Heroes of My Life II – Dr. Jack and Liz Layman

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of CCAI and over 10,000 orphans’ lives changed in two decades, I can’t help but feel deeply grateful to the many incredible people who have permanently impacted my life and journey.  This blog series will allow me to share with you a few heroes of my life as a special tribute to CCAI’s 20 glorious years… and counting!

“How ya doing!?” I was startled from deep thought by a loud but very friendly greeting.  Standing in front of me was a towering figure with deep blue eyes, a half-grey bear of a man with an infectious smile.

“I’m fine,” I responded hesitantly.   I then proceeded to walk away because I had learned that “how are you doing” was just a greeting.  It didn’t mean anyone really wanted to know how you were actually doing.

“You didn’t answer my question.” To my surprise, the smiling man in his late 50s followed me.  “My name is Jack Layman. I am a professor here, teaching Philosophy of Religion.” He introduced himself by reaching out his hand, which was big, warm, and very strong.  “You look concerned.  Is there anything I can do to help you?”

It was March 1987, my third month at the Graduate School of Columbia Bible College.  I had made no friends other than my roommate Bobby, struggled greatly with my classes due to language difficulties, was very homesick, and had no phone or money to call home.

“Do you really want to know?”  I asked doubtfully.  “Oh yes!” he said, without the slightest hesitation.  For the next thirty-some minutes I shared with him my story of coming to the USA, my struggle with cultural adjustment, my academic challenges, and my loneliness.

He listened empathetically and prayed for me. “Why don’t you join us for dinner tonight?  My wife and kids would love to meet you.”  I was speechless and tears welled in my eyes.

I followed the directions Dr. Layman gave me to their ranch house on campus and rang the bell. “Welcome!  I am Liz, Jack’s wife.”  Liz was much shorter than Jack and full of energy and cheerfulness.  “Let me introduce our children.”

Standing in front of me were eight children ranging from about 10 to 25 in age. “Are these all your children?” I asked because three of them were African-Americans who resembled nothing of Jack and Liz and the rest of the crew.  “Oh yes!”  Liz laughed proudly.  “We have four biological children and we adopted four more!”

Adoption?  I came from a culture in which adoption was a social taboo and embarrassment.  My mom was adopted when she was six, but she hid the secret for many years until one day my father revealed the shocking truth to us.  My mom was so worried that her adoption might bring embarrassment to her children or that she would be looked down upon by others.

Jack and Liz with our family

I became a regular visitor to the Layman family’s home.  I even spent a few weeks during the summer break of 1987 staying in their basement.  Each and every time I was mesmerized and amazed by what I saw – lots of hugs and kisses, intimate family time and prayer, a simple but joyful lifestyle, and constant and heart-warming “I love you’s”!   I felt their genuine and natural affection, love, respect, and care for one another.  In this family, adoption carried a totally different meaning than from where I came from.   It was not a source of shame but pride, not a secret but a family celebration, not a division but a unifying power.  I started to realize there was another way to build a family – adoption.

My sponsor, who was responsible for getting me to Columbia Bible College, had originally agreed to support me financially for one academic year.  So by late 1987 she began to pressure me to go back to China as a missionary.  But by then I really wanted to finish my graduate degree and hoped one day I would go on for my post graduate so I could return to China with glory and accomplishments that would make my parents proud.

My sponsor had no interest in any of my “selfish and ungodly” plans and my refusal to follow her will enraged her.  She cancelled her financial support right away, withdrew her immigration sponsorship for me, and, as a major donor to the school, forced the school administration to kick me out immediately.

Suddenly I was on the verge being illegal and school-less.  When Jack learned about my situation, he was outraged.  He stormed into the president’s office and demanded: “How can we do such a thing to a student who simply wants to continue his education?”

Then Jack and Liz did something that was truly game-changing and life-saving.  They offered to be my new financial sponsors in order to keep my legal status in the USA!  I knew a bible college professor did not make a lot of money.  With eight children to support, the Laymans were obviously not in a strong financial position to take on an additional “burden.”   Nonetheless, they cared less about themselves and more about a poor young couple’s well-being. They simply “adopted” us into their family.  From that moment on, Lily and I started to call them our “American mom and dad.”

Six years later in 1992, I was finishing up my joint Ph.D. course at Denver University and Iliff School of Theology.  One day I visited a Chinese friend, Frank Hu, on campus and casually picked up his Chinese newspaper, The People’s Daily.  I couldn’t believe what I saw on the front page, in big, bold print: Adoption Law of China.  It was the first adoption law in the 5,000 years of recorded history of China!

I borrowed the paper from Frank and hurried home.  Before she moved to the USA to marry me, my wife Lily was among the first group of Chinese attorneys to pass the first Chinese National Bar Exam in 1985, the year when China was finally able to rebuild its de facto abolished legal system during the Cultural Revolution.  I showed the paper to Lily and we looked at each other and said almost simultaneously: “We should call the Laymans!”

We dialed Jack and Liz and told them with great excitement about the new adoption law which would allow non-Chinese citizens to adopt orphanage children. “Do you want to adopt a pretty Chinese girl?”  We asked.  They just laughed.  “We’d love to, but we don’t think the Chinese government will allow a couple in their early sixties to adopt.”  Then they said: “But there are many other families who would love to adopt a girl from China.”  “Really?”  We were incredulous.  “You are not the only loving adoptive couple in America?”  They laughed uncontrollably.  “Oh no, you would be surprised at how many loving people are out there.”

With that assurance, we started to quietly share with our friends on campus, at church, and in our neighborhood about China adoption.  The reactions and responses were mind-blowing.  “We’d love to!  My wife and I have been praying for a child for 10 years!” “We have spent so much money on infertility treatments and we are getting so tired of it.” “We have always loved Chinese culture.  Adopting a child from China would be a dream come true.” …

Knowing nothing about adoption rules, regulations, or processes, we approached several established adoption agencies and offered our volunteer service.  They were all eager to set up a China adoption program and take advantage of our China connection.  But as we studied their adoption information, we were astonished by how expensive adoption could be and how much money a family had to pay to an agency.  “Why do you charge so much for someone who simply wants to give a second chance to a homeless child?”  No agencies were able to give us a satisfactory answer.  “I think we should start our own agency!” I told Lily in the midst of frustration.

We struggled greatly and finally decided to call Dr. Layman.  He listened patiently, then asked, ”Have you thought about starting an agency of your own?”

The rest, as they say, is history….

On September 15, 1992, Chinese Children Adoption International was born in our 200-square-foot basement.  Six years later in 1998, CCAI became the largest China-only adoption agency in the USA and then in the world.

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary and over 10,000 successful placements, we thank God for bringing such incredible people like Jack and Liz to our lives.  Without their support and guidance, there would be no CCAI.

Heroes of My Life I – Toni Milkon
Heroes of My Life III – Dr. Ralph Covell