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Finding His Roots

Finding His Roots

How a DNA Test Started a Surprising Journey
  • Jamie Janosz
  • March 16, 2021

Mark Forstrom ’86 always knew he was adopted. “My parents told me early on how they went to the adoption agency and fell in love with this chubby baby with blue eyes,” Mark said. “I felt hand-picked. I always felt wanted.”

Blessed with caring, Christian parents, Mark grew up attending the church where his father was a pastor. “Ministry seemed like something God had wired me to do. So I went to MBI. Where else would you go to be trained in ministry?” After graduating with his degree in Bible theology and Greek, Mark accepted a position as a youth pastor. He served in youth ministry for the next 31 years, 25 of those at the same church!

Though perfectly content with his adopted family, Mark was somewhat curious about his biological parents and the circumstances of his conception. He was never brave enough to actually search for them, so he was shocked when, at age 27, he received a birthday card from his birth mother.

The card revealed that his mom, Joy, grew up in a Christian home but after a summer of rebellious living realized she was pregnant. This was 1963, when a pregnancy out of wedlock was socially unacceptable and stigmatizing. She flew from New Jersey to Minnesota to live at a home for unwed mothers for the final months of her pregnancy. After giving birth, she arranged for Mark to be adopted by Christian parents. Mark had known none of this!

Birthday Gift. Mark Forstrom reunited with his birth mom at age 27.

“I’m not a person who cries,” Mark said. “But my wife saw me tear up as I read the letter.” That began a relationship with his mom that would continue for decades. “My first response to her letter was to thank her for not aborting me,” Mark said. “Our reunion brought a lot of healing to my mom. She thought I’d be angry or bitter toward her, which was not at all the case!”  

Mark and his wife arranged to meet Joy and her extended family.

“We visited her every year, and once we had kids, she became Grandma Joy to them. And when she died, I even gave a tribute for her at her funeral. It was like our lives had come full circle.”

But there was another piece of the puzzle still missing—the identity of his father. When Joy first contacted Mark, she also wrote a letter to Mark’s birth father, “Ernest,” who had never known of the son they had together. Mark also wrote Ernest a letter, saying: “I’d love to know my medical history and nationality. And I’d love a relationship if you want one, but I want to respect your privacy.” Ernest replied, didn’t challenge the story, and even gave his medical history. But he did not express interest in having a relationship with his son. In fact, that letter turned out to be the only communication Mark would ever receive from Ernest.

During the decades that followed, Mark discovered Ernest and his extended family on social media. Mark sent him a few messages and even a friend request, but Ernest never responded. “For 30 years, that’s the way it was,” Mark said. “Yet God used the experience of my father’s indifference to connect me with kids from broken homes. I was able to model that a person can be content despite being rejected by a parent.” As Mark’s own story unfolded, his impact on hurting families increased, along with a growing interest in counseling.

Mark never expected what came next. In 2017 he did a DNA test on a geneology website. It gave him basic ancestry results, showing he had a Norwegian and Irish heritage. But out of consideration for Ernest’s privacy, Mark left his profile on “private” rather than “public.” For the next three years he didn’t think much about the website.

In 2020 he returned to the website after an email offered a free 30-day upgrade with additional features. Back in the program, Mark became captivated by the public and private settings, wondering, I wonder what would happen if I hit public?

Unable to resist, Mark decided to switch his setting to public for “just five minutes.” The portal that then opened up drew him in—particularly the section called “DNA matches.” At the top of the page, it read: “You have a parent/child relationship with 100-percent certainty.” This was not surprising, but the name was!

The DNA match revealed that Mark’s biological father was not Ernest after all, but a man named Howard! For Mark, this began an entirely new quest—to find out who this mysterious Howard was! After many weeks of searching and seemingly dead-end leads, Mark finally made contact with his father on December 4, 2020.

Unlike Ernest, Howard was delighted to learn of the son he had never met. He could still be surprised at his age of 78! The two shared phone calls and learned much about each other’s lives. They also planned their first face-to-face visit in January.

Like Father, like Son. Howard and son, Mark, catch up after 78 years apart.

“It was a wonderful two days,” Mark said. “We spent the weekend together, sharing pictures and stories of our lives and families. Howard and I discovered so many parallels in our lives: We have similar personalities, we’re quirky, spontaneous, adventurous, artistic, and even long-distance, endurance athletes. And people commented how much my dad and I look alike—words I had never heard before.” Mark also got to meet his half-sister in person and half-brother on Zoom, and Howard met Mark’s wife, Cindy. The wonders of technology also allowed them to enjoy a three-continent Zoom meeting where Howard met his grandkids for the first time—two daughters and a son-in-law—who live in Africa and Asia. “It was such a wonderful weekend for all us,” Mark said.

Unlike Mark, Howard didn’t grow up in a strong Christian home and seemed caught off-guard to discover that his son had been a pastor for three decades and that his two grandkids were living overseas, serving the Lord in difficult, ends-of-the-earth places. “The differences in our life pursuits and spiritual values seemed mind-boggling to my dad, who figured most people live their lives for themselves, seeking comfort, fun, and pleasure,” Mark said. “Howard kept marveling that his offspring lived such lives of purpose and service with little regard for comfort or security.”

Then Howard remembered something he had discovered in researching his own ancestors. Howard’s fifth-great grandfather had come to America from Germany in 1742 on the Second Sea Congregation, a Moravian ship. Their mission was to plant a Christian community in the New World, what became Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

“I’m so proud to learn that our ancestors were pioneering missionaries!” Mark said to Howard. “How amazing it is that your own grandkids are living out that same Moravian spirit so many generations later!”

What amazed his father as coincidences, Mark saw as the hand of God.

“I believe God brought us into each other’s lives at just the perfect time, and that the spiritual story of our family is still being written.”

Finding his biological father isn’t the only major life change Mark has experienced this year. In January, he earned a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University and is now a licensed counselor. “I realized that the thing I loved most about being a pastor was counseling others. So in my mid-50s, I went back to school and switched careers.” Mark especially loves helping bring families together. By experiencing God at work through the twists and turns of his own life story, Mark is able to help others even more effectively.

About the Author

  • Jamie Janosz

Jamie Janosz ’86 is the managing editor of Today in the Word, Moody’s daily devotional, and author of When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up (Moody Publishers).