FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Adoption Journey

with Luther and Rebecca Ellis | September 27, 2011
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Children are a blessing from the Lord. NFL football player Luther Ellis and his wife, Rebecca, talk with Dennis Rainey about their extraordinary adoption journey, including a surprise appearance from a very special guest.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Children are a blessing from the Lord. NFL football player Luther Ellis and his wife, Rebecca, talk with Dennis Rainey about their extraordinary adoption journey, including a surprise appearance from a very special guest.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Children are a blessing from the Lord.

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The Adoption Journey

With Luther and Rebecca Ellis
September 27, 2011
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Bob:  Luther and Rebecca Elliss are the parents of 11 children.  That’s right—11 kids: some by birth, some by adoption.  Recently, they got a call asking them if they would pray about another adoption opportunity.  So, Luther said, “They’re praying.”

Luther:  I’m also going, “Lord, what about somebody else?  I know a lot of guys in the NFL would consider this.”  I don’t know if all the dads out there feel the same way—like we fight it; we resist; but then we know this is what God is calling us to do, and it’s amazing. 

Once you go through the process and once you bring those children into your home, you love them just the same.  Each child brings something different, special to the home that I would never, ever be without.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, September 27th.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.  Today, we’ll hear from Luther Elliss and his wife (along with an assist there from Phil Collins) about how they responded when God tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Have you thought about adoption?”  Stay tuned.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition.  Earlier this month we talked about a couple of programs that we put together when you weren’t around.

Dennis:  That’s right.

Bob:  I wound up doing an interview with a friend of ours, Brian Goins, about a new book that he’d written called Playing Hurt.  Actually, what we’re going to hear today is a program that we recorded when I wasn’t around. 

Dennis:  I returned the favor.  You had to leave—the Orphans Summit in Louisville, Kentucky, last May. 

Bob:  We both had been there together and recorded a program.  I had to go to a Weekend to Remember® in Houston; but you stayed around, and you got a chance to talk to a guy who played in the NFL, right?

Dennis:  That’s right.  Luther Elliss and his wife Rebecca have quite a story about their love and care for orphans.  There is a surprise near the end of this interview that our listening audience will want to make sure that they stay tuned for.

Bob:  This edition of FamilyLife Today was actually part of the main program.  It was recorded on the platform as a part of the events of the summit.

Dennis:  There were 1,500 people in the audience.  It really was kind of fun because a lot of radio listeners there that were attending the Orphan Care Summit.  It’s really a great “watering hole” for people who care about orphans, foster care, adoption—to be able to come together and share their common passion for how to go about helping this humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions. 

One hundred forty million orphans around the world in need of the church of Jesus Christ reaching out to them.  That’s why really the Orphan Summit was created over seven years ago right here in FamilyLife’s headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas.  It has now grown way beyond what we could house here.  As a mentioned, there were a ton of folks in Louisville listening to me as I got a chance to interview the Ellisses.

Bob:  They got to hear some great stories like this one with Luther and Rebecca Elliss.  Here with a special live edition of FamilyLife Today is Dennis Rainey.

(Recorded message):

Dennis:  Welcome to FamilyLife Today before a live, studio audience.  (Applause)  A little larger than our normal studio audience because we’re at the Summit, which is hosted by Christian Alliance for Orphans®.; more than 1,500 folks have gathered here from almost all 50 states, a number of countries from all over Europe, all over Asia, Africa, Latin America, South America, all talking about the needs of orphans. 

I have to tell you a story that happened to me yesterday here at the Summit.  An attorney came up to me from Seattle, Washington.  He said, “I have a vision to rally the churches of the state of Washington,” which by the way, is the least populated in terms of churches of any state in the Union.  “We’re going to call the church together.  We already have cooperation from DHS and the state of Washington to begin to address the needs of foster care children.”  (Applause)

That’s just one story of hundreds of stories that are taking place.  There are many more that came up to me and shared stories that are just as exciting. 

Well, we have a guest with us, a pair of guests with us, that have got their own story of how they have addressed the needs of orphans and gone close to the needs of orphans.  Luther and Rebecca Elliss join us on FamilyLife Today.  Rebecca, Luther, welcome to the broadcast.

Rebecca:  Thank you.

Luther:  Thank you.

Dennis:  Luther played professional football for ten years in the NFL: nine with the Detroit Lions, one with the Denver Broncos.  He was picked twice to play in the Pro Bowl which means he was one mean defensive tackle.  (Laughter)

Luther:  I don’t know if mean; but yes, I enjoyed the game. 

Dennis:  I’ll tell you what, if I was a quarterback, I would not want to see you coming after me, brother.

Rebecca was in college at the same time and competed on the University of Utah swim team, is that right?

Rebecca:  That is correct.

Dennis:  Where suddenly Luther became deeply interested in swimming.  (Laughter) 

Well, you finally married after a quick courtship and started having children, Rebecca.  After you had three children, something very fascinating happened around the issue of the orphan.

Rebecca:  Yes.  We had been married a little over three or four years.  We had three biological children.  We were in Salt Lake City visiting family.  I went and worked out with a friend.  She had told—the night before had seen a little boy, bi-racial little boy.  He was in transitional care with a private adoption agency.  The agency didn’t have a family for him. 

She just shared that she felt like God showed her this child to share—just find him a home.  On the way home from the gym, I called Luther.  He was like, “Okay, let’s find out what we need to do.”  We knew—

Dennis:  Hold it!  Hold it! 

Luther:  That’s not quite how it went.  (Laughter)  That’s not quite how it went.  It—

Dennis:  Somehow we knew that wasn’t quite how it went.

Luther:  So, we talked about adoption.  I thought it was down the road—we would adopt.  She goes, “Hey, I was just working out this morning.  I was told about this little bi-racial, baby boy.  What do you think about adopting?”  I was like, “Oh, yes.  Let’s pray about it, and let’s see what the Lord—”  “Well, you pray, and I’ll start doing the paperwork.”  That’s how it went.  So, yes.   (Laughter)

Dennis:  So, the rest of the story is….  How much did you know about adoption?

Rebecca:  We knew nothing about adoption—absolutely nothing.  I really thought I could just call, and we could go get him.  I knew nothing.  Yes.  We were very naive in the adoption process, but I met with the agency.  I called them.  I told them we were interested in this little boy.  I went down and picked up paperwork.  I spent three days and nights—

Luther:  She didn’t sleep.

Rebecca:  —compiling all of our information and everything we needed.  A week later we brought home Isaiah. 

That Thanksgiving, Luther always played—Luther always played on Thanksgiving.  His mom came to the game, and she brought her niece and her little boy with them.  Her little boy was almost two years old.  They were from Samoa. 

They spent five days with us; and she left her little boy with us, who was about 20 months old.  She didn’t want to take him back to Samoa.  She knew that she needed to find a better home for him than what she was able to give him.  She asked us if we would take him.

Dennis:  This was totally unexpected?

Rebecca:  Totally unexpected.

Dennis:  I just want to pause for a moment.  As we talk about the orphan, going near the orphan, and beginning to address the needs of orphans by either foster care or adoption, one of the things that has to be in place (and I want you to speak to this just for a moment) is your relationship with Jesus Christ and also your marriage. 

If it isn’t in place, some of this baggage that comes in can begin to tear away at the union that is meant to be the life-giving union to these young people that we’re calling our own and inviting into our family.

Luther:  That’s one thing that’s carried us through all of our marriage so far is that we believe in what God has shared about marriage and just about becoming one and moving forward as one.  It wasn’t always like that.  Especially with the family—expanding the family, and that arena of adoption—it takes a special commitment that you both have to be together on.

Dennis:  Rebecca, have there been challenges?

Rebecca:  Yes, there have.  Basically, we weren’t prepared to adopt.  We just thought if we love him enough; then, it will be great.  We’ll just love him like the other kids.  That’s not what he needed. 

He had never slept in a crib.  He had always slept with his birth mom.  He was still nursing.  I knew nothing about adopting an older child.  I stuck him in a crib and thought he should go to sleep.  I mean, I knew nothing.  I was very, very naïve—attaching and bonding to him and having him bond to me. 

Dennis:  Right.

Rebecca:  Now, I feel like 11 years later we’re back tracking a bit and learning a lot—trying to fix what we really didn’t know at the time.

Dennis:  There was another interesting set of circumstances that occurred around a little baby being born that resulted in yet another adoption.

Rebecca:  Yes.  So, that July—so, July of 2001—we got a call from the agency.  They had a bi-racial, little baby girl that they didn’t have a family for; and we took her.

Dennis:  Well, this infant also—was this the one who you struck up a relationship up with the birth mother? 

Rebecca:  Yes.  We actually don’t have a relationship with the birth mother, but she has now been pregnant two more times.  So, Isabelle was born in 2001, Sophia was born in 2003, and Mia was born in 2006. 

Dennis:  Those are also—

Rebecca:  They’re also Ellisses.  (Laughter)  Yes.

Dennis:  Little Ellisses.  So, we’re now up to five biological children and five adopted children.

Rebecca:  Yes, because when Dana was pregnant—so when the birth mom—when Isabelle’s mother was pregnant—these last two times, I was also pregnant.  They’re each six weeks apart.  So, I have two eight year olds and two five year olds.

Luther:  Busy.  That’s why I am gray.  (Laughter)

Dennis:  I’m kind of picturing your house in about five years, when you have two 13- year-olds—

Rebecca:  Yes.

Dennis:  Yes.  That will be interesting. 

Rebecca:  That will be interesting.

Dennis:  Well, there is one more story, is there not?

Rebecca:  There is one more story.  Right in between our eight-year-old and five-year- old (we lived in Denver at the time), once again, we got a phone call from the agency.  There was an African American little baby boy.  He was three weeks old in transitional care.  They’d had him since he was born and had been trying to find a family for him and didn’t have a family for him. 

We started the process once again.  That was probably our most difficult—it was the most difficult adoption as far as time-wise and just prayerfully, just really seeking God on, “Is this the right thing for our family?” and it was.

Dennis:  Now, you have 11children, ages 5 to 15. 

Rebecca:  Yes.

Dennis:  Luther, you just said you’re praying about another situation.

Luther:  Yes.  We’re just open to if God would have us to step forward again to adopt again.  I think part of that is also being here during this Summit and feeling God’s pulling and tugging.  I’m also going, “Lord, what about somebody else?  I know a lot of guys in the NFL who would consider this and maybe it’s that step.” 

Rebecca has felt it for awhile.  Again, I’ve been fighting it.  I don’t know why I fight it.  I don’t know if all the dads feel the same way.  We fight it, we resist; but, then, we know this is what God is calling us to do. 

It is amazing once you go through the process and once you bring those children into your home.  There’s no difference.  You love them just the same.  Each child brings something different, special to the home that I would never, ever be without. 

Dennis:  You have two other expressions that are I think are really cool about the Elliss family.  One is that you really honor Jesus Christ with your earnings in the NFL by funding a number of adoptions anonymously—so many—that you don’t even know the number of adoptions that you helped with. 

I just thought, “We watch him play football on Sunday.  We see those numbers and the zeros stack up.  Here’s a couple who put their money where their heart is and their treasure in the same place.”  (Applause)

Luther:  Thank you.

Dennis:  That’s good stuff. 

Luther:  I think once you have this passion, you can’t help but share it.  When the other guys see what’s happening in your family and that it’s okay, that these children aren’t terrors.  They might give you a little headache here and there; but overall, they’re just like any other child. 

Guys within the NFL feel like, “Hey, why don’t we do it?  Why don’t we step up and do that?”  Being able to help those guys go through the process has been a blessing for our family. 

Dennis:  There is one other way that you have expressed your heart for the orphan.  I think this is really an important point to make to our listening audience today.  You’ve cared for people that—and young children, young adults—who you didn’t necessarily officially adopt; but you provided a family and a home for those who, perhaps, were homeless, or perhaps had been abandoned by their fathers or mothers, or didn’t have a family to really raise them.  You’ve done this in a number of young peoples’ lives. 

One young lady you impacted—I want you to just tell us about her because I heard that you impacted a young lady whose name is Esther.

Rebecca:  Yes, Esther is a blessing to our family.  We met Esther at our church, Kensington Community Church, back in Michigan.  She was 12, maybe.  We just knew her through ministry there.  Then, she started babysitting for us when she was 16.  She had just had a rough family life.  She definitely became part of our family. 

Luther:  Esther is, I think, she is more of a blessing to us than we probably are to her.  The way she loves our children is second to none.  She is an amazing young woman who has such a heart for the Lord.  She’s helped mentor me, to be quite honest, with her faith, the way she walks, and the way she trusts God. 

She’s someone that is so special to our family and to our children.  Anytime when they hear Esther’s name or anything, they light up.   If it’s a phone call from Esther, they are racing to the phone.  Who gets to talk to her first? 

It’s something that we’ve felt that not only is adoption extremely important; but helping out the youth within our community—mentoring them, be an example for them, inviting them into your home.  It doesn’t mean you have to bring them all the way into your home or adoption because sometimes that’s not what they are asking for.  Again, it’s like—I feel like a lot of the speakers have shared this week is that it is a relationship.  They are looking for somebody to just look them in the eye and say, “I love you for who you are, and I am willing to walk with you.”

Dennis:  Well, I think you had quite an impact on her because she flew here to tell us the rest of the story.  Esther, would you come out?  (Applause)  Esther, they took you in.

Esther:  They did.  Yes.  I had nothing to offer.  I was this teenager, always sensitive to the Lord, knew the Lord, but didn’t understand what people would say, “the Lord’s a father; the Lord’s nurturing like a mother.”  They took me in, and I know that, that’s truth now because of the way they loved me.

Dennis:  We’ve got literally tens of millions of children who are fatherless.  There’s a lot of Esthers out there.

Esther:  Yes.

Dennis:  You’re getting emotional because it’s a key time in a young person’s life, isn’t it?

Esther:  Absolutely.  The Lord changed my career path.  Now, I’m trying to teach and train this next generation on why marriage and family matter.  I don’t know what I would be doing if they didn’t step in.  I don’t know where my walk with the Lord would be if they didn’t step in. 

Dennis:  A lot of young people who become homeless at that point live on the streets.  They become permanently homeless. 

Esther:  I mean, I had lost my biological dad at the age of nine.  Then, I had a stepfather in the picture for a couple of years.  Then, he had an affair with my biological mom and left.  So, my trust in men—I didn’t.  You know, I’m still paying for counseling, let’s be honest.  (Laughter)

Luther:  That’s all right; let’s keep those guys away for a little while longer.  I’m okay with that.

Esther:  And I have a big dad. 

Dennis:  Just make sure he interviews the guys.

Esther:  They know that; that’s why I don’t date a lot.  (Laughter)  Luther coming in just, I mean, the way he loves is how I picture God.  I mean, Luther was he cared about me in a safe way, protected me, and then, the way that he loves Rebecca.  I mean—

Dennis:  Yes.

Esther:  —I would just look at them, the way that they look at each other.  Do you remember me always saying, “Like, do you see how he looks at you?  Do you even see that?”  There was such safety. 

They were such a team that it was never—I have a lot of pastors that ask me, “Esther, there is a young woman in our church like you, but we don’t know how to mentor her.  We don’t know how to bless her.”  This together, the oneness, in the marriage, you take in the kids together.  You’re a unit.  They are still to this day one of the strongest units I know.

Dennis:  You hadn’t seen that before.

Esther:  No, no, no, no, no.  I mean, this generation, I think, is so lost.  It is redefining marriage and family because they don’t know what it looks like.  In fact, I don’t think they are being intentionally malicious to disobey God.  I think they just don’t know what it looks like.  That’s where the church has such an opportunity to show them why God cares about family, why God cares about marriage.  This couple still lives that way. 

Dennis:  Well, Luther, Rebecca, wow!  The great story of Jesus Christ and of Easter is that He defeated death, and He came to redeem us from ourselves and our sins, and to put a message in our hearts that we live out. 

I know you guys are imperfect sinners just like the rest of us; but in the midst of all that, in the midst of financial challenges, in the midst of challenges with 11 kids and taking in a young lady here that we see has become a woman and now being a guardian of the guy of who wants to marry her some day. 

There are a lot of orphans in the world in a lot of different walks of life, some overseas, some right next door.  We just need to be faithful to do what God has called us to do.  He can use imperfect people to accomplish His purposes. 

Thank you for sharing your story—

Rebecca:  Thank you.

Dennis:  —and thank you for coming here, Esther.

Esther:  Thank you.

Luther:  Thank you.  (Applause)


Bob:  Well, again, today we’ve heard a great story from a great couple.  A program that was originally recorded at the Orphans Summit that was held in Louisville, Kentucky, last May.  If you’d like to find out about next year’s Orphans Summit, again, it’s going to be in May, this time in Southern California.  You can go to and click on the link that will get you more information. 

While you’re there, you’ll also find information about the upcoming “Cry of the Orphan” campaign that is coming in November.  This is a campaign to help churches, small groups, and Bible study groups become more aware of the needs of orphans all around the world and to stop and consider how as individuals or as groups we can respond to those needs. 

This year FamilyLife’s Hope for Orphans®, in conjunction with other orphan care ministries, has put together a special DVD featuring Eric Metaxas, the author of the book, Bonhoeffer.  He is the guest host.  The DVD is now available.  You can request a copy.  Again, use it in your church, in a Sunday school, or in a small group setting as a part of the “Cry of the Orphan” campaign happening this fall.  Find out more when you go to and click on the link for the “Cry of the Orphan” campaign.

Now, tomorrow, Steven and Alex Kendrick are going to join us on FamilyLife Today.  We’re going to talk about the new movie, Courageous, that is coming out.  FamilyLife has together with Steven, Alex, and their pastor, Michael Catt, put together a Bible study for men called Courageous Living.  This is a study that guys can do with other guys or you can do it on your own, just as a part of your quiet time.  It ties into a number of themes that are a part of the movie. 

By the way, the movie is a great movie.  I’ve had a chance to preview it.  You’re going to want to get out and see it this weekend.  If you’d like to get a copy of the Courageous Living Bible study, we’re making it available this week to those of you who donate to support FamilyLife Today.  When you make a donation this week, feel free to request a copy of the Courageous Living Bible study. 

In fact, if you are making your donation online, just type the word, “STUDY” in the key code box; and we’ll know what to send you.  If you make your donation by calling 1-800-FLTODAY, ask for the men’s Bible study, the Courageous Living Bible study.  Again, we’re happy to send it out to you. 

We do appreciate your financial support.  We couldn’t be here without it.  Your donations cover the production and syndication costs for this program.  So, “Thanks,” for doing whatever you’re able to do in support of this ministry.  We appreciate hearing from you.

We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow as we talk to Stephen and Alex Kendrick about the upcoming movie, Courageous.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. 

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