This summer past, I accompanied our youth group on a mission trip to Atlanta. For many reasons, it was a particularly challenging trip for me. One of those reasons was the setting. My friend Les and I guided a group of 4th graders through a literacy camp. Some of the stations were fun - video games, basketball, etc. Other stations were also fun, but not as active and intended to build reading skills. After all, it was a literacy camp. The camp organizers tried to make it feel different than school, but reading skills are academic and this was the 4th week of camp for these kids.
The children come from tough places. Many have parents incarcerated or are the children of addicts. At the least, all were the children of separated or divorced parents. These children did not receive guidance at home. Living in tough communities, they survived bullying and crude language to become people who bully and swear. They were all African-American and they were being led by Caucasians who tried to show a different narrative for their lives.
But the racial differences potentially compounded the difficulty of the situation. If these kids followed the example we tried to set, would it mean a sacrifice of personal identity? In their experience, black people are tough and you have to be tough to survive. White people come from somewhere else, try to tell us to behave differently, and then leave after 5 days. I am oversimplifying this to ridiculous levels but just to make the point that the situation was far from perfect.
The leaders of the program, Trey and Jen Lyons, are CBF missionaries who are white and are not leaving. They live in the community and the tough street kids who cursed at our youth group and at me know they can count on Trey and Jen. My hope is that what we did can serve to help the Lyons. I also hope their constant presence helps the kids realize that even though we only stay a short time, we do care.
So, Les and I spent four days with these kids, guiding them, playing basketball, urging them to "pay attention", laughing with them, and closing our ears to sass and cuss that would drive us to harshly discipline our own kids. One boy in particular was difficult, J____. Trey and Jen post large photos of their ministry all over the church building. Our group did the ministry in the building and also slept in that building. Right by the room where I was sleeping was a large picture of J____. I was have a terrible time relating to him. I was becoming frustrated, almost angry. And every night, I walked past the large framed photo.
His eyes were the eyes of Jesus. At least that is what I told myself. Over and over, after having survived the day with J____, I'd walk past the picture and be driven to prayer for him, then for myself, then for him again. I was gearing up for the final day of the week. What would it be like that last day? Would he be totally crazy? Would there be an emotional, teary-eyed goodbye? Not likely! As we awoke that morning and I began praying trying to prepare for one more day with J____, a thought came to mind. And that thought came to pass.
The van with the kids arrived for the literacy camp and they piled off it onto the sidewalk. And ... no J____. Where was he? The driver said he was with his uncle and would not be coming. What an anticlimactic ending. I left feeling ...I don't know what I felt. It's so odd. My feelings were heavy enough that I asked the entire church to pray for me.
That was mid-July. Intense though it was, time has passed. It is now October 1. I would say I probably have not thought about J____ in September. Other thoughts have crowded into my mind. However, the last three nights, God has, at 3AM, called me to prayer, right out of my sleep. I am thankful this morning God let me stay in the bed until 4:50. At that time I was awakened from a dream. I was dreaming about J____.
J____ has a really rough life. He is small for his age. He is exceptionally articulate and bright. He is mulatto. In his own cultural context, he is not black enough and too educated which makes him the target of bullies. Being small, he is an easy target. The beatings have created a little boy who always wants to hurt you. He is very good at doing it with words and facial expressions.
In my dream, J____ was in full form and I was getting frustrated. My son Igor, close to J____’s age was right there in the dream too. And J____ was bullying Igor. I was fiercely angry at J____. I was mad at him for giving into the circumstances that are in his life. I was mad that the circumstances were creating a little monster and I was mad at J____ for letting it happen. I was also mad at him in for threatening my son. Now, dreams are unfiltered. I was going to do some things to J____ to force the demons out of him.
Then I awoke and I became acutely aware of the feelings in me, the deep anger. And as I type this, I am aware of something else, something that chills me. Everything that frustrated me about J____ is also true about Igor. Igor is as white as white can be. However, he spent the first three years of his life in a loveless Russian orphanage. Go research how much formation happens for a child in those first three year. Read the parts about how important the connection between mother and child is. Pay attention to all things developmentally that are accomplished in the holding, nurture and affection for a child from birth to three. Take most of it away, and you have Igor.
He was 42 months old when he came home to us. His own currency was to express rage to those around him. That has become refined as he has grown. He doesn’t throw things like he did in those early, hard days. Now, he throws the “F-bomb” and he mostly does it when I, the harsh disciplinarian, am not home. I said J____ is a master of facial expressions. So is Igor. J____ swears a lot; same with Igor. J____ tries to bully with hurtful words; Igor does that to his younger siblings all the time.
The difference is Igor lives in my house. My wife and I have managed to teach Igor to laugh and accept and give hugs. Through 8 years of plowing through the emotionally draining dark times, we have together discovered joy, affection, and love. I cannot do that for J____ and he needs it just as badly as Igor does. The colors are different and so too are the specifics of the situation, but the sad truth is both are boys who comes from places of pain. How much I or anyone can do for them is limited.
I emailed Trey and Jen to encourage them and thank them for their good work. I sent that email at 5:30 this morning. They emailed back to mention how odd it is that I dreamed about J____. They said he is going through a particularly tough time right now – some dislocation, heightened stress. As I type this, I pray for him.
Dear God, J____, is such a smart kid. God, you love him as much as you love Igor, as much as you love me, unlovable as I can be. Oh, God, be with J___ today and in these uncertain days. Use Trey and Jen to embrace Him. Work through them to show him that anger doesn’t have to be his life story. There can be more. Show J___ your vision for his life. Show him over and over, until he sees it. Lord, be with J____’s mom and J____’s dad. Like me, those two are imperfect, sinners, and they need you. J____’s relationship with his parents is, like most things in his life, broken. But Lord, at the cross, you declared all broken things could be mended, fixed. On the Sunday after the Friday, you showed dead things could come to life. Lord Jesus, come to life in J____.
Thanks for waking me up to talk. Thanks for three days of little sleep, dreams, and some very real conversations. As tired as I feel, Lord, may it continue. It is the only way I can be part of J___’s life.
I am part of Igor’s life daily. I pray for him right now. I thank you that he is my son. Bless him and J___ in this moment.