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Do you have a heart for foster care or adoption? Judge Joseph Wood tells his story of how he was found as a baby in a box, brought to an orphanage, and what God did to change his life.
Dave: Okay; so if you think back over the pandemic—
Ann: —which was hard
Dave: —which was a long, hard journey—was there a moment that you remember as a beautiful moment or a good moment?
Ann: Yes; there were several, but I think one of the most beautiful moments for us was when we went to Colorado to be with our son and daughter-in-law on their court case when their third child was being adopted. That was really amazing.
Dave: I even remember Austin calling and saying, “Can you get out here?” We were like [reluctantly], “Oh, do we really need to be there? We’re not even going to be able to go in the court room. It’s going to be on Zoom; we’ll just do it from home”; but we booked a flight. Sitting in their little room in their house, with Holden on their lap, and the other three kids around us, looking into that screen—and hearing that judge say, “Holden is now a Wilson; he has all the rights of being a Wilson,”—I mean, it’s like: “That’s part of our legacy.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
We were all crying hard because of the beauty of, not only him being adopted, but it reminded us, as children of God, we are all adopted into God’s family.
Dave: We’ve got a judge in our studio. I don’t know if that has ever happened for us.
Ann: —not for us—and I’m excited.
Ann: We have Judge Joseph Wood with us today. I think you are going to love today, because we’re going to talk about story and the story of adoption.
Dave: I mean, what is really interesting about you is the story of how you ended up where you are. You are an author of a book called Saving Joey—
Ann: —and the sequel, Adopting Joey.
Joseph: That’s right.
Dave: —and a father, and you’ve got three daughters; how many grandkids?
Dave: Three grandkids.
Dave: We had three sons; I don’t know what it would be like to have three daughters.
Joseph: Three daughters; whew!
Dave: You still have your hair; I lost mine. [Laughter] But welcome to FamilyLife Today. We are so glad to have you.
Joseph: I am so honored to be here—and part of the FamilyLife family in the audience—really pleased to be here.
Ann: Joseph, tell us what you do now.
Joseph: I am a Washington County Judge, here in Arkansas; first black county judge in Arkansas’s history. I’m in my second term now, responsible for one of the largest counties in the state of Arkansas and one of the fastest-growing in the state of Arkansas; in fact, one of the fastest growing in the country; we’re number four in one of the best places to live.
Joseph: So we’ve got a lot going on up there—home of Walmart® headquarters, and Tyson® headquarters, and JB Hunt® headquarters, and the University of Arkansas—so we have a lot in that area. A lot of roads, a lot of bridges that I’m responsible for—Department of Emergency Management—and taking care of public safety and public security of that 250,000 people up there.
Ann: Just a small job.
Dave: Just a little, tiny job you’re doing. [Laughter]
Joseph: It’s a mighty one, that is for sure.
Ann: It is.
Dave: I heard, over lunch, you love to mow the yard; that’s one of your favorite things. [Laughter]
Joseph: Yes; oh, my. I’ve cut so much grass, it seems, in my life. I’m married now—“I’m going to have all these boys,” and I had three daughters; I did not push hard—and my youngest, who is now 21, I think she went out one day to cut the grass. [Laughter] I think she made one long strip and came back: “Oh, that is so hard.” Now, it was probably a little longer; it was probably a little wet, but that was the turnaround; she said, “Oh, yes.” But she did more than the other two; the other two never went out there. [Laughter] So I still cut the grass.
Dave: You know, if I hadn’t known your past by meeting you, I would not know the origins of how your life began. Take us back to the beginning.
Joseph: There is a young girl; she is in her bedroom crying—and I believe, it is a young teen, who just had a kid—probably hid it; I have no idea. She knows she can’t take care of this kid that she just had, a little boy. She takes blankets off her bed, finds a box in her closet, and puts him in there. She walks through the streets of Chicago. It’s nighttime; it is snow and ice; eight degrees; and she sees an apartment complex. Tears are freezing on her face; she leaves this box on the stairs of the apartment complex. She hides behind a tree; she’s hoping and praying that someone will come out and save the little boy.
As she is getting ready to go and get the box, if nobody is coming, a light comes on in the apartment complex. She gets behind a tree again, and she sees somebody walking out of the complex. They notice the box; picks up the box—sees there is a kid in the box—the snow flurries are blowing; picks up the box carefully, but quickly goes back into the apartment complex.
That guy’s name is Cesar [spelling uncertain] Johnson. He is now just stunned about what he just discovered, and he is waking his wife up. He’s waking his neighbors up. He’s spending time in the neighborhood, trying to figure out where this kid came from. They end up calling the Chicago Police Department a few hours later. They are asking questions. They are walking the neighborhood, again, trying to figure out where this kid came from. They told them, “Mr. Johnson, you saved this kid; it’s eight degrees, snow and ice. We’re going to take him to the orphanage in downtown Chicago.” That was the beginning of my story. I only found this out about ten years ago.
Dave: So you’re the boy.
Joseph: I’m the boy who was in that box that Mr. Cesar Johnson found and never knew any of that. I always knew I was adopted, grew up knowing I was adopted; but it was a closed adoption. There was no information. I always grew up with a curiosity, wanting to know what happened. I struggled a lot, as a teen, because I wanted to know: “What did I do wrong?” “Why was I given up?” “Was I a product of incest?” “Was I a product of a, maybe, interracial relationship that wasn’t acceptable back then?” “Why was I given up for adoption?”
Well, ten years ago, I found out—not only was I given up—I was abandoned in the streets; it really just blew my mind.
Ann: Yes; stop there for second. So you’ve always known you were adopted.
Ann: But to find out that your mom, or someone, left you on this porch in a box,—
Joseph: That’s right; that’s right.
Ann: —how did that hit you?
Joseph: Oh my gosh!
Ann: How old were you at the time when you found that out?
Joseph: Forty-five years old. The laws have changed in Illinois. We had done a—you’ve heard of eHarmony, where you can do, or Match.com—well, those who are adopted/they can do a registry: put their information in; and those who gave up that kid can also fill that out. If there is a match, they can share. Most/a lot of adoptions, especially back then—the ‘50s and ‘60s—a lot of them were closed, because you could have that information all sealed.
I filled that out in my 20s/30s; never heard anything. One day, I got a response that: “I’m your dad; you’ve been matched.” I’m trying to call my wife—she had just hung up the phone—turned the phone off. Anyway, come to find out the guy thought it was me/thought I was his kid; he had been searching for 40-something years. He is married, had kids and all. I said, “Well, let’s do a blood DNA.” We did the DNA, and it wasn’t a match. He was just devastated; I was devastated, because he knew for sure.
Well, but in that process, we found out that the law had changed in Illinois. Ten years ago, they said, “If you were ever adopted in the state of Illinois, you can have your original birth certificate.” If I get my original birth certificate, I can confirm with this guy that maybe the woman was right—he may not have been the dad—but maybe she was right. He and I still became friends; and waited, and waited, and waited on this original certificate to come from Illinois; but they were overwhelmed by the number of people in Illinois, looking for their original birth certificate.
Months later, I finally got it. I had just finished cutting grass. I am sweating; I am just—my wife said, “You got something from Illinois Vital Records,”—I’m like, “Oh!” They were like, “Dad, hurry up!” I’m opening it up; and it says—
Ann: So your girls are all there too?
Joseph: Oh, yes—my girls, my wife; everybody—and my mouth just/I froze; because I got three daughters, and I know what a birth certificate looks like. “This is your foundling certificate.” I’m like, “You all, what is a foundling?!”
Joseph: So I had to look it up.
Dave: You didn’t even know?
Joseph: I had no/never heard of the word: “Foundling: what is that?”—“You were found; you were abandoned.” That, right there, just sucked all the wind: “You were found on this day.” “Hold on; that is the day I celebrate as my birthday.” “No, that is just the day you were found.”
Joseph: I am 45 years old. I mean, now I’m married; and my mom is gone and all. The certificate went on to say that: “You were found on this day at this address by this man, Cesar Johnson; and you were received in the orphanage, St. Vincent’s Orphanage by this doctor.” Literally, for about three weeks, I just couldn’t get that in my head that I was abandoned. “So man, what could have happened?
Ann: “What’s the story?”
Joseph: “What was the story? What could have been so bad that I was left out in the streets?” That’s all I knew; I was just found. Well, I ended up saying, “I wonder if I can find the doctor, who took me into the orphanage.” I did all this research; I found him; he had died in 1999.
Then I said, “I wonder if I can find the guy who found me.” I went through all this research. I found a lot of Cesar Johnsons in the state of Illinois; but not—
Dave: So you knew the name.
Joseph: —because it was on the certificate: Cesar Johnson/Cesar L. Johnson. I found a bunch of Cesar Johnsons—but they were all/like 90 percent of them were younger than me—only three names were left.
I said, “Okay; alright.” Ten o’clock in the morning, I called my wife. I was in Little Rock; I was the Deputy Secretary of State. I called my wife; I say, “How do I get someone to take my number down?” She said, “Why?” I said, “I’m about to call these names; and if I say something that shocks them or surprises them, at least, they will have my number if they want to call back.”
My wife: “Will you just call? You’re always analyzing. Just get out of your head.” [Laughter] Twenty-nine years of marriage—just do what they say—just renders life a little simpler. I went ahead and I called the very first number. It was an older woman, who answered the phone. I said, “Hey, my name is Joseph; I’m here in Arkansas. I’m looking for a guy by the name of Cesar Johnson. He spells his name a little different. He saved someone.”
She said, “Hold on! Saved someone!” I can’t see her, but her expression—her voice/intonation—
Joseph: —“Saved someone! My husband saved someone?” I said, “Well, yes, ma’am.” She said, “Well, he does spell his name different; how did he spell it?” I started spelling it. She said, “Yes, that’s correct.” She said, “Saved someone?!” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “Well, what’s your phone number?” I am now crawfishing; I’m kind of pulling back, like—
Ann: That’s weird.
Joseph: —“Why do you need my phone number?”
She said, “He is 80 years old. He is hard of hearing; I may have to switch phones.” Now, I’m back in my head. I’m thinking, “Wow; if he is 80, and I’m 45, that could be about right.” At the time, I’m working all the numbers. I hear, “Hello? What’s your phone number?” I’m like going through my number.
She said, “Oh! You said saved someone.” I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She said, “Was it a baby he saved?” [Laughter] “Yes, ma’am.” “Are you the baby he saved?” “Yes, ma’am.” “[Excitedly] Oh, Jesus! Jesus! Oh, Lord Jesus!” She went on a Holy Ghost melt down [Laughter]: “Oh, Jesus! Jesus!” I just started bawling; I am crying—I mean, the whole nine—snot-ting. [Laughter] “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Cesar! That baby you saved. Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” She kept going and going.
I could not control my—I’m in my office—I know my office people were like, “What is going on with him?!” All of a sudden, he comes to the phone. Mr. Cesar is very different than Mrs. Ruthie is [Laughter]; yes, Mrs. Ruthie is a little different. He comes to the phone: “Hello?” [Crying]: “My name is Joseph.” “Hello?”—he can’t hear anything, because you can hear her in the background—“Hey, can I tell him?” She’s just going a mile a minute. He comes back, “I remember that like it was yesterday. You’re alive; oh my! That had to be like 50 years ago.” “No, it was only 45.” [Laughter] I had to make sure he knew. But he said, “Oh my! Wow! I remember it like it was yesterday, and you’re alive. If you ever get to Chicago, we would love to meet you.”
We did get to Chicago; we always go to Chicago around Thanksgiving. This was October; I said, “I’ll be there in a month.” We got to spend a lot of time with him over the years; he passed away a few years ago. Private First-Class, a Korean veteran; so I tell everybody: “I was saved by a vet.” I love veterans; I never knew why. My grandparents and uncles were; but I literally was saved by a veteran.
It meant a lot to him—didn’t know all of this—one year, he asked if we would go to his family reunion. Every year in January, they have a big family reunion in Mississippi/Greenwood, Mississippi. I said, “I don’t know your family.” My wife said, “We’ll go.” I said, “We don’t know his family; we don’t anybody in his family. We only know them.” [Laughter] He was like:
I don’t want my family to ever take for granted what you’ve been searching for. We will have 300-plus people at this thing. We’ll do a masquerade ball on Friday night; we’ll do a picnic on Saturday; then Sunday, the church service is all dedicated to us.
My mother had 17 kids—the glue of the community, the glue in the church, and the glue of our family—so when she passed away, this was our way of honoring her; so 39 years.
“Okay; we’ll go.” Well, two weeks before this—Christmas—we get a phone call from
Miss Ruthie. Cesar is in the hospital; his kidneys have collapsed; he 80 at that time—84/85—and they can’t travel. “Will you please still go?” I said, “We don’t know anybody there; no, we’re not going! I don’t know anybody!” [Laughter] My wife was like, “We’re going to go”; so we went—I’m the man of the house—we’re driving.
We get there; they loved on us just like Cesar did—the tightness of that family and all—well, here it is: Sunday was the service all around their family, and then there is this luncheon. All of these people were there. Then they introduced: “The Deputy Secretary of Arkansas is here, and he is going to be our keynote. His name is Joseph Wood, and he is going to talk and share with us about family and how he got tied into our family.” I started just sharing the story; and at the end of it,—
Ann: I’m already crying!
Joseph: —they’re crying. There are men up there older than me crying, and I don’t understand why they are crying.
Well, come to find out: they said, “We used to spend—we could not wait—every summer was to go and spend it with Uncle Cesar in Chicago. He always told us about this kid that he found, and now you are standing in front of us.” Well, what they also did was they sent notes to Ruthie back there, that said, “You were screaming and shouting on the phone and the Holy Ghost.” She’s like, “You don’t know why I was screaming and shouting.”
She called me, while I was still there: “Why?—you told them that!” I said, “Well, it is true!” “You don’t know why I was screaming and shouting.” I said, “I just thought you got filled with the Holy Spirit; I don’t know/sanctified.” She said, “I was crying because he always wondered whatever happened to that kid. When you said that you were the kid that he found, I knew the Lord had answered his prayers; so that’s why I was screaming and shouting.”
Anyway, we had this great relationship; in fact, when he passed away, we went to Chicago for his funeral. The only thing that he wanted on his suit, when he passed away, was an Arkansas flag pin that I gave him—
Dave: No way.
Joseph: —because he said, being in the war and all, this was one of the things that he did in his life—he couldn’t save people in Korea; that was the forgotten war that people kind of forget about—in fact, Illinois gave him a citation/the state legislature gave him a citation, saying: “Thank you for your service to our country; but thank you also for saving this kid, because now Arkansas benefits. They get their first Deputy Secretary of State…”—at that point, I was a judge. They thanked him. So for him, all of his life, he heard/he knew about what he did—and his family knew about it—but then Illinois recognized him.
Anyway, that is just our story. His wife passed away two years ago. It was hard, because that was my first connection of anything of how I got started. To this day, we still don’t know how we got to the apartment complex. In the book, Saving Joey, I write that I believe it was a teenage girl; but growing up, I had no idea.
Dave: You really don’t know.
Joseph: I have nothing; all I know is he found me in a box on his stairs.
Ann: I think about your story; I think about Joseph in the Bible. I think about how God used everything in his beginning years—and even the pain and the suffering that he went through—to lead a nation.
Joseph: Wow; that’s right.
Ann: I think about you—and the response of Cesar and his wife, of thinking, “Lord, Your faithfulness in allowing this young woman to drop you specifically on this doorstep”; because God knew they would be faithful in getting you to the right place in the orphanage.
I think that is true for all of us, but I think we can struggle with our backgrounds and our stories.
Dave: Yes, it is interesting: those of us, who know our mom and dad, and have a birth certificate with their names on it, still struggle to find identity.
Dave: And yet, you didn’t know; and you are on the same journey in a different way.
Dave: But you know—what is interesting—part of our identity comes from our name. How did you get your name?
Dave: Did Cesar name you?
Joseph: No; so one particular year, I was the key speaker for the homecoming at the orphanage, St. Vincent’s/now, Catholic Charities. As I’m sharing my story, and everybody is crying and all of that,—
Dave: This is the orphanage that the police took you to?
Joseph: That’s exactly right. It is now Catholic Charities; but at the time, it was St. Vincent’s Infant Asylum, beautiful place. Anyway, they had a homecoming; and I’m the key. I’m talking and sharing; and at the end, they are clapping and all.
Well, they also had some of the nuns, who come back as well; because they remember some of this stuff. They have items that they collected: this was their call; this was their ministry. Well, one of the nuns stood up and said, “I named you!” My wife and my dad were there; we go, “What are you talking about?” Her name was Mary Josephine Talisman. She was a nun; and at the time, how they named kids was the most senior nun named the next kid that came in. Well, it was her turn; she was up in the rotation. Everybody knew—if it was a girl coming in, it would be Josephine; if it was a boy coming in, his name was Joseph—and I came in.
Now, how did all of this come up? Two years before, I was speaking at the homecoming; I was at the homecoming. We had done an article—Cesar and I—a Pulitzer Prize writer in Chicago wrote an article about: “Arkansas State Official Finds the Guy Who Finds Him as He Is on His Search for His Family.” They do this big article for a Sunday newspaper. Sister Mary—well, she’s not a sister anymore—she was Sister Mary Jo. She is now married; and she is in the kitchen, making coffee for her husband. She is reading the newspaper, and she stops. She says, “This is my baby!” [Laughter] Again, this is my—“I named this kid!”—that was it. She was sharing this with her husband; her husband has no clue about any of this stuff.
Two years later, she is at this homecoming, and she’s like, “That’s the one that was in the paper; that’s my kid!” She tells the story. This was less than probably seven years ago, at one of the homecomings, that I found out how my name came.
Dave: It’s really—what’s truly amazing—every aspect, the more I hear about your story, is just layer upon layer of remarkable.
Joseph: That is God’s grace. I can’t—
Earlier, when you were talking, I’m looking across the studio here—I’m looking at Randall from This Is Us; you know?—[Laughter]—it’s like, “He’s on the same search; he sort of ends up in government.”
Joseph: That’s right.
Ann: He was a foundling.
Joseph: That’s exactly right.
Dave: It’s so similar; then, as Ann said, there is Joseph.
Joseph: That’s right.
Dave: I see Moses, who was left, and God had a plan for his life.
Dave: But the truth is, as I listen to it—and you know this better than any of us—God’s hand and God’s providence, even when you are on a front porch in the snow,—
Joseph: That’s right.
Dave: —was on your life. The thing is: we can often think He doesn’t see us.
Joseph: That’s right.
Dave: And He does.
I know there is a listener, right now, that doesn’t have the remarkable story you have; but maybe, is struggling with: “Does God notice?” “Does God care?” “Does God see me?”—even in a struggling marriage—or maybe there is a son or a daughter.
Joseph: That’s good; that’s good.
Dave: Your story reminds us He really does.
Joseph: That’s right.
Dave: Even in the dark of the night, when you think He is far off,—
Joseph: —He’s right there.
Dave: —He’s right there.
Joseph: Absolutely right.
Dave: He’s got a plan for your life—it’s going to look differently than yours or mine—but He can be trusted, because He has adopted us.
Joseph: That’s exactly right. We adopted folks/we say, “We’re kind of special, because we are twice adopted.”
Ann: Oh, you are right.
Joseph: That’s exactly right: somebody chose us; and then, when we come to know the Lord—man!—twice!— we’ve got something. When you get together with a bunch of adopted folks, you kind of start picking that up and hearing to know how He placed us in a place, where we can be loved and have a second chance/this living thing—but then to know that the eternal life with Him and His Father—it’s kind of special there. There you go! [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, here we go. I would like to read this, as we close, from Ephesians 1; it’s such a beautiful statement over your story; it says: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ for He chose us—
Joseph: Yes; yes.
Dave: —“in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. He predestined us for adoption to son-ship through Jesus Christ in accordance with His pleasure and will.” That’s true, obviously, about you; we’ve just heard it.
Joseph: That’s exactly right.
Dave: That’s the beauty of being able to lay your head on a pillow tonight and go, “I know that there is a God, who loves me, sees me, and has adopted me; and my life is in His hands, and I can rest in that.”
Bob: The Bible tells us that our times are in His hands. As we’ve heard today from Joseph Wood, there is a first-hand illustration of how God is the one who cares for and superintends the details of our lives. Joseph Wood’s story is told in a series of two books for children: one is called Saving Joey: A True Life Story; the other is called Adopting Joey: it’s a sequel to his first book. Both of these written for children, books that we have available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
You can find out how you can order them: go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information. Again, the books are called Saving Joey: A True Life Story and then Adopting Joey, a sequel to Saving Joey. Both of them are available in the FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Order from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to order your copy of these books.
You know, I think all of us know, deep down, how important a family is—how fundamental and foundational it is to our development—either for good or for ill. Here, at FamilyLife, our mission/our goal is to effectively develop godly marriages and families. We believe that the world can be changed one home at a time as marriages and families come into alignment with God’s purposes and God’s will.
That’s a mission you make possible whenever you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. Your donations help extend the reach and the impact of this ministry in the lives of so many couples/so many families every day. You make all of this possible when you donate. Right now, if you are able to help with a donation, we’d love to send you a copy of Crystal Paine’s new book, Love-Centered Parenting, as our way of saying, “Thank you for your ongoing support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.”
You can donate online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call to donate at 1-800-FL-TODAY. When you do, be sure to ask for your copy of the book, Love-Centered Parenting. Thank you, in advance, for reaching out and helping to make the ministry of FamilyLife Today possible for you, for your neighbors, and for people all around the world.
We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we are going to pick up Joseph Wood’s story: hear about how he got to the orphanage, his time in the orphanage, being adopted, and how he got to where he is today. We’ll hear the rest of that story tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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