Amanda McKeehan reached into her rhetorical arsenal for the nuclear option. It was a strong tactic, but it seemed an appropriate response in this fight between “two bullheaded individuals” in their first year of marriage.
“I hate living in this country! I’m going home!” she shouted, slamming the front door on her way out.
She walked down the street in her Brentwood, Tennessee, neighborhood for about 10 minutes, then sat on a curb. Now what? Her Jamaican parents had lovingly responded to her complaints before, saying, “America is your home now — with Toby. You have no home in Jamaica anymore.” She hated it when her dad said that.
A half-hour later, Toby (known as TobyMac by his fans) pulled up and opened the passenger door. Amanda climbed in, half thankful her husband had come looking for her, half angry she was stuck in a foreign land. A full minute passed before Toby broke the silence. “You need to stop saying that you hate America and that you want to go home,” he said quietly. “Because one day I’m going to say, ‘OK, go then. Go home.’ “
“I had to decide in that moment that this was now my home, this culture was my culture, his life was my life,” Amanda says, echoing the sentiment of Ruth 1:16-17. “In our wedding, those words of Ruth had been my words, but now this was the reality of it.”
Amanda has never uttered that threat again. And in the couple’s 19 years as husband and wife, the two have found ways to forge a strong multicultural marriage. Now a family of five children, including adopted twins, Toby and Amanda recognize that the challenges along the way have served as catalysts to build a family identified more with God’s kingdom than with one country or another.
“Sometimes we lean toward the way the Jamaican culture approaches something; sometimes we lean toward an American way,” Toby says. “But the most important thing is we’re committed to finding our way, which ultimately is God’s way. What does God want for our family?”
Unity in difference
Every successful married couple has to find ways to navigate and negotiate their similarities and differences. Toby and Amanda have the added challenge of differing cultural customs.
Take birthdays, for instance — a lesson Toby learned the hard way. “If you don’t wake up and have the gift there and love on the person immediately, then you basically forgot a Jamaican’s birthday completely,” he says. “It’s on and poppin’ right in the morning.”
But Toby and Amanda have also discovered that their different heritages provide strengths to draw from. Amanda’s family made a strong impact on Toby as far back as his college and early career days, when he was a member of the groundbreaking band dc Talk.
“Jamaicans are generally positive, uplifting, encouraging people,” he says. “And Amanda’s family really loves God with all their hearts. I would leave there totally replenished spiritually.”
Amanda has also found many reasons to embrace her husband’s homeland. “I look forward to the changing of the seasons and the dark winter nights perfect for a fire,” she says. “I love the efficiency of the first-world country and the American church’s love for the poor of the world.”
She officially became a proud American citizen in 2007. “But Jamaica is where Toby and I go to rest and remember the core things of life,” Amanda says. “God in His great plan has given us two cultures, one for work and one for rest — and good food.”
Growing a family
In 2002, when their son Truett was 3 (TruDog to fans who recognize his ongoing appearances on Toby’s albums), Toby and Amanda adopted their twins: Moses and Marlee. The couple views the adoption as a God-ordained process rather than a calculated decision. They were praying for another pregnancy and even asking God for twins. A woman they didn’t know approached them at church and asked if they’d ever considered adopting. She knew of some twins soon to be born who needed adoptive parents.
The McKeehans took it as an answer to prayer and began the adoption process for the African-American twins. “It was so beautiful, there’s no denying it,” Toby says.
The new blend felt natural to the artist and his family. Toby’s music, both with dc Talk and as a solo artist, has always been marked by ethnic and stylistic diversity. His work has long spoken out for racial unity. Living out racial harmony under his own roof seemed a natural extension of who God created him to be.
“God just completely unfolded my life this way,” he says. “I thought I was singing about racial unity because I was living it already, but as things unfolded I began living it more and more.”
Raising five kids ages 6 to 13 keeps Toby and Amanda plenty busy and brings ample opportunity to build a family shaped by God’s love. They draw support from a strong community and school where racial diversity is normal. But Toby still laughs when he occasionally hears, “Where are this child’s parents?”
While their adoption journey has been smooth, what’s proven difficult has been adjusting to Moses’ muscular dystrophy, which was diagnosed about two years ago. “It’s opened my eyes to things I never saw before, to have a son in a wheelchair full time,” Toby says.
Moses’ form of the disability means that he needs almost constant care, and his life expectancy reaches only into the early 20s. Losing his son is a painful possibility Toby can’t imagine.
“We’re trying to love that guy with everything we’ve got and trying to let him experience everything he’s supposed to experience,” Toby says.
It was an especially meaningful experience when Toby got to baptize his son. Moses gave his life to Christ at church earlier this year, something Toby and Amanda had been praying for.
The family is facing the challenges of Moses’ disability in typical McKeehan form: turning to God and pulling together to face whatever comes. Even the kids are part of this process. “It’s rallied us together for sure,” Toby says. “The kids understand. They’re learning to serve Moses every day.”
Toby and Amanda continue to learn to love and serve each other, too, as they bring all the pieces of their mosaic together. Some of their challenges may sound unique, but others are universal: busy schedules, the demands of raising kids and career pressures.
“Trying to get time alone together is crucial. We’re not always that good at it with five kids,” Toby says. “But last night Amanda sacrificed a little by staying up later than she usually does. I sacrificed a little by marching up the stairs and stepping away from my music and my headphones. We had a great time just talking for an hour before we went to bed.”
Toby is surprised by how much his family’s journey has shaped him and taught him.
“My wife and kids have completely taught me what it’s like to love people and to sacrifice for people,” Toby says. “It really is about loving my wife well, about leading [my kids] to love people well … and helping them to love God with all their hearts. It’s beautiful when you allow that to mold you and when you allow their needs to shape you.”
TobyMac’s album, Eye On It, released in August 2012. Jeremy V. Jones is the author of the action-packed devotional for tween boys Triple Dog Dare.