, and it’s really not connected to anything before. 
But, for me, it’s like this whole idea opened a window in my mind where I just saw so completely how this past life experience, the dynamics there and what transpired and the energy that had gotten started in that lifetime, carried over into this one.
I guess that’s what you call karma, or what Buddhists believe is karma, that these energy imprints carry over from lifetime to lifetime.  
What is your spiritual background?
I grew up as a Catholic and my father was an accountant in Indiana and my mother, a housewife. So I had a very grounded life experience. But I’ve been a seeker my whole life in terms of religion and trying to understand what religion truly is, what faith is, what spirituality is. And part of the reason that I’ve been searching is that I was so skeptical of some of the sayings we were taught in my Catholic upbringing, that we were just supposed to believe certain things and take them on faith. I couldn’t quite accept that. 
What I try to say in the book is that it was a choice. Your destiny is a choice. I don’t think that it’s involuntary in the sense that it’s going to happen to you no matter what. I think I could have said no to this child. I could have said, No, I won’t bring this child home or even try. And then that whole line of possibility would have faded, and that would no longer have been an option in my life. 
But because I did say yes and I did choose to go with feelings that were not making much rational sense, the destiny unfolded. So I don’t think it’s as static as most people might believe.
Did you pray for this situation to be resolved in a certain way? 
Praying for the Highest Good
That was one of the most interesting parts of it for me. Before this trip I would pray when I was in crisis, like most people do. Or I would pray for someone’s healing or something like that. 
But in this case, I felt I had to choose the highest possibilities or this might not work out in the right way. And I felt the highest possibility would just be to surrender to what the highest good would be for all the people involved in this, not just for me. 
If I prayed to get this baby, what if that wasn’t the highest good? Maybe I would subvert the highest good by praying for that. And so what it did was bring my prayer to a higher level where I really had to surrender my own personal feelings and ask that the best scenario for all occur.
Since coming back and trying to put all this together and understand what had happened, I really see how this whole thing was such a gift on so many levels. Just the understanding of prayer and what the different levels of prayer are was one of the greatest gifts.
There were so many ups and downs. Attorneys said it would be impossible for you to adopt Lily because of the very strict regulations. After all, Alex had been the one approved for the adoption, not you. Yet it had an amazing outcome for you.
I think of it as a miracle. I really feel it is just beyond rational explanation that it all worked out The odds against this working out or happening at all are so astronomically high that, to me, it’s a miraculous occurrence, no doubt about it.
How were you transformed spiritually by this experience? What lesson did you get out of it that you can share?
I feel that the transformation was at the level of my heart. It was an opening of my heart, and I can’t describe it any other way. It actually was even a physical feeling. During the trip I had actual pains in the area of my heart. It was painful in so many ways to open up to these feelings that I cared so much for this child. But it was looking almost impossible that I would ever have anything to do with her or her life. 
Surrender is not something I do easily. I think that may be one of the most difficult things for people, especially in this culture where we’re taught to be go-getters and make things happen. But, this was was paradoxical because the way to get what I wanted and needed was to surrender that want and need. For me, this whole idea of surrender was one of the most important concepts that arose.
What's Lily like now?
Well, she’s eight and a half. And she has just blossomed into the most beautiful young girl. She’s in second grade and just living and enjoying life.  And she brings so much joy to us and enjoys life so much herself. She represents to me the whole value of human life. When I think of the children left behind there in China and many, many other places, that it’s such a huge loss of human potential. And that bothers me the most to think how many other families could have joy from one of these children. Or how much joy could any of these children experience themselves?
There's controversy about international adoption. What are your feelings about it?
I feel that international adoption speaks to what the highest capability of human beings really is. You have a spectrum of human behavior where on one end you have people blowing themselves and other people up, or on the other end of the spectrum you have people accepting others for the bond of humanity that we all have.

What have you been doing to help adoptive families?
Helping the Children Left Behind
I knew when I came home that I would never really live life in the same way again, knowing how many children are in these sorts of situations. And so my husband and I started a foundation The Golden Phoenix Foundation where we’re seeking to help both the children left behind in orphanages and raise awareness of some of the issues. I want to support and encourage adoptions and helping other human beings as much as possible. That’s what our foundation is dedicated to. 
What about Alex, the friend whom you went to China with? She comes off as sort of a negative character. But she also has a big role to play in getting you to China.
I’ve come a long way in trying to understand all of it in terms of her and her actions. And what I feel now is that in effect she’s symbolic of all of us. I think back in my life on how many times I could not accept a gift, a spiritual gift or a gift of love. 
I believe that’s what this was about. She really serves to remind us that we all do that to some degree. The real task is to develop ourselves in a way that we can increase our capacity to love. I think that’s what we’re doing here. I didn’t understand that until now. And that’s why  I call it a spiritual transformation.
You've mentioned that China recently imposed stricter adoption regulations.
Just this past May, the Chinese government announced their new rules for adoptive applicants. And they’ve tightened up quite a bit those they will approve for adoption. [For example, they won't approve anyone who is single, older than 50, divorced more than twice, or overweight.] The reason that they used is that they just don’t have enough children to adopt out to all the applicants. I know adoptive families that have been to China and seen some of these orphanages were just shaking their heads, thinking how can this be? I was at an orphanage, and there were 200 kids there waiting to be adopted. And there might be thousands of orphanages in operation in China. So what is really going on here?
I think that partly it’s about the Olympics, it’s about public relations surrounding that and that the world is going to be looking in their direction between now and 2008. And I think that they don’t want the world necessarily to know the extent of the problem and how many children there actually are there.
The reason it’s an embarrassment in China is because these are not orphans in the traditional sense. Their parents are living. Their parents didn’t give them up necessarily because they couldn’t take care of them. This is a totally man-made, government‑made problem. And it’s embarrassing in the sense that it didn’t have to be this way.
If there’s a natural disaster or there’s disease or abject poverty, that’s one thing. But in China that's not the case. These children are given up for one reason, and that is because they’re female. 
And the one-child policy?
Yes, that’s the government policy I was speaking of. It’s in place. It’s still enforced. It’s still something the government has said they are not going to back away from. There are a lot of children that are left in dire circumstances as a result of it.
You went back and adopted another baby?
We did. In 2004 we adopted a little girl. Her name is Jaden. She was nine months old at the time, and again, just a joy for us. We can’t imagine our lives without her. I just feel blessed that they’re in our lives. I’m looking so forward to watching both girls become what they were meant to be.
Have you found through this experience that there is a reason for things that happen, for instance, that people come into our lives for a reason?
Absolutely. It’s not a belief for me, it’s really more of a knowing. I know that’s the case. The hopefulness for me is that we will never lose people that we love, that we will always be reunited with them. And love never dies. I did not understand that before this situation.
I know it’s a stretch for some people, that they might think that this is really going off the deep end in terms of fantasy or illusion.To me it’s the opposite. It’s really taking the veil off the illusion that we are somehow living this discrete life that has no connection to anything. It makes me see people differently. I know there’s a purpose for them being in my life and me in theirs.

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