"There’s still things I block in the back of my head, not because I don’t want to think about them now, but… that’s behind me and I have my future in front of me."
Keith McAfee had a less than idyllic childhood—denied by his biological father, raised by several abusive step-fathers, made poor decisions, suffered various kinds of abuse. But one family saw through his pain and never gave up on being there for him, even when he was in and out of their lives. Listening to Keith’s story will give you hope that God is a God of details and He can make good out of any situation.
The Early Years
In spite of the perfect image reflected by Keith’s earliest memory—that of being 2 years old riding around on his grandfather’s Bobcat while sitting in his lap with Keith holding his favorite “blankie,” his childhood was anything but perfect. His mother became pregnant at the age of 17 after meeting his biological father at a party. The young man denied the possibility of being the father, so after Keith’s birth, his grandparents helped take care of him. The “image” of that perfect childhood was further tarnished when Keith found out (relatively recently) that his grandfather had sexually abused Keith’s mother and her sisters.
Life wasn’t great in Clarksville, Tennessee, but things seems to get better once Keith’s mother met and married a soldier. Keith stayed with his grandparents for a period of time while his mother and stepfather moved around with the Army. When he was three years old, his stepfather adopted him and the family moved to Germany. Again, things seemed normal—he had a dad and a little brother on the way.
Unfortunately, the normalcy, or perceived normalcy, was not to last. His stepfather became abusive—physically, mentally and sexually, even throwing Keith across a room at one point. “There are still things I block in the back of my head, not because I don’t want to think about them now, but…that’s behind me and I have my future in front of me.” The man ended up having an affair with another soldier’s wife.
When Keith’s mother discovered the affair, the couple divorced, after which she began to slide down a steep slope, both physically and emotionally—getting into prostitution, drugs, alcohol and several failed marriages. All the men held animosity toward Keith and his half-brother, and the boys would often be locked in their room during parties. Most, if not all, the money their mother earned was spent on parties and supporting the men who were using her.
When Keith was about 11, they moved back in with his grandparents and their mother met yet another man. After this marriage, she seemed to be getting life together, but if she wasn’t around, their stepfather would ground them for menial misdeeds. He wasn’t sexually or physically abusive, but he was somewhat emotionally abusive. For example, for the boys to get “ungrounded,” he required that they memorize a passage from the Bible—not because he was religious, but to keep them occupied. To this day, Keith struggles with focusing on scripture reading.
At the age of 13, Keith asked his grandparents if he could stay with them for a few weeks; he never went back to live with his mother. In the subsequent years, Keith’s mother married several more times, but after moving back in with his grandparents, Keith didn’t have much of a relationship with her.
He also became rebellious, as many teens do. But it was more than that—he was living with his grandparents and their rules, but they did not understand what Keith had gone through—he had a lot of anger and confusion and, as a result, did poorly in school.
Meeting the McAfees
Keith did, however, have one beneficial experience in school. He met another boy, Mike, who happened to be a pastor’s kid, because they were more or less fighting over a girl who was playing them against each other. When they figured this out, they actually became friends. One day, Keith missed the bus and Mike offered to take him home, but to do so, he needed to stop by the parsonage to let his dad know. While there for this short stop, Mike’s dad, Jim, “saw straight into my soul,” says Keith, “and he saw the chip on my shoulder.” The resulting conversation revealed Keith’s story, including the fact that Keith would likely end up going into state custody.
Before the boys left, Jim made a phone call—from the half of the conversation Keith could hear, it sounded like he called someone in the Child Welfare office and Jim made the offer to care for Keith. At first, Keith didn’t tell his grandparents about this offer; the McAfees set up an arrangement where Keith would live at his grandparents’ house but had the freedom to stay at the McAfees’ anytime. It didn’t take long before Keith was a regular fixture at the McAfee home.
Keith assumed, as many people do, that the pastor’s family was perfect. Of course, behind the scenes, even a pastor’s family has struggles and deals with reality, but they took Keith in and poured into him and loved him. Keith realized years later that the rules they had in place were for his benefit, to keep him safe. Keith stayed with the McAfees for several years, but at the age of 18, he felt he’d had enough and left the family. During this time, he didn’t have much contact with them, and he mostly “played”—girls, parties, no rules.
After a while, the parties got old and he realized the truth the McAfees had shared with him, eventually becoming a Christian.
Coming Full Circle
Soon after he became a Christian, he gave his testimony at a Campus Crusade meeting and he met Holly, “the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.” They talked, and by the time they saw each other again, they had both broken up with the people they had been dating. Keith summoned the courage to ask Holly on a date, and three months later, they were married.
Several years and a couple of kids of their own later, Keith had a chance meeting with a couple who ended up being part of his biological family. That meeting set the wheels in motion for Keith to meet not only his biological half-brothers, Corky and Dan, but also his biological father. The man again denied paternity, but his sons convinced him to take a DNA test. The test revealed that Keith was, in fact, his son.
Eventually Keith was able to meet the man, who ended up apologizing. Keith was struck by the fact that he didn’t automatically love or hate this man. He simply didn’t know him. They have since developed a relationship.
After meeting his biological father, Keith wasn’t really sure what to think. He still had questions like Who am I and What’s my identity, but after meeting his father, his identity was no longer that of a fatherless orphan. His question became, Where do I go from here?
After several months of consideration and pondering, Keith feels he has come full circle by relating his relationship with his biological father to his walk with God. Keith realized that he is one of the few people who have experienced redemption on earth because of being brought back into a healthy relationship with his father. “It’s the picture of redemption and being restored to God, our father, being played out in my life. There’s a huge responsibility to share that,” says Keith.
Because of this, Keith feels that too often adoptees are let off the hook because they are told that those who adopted them don’t understand their background. Instead, he feels that more grace should be shown to the parents—because they have an important role, much like what Christ did for us to be reconciled to God.
Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?
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Meet Our Guest
Keith McAfee is married and the father of four children. He has held a variety of interesting and challenging positions, including an air traffic controller, adoption specialist, and speedboat rescue driver. He and his wife, Holly, and their children live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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