Hopeful Lament: Thinking about Axel on the Fourth Anniversary of His Death

When Axel began to get pulled back to the streets after almost three years in the Micah House, he ended up running the streets in Tegucigalpa’s sprawling outdoor market district, which covers nearly ten square blocks of the city.   He knew every corner, every alleyway, and every twist and turn of the labyrinth that is this chaotic, jumbled part of town.  When he lived at Micah, he would sometimes take us to visit the outdoor market, and after about five turns down narrow pathways filled with makeshift market stalls, we would be so lost that we would be completely dependent on Axel to find our way out.  He would give us a backwards glance to make sure we were still following him, and, with his impish, lopsided grin, he would plow forward past endless stalls selling everything under the sun.

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In 2011, at the age of 15, when he had been back on the streets for several weeks, I decided to go down to the market district myself to look for him.  Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack; with thousands of merchants selling to thousands of buyers, you could walk for hours without passing the same face.  Eventually, I ended up at a corner where the shoe cobblers all have stands; I figured it would be a good place to wait for Axel because it is where the street kids come to by the shoe glue they inhale as their drug of choice.

“Heavenly Father, move Axel in this direction; have him pass by this corner.” I prayed that over and over again, knowing that the only way for me to find Axel in this place was through divine intervention.  Those prayers were always driven by hope, although tinged with desperation and sadness. But as long as I might be able to find Axel, I would not lose hope that he might once again choose to leave the streets behind.

Sure enough, after about thirty minutes on that corner, Axel appeared.  When he saw me, he froze in surprise.  “Hey Mike, what are you doing here?” he asked, giving me a hug.  I told him that I had been anxious to see him and wanted to talk with him.  He invited me to walk him to his mom’s motel room in the even-seedier district of town adjacent to the market:  the red-light district.  As we turned on to the block where his mom lived, we passed dozens of men sprawled all over the sidewalks, drunk or stoned to the point of unconsciousness. Axel took me into the door of a dilapidated building, up a flight of stairs and down a pitch-black hallway that had no working lights.  Finally, he opened the door to the room that his mom paid for week-to-week, when she could.

His mom wasn’t home, but we entered the small room.  Out of his pocket he pulled out a small bag of dog food he had bought for Sasha, his beloved, fluffy little dog.  There was a makeshift curtain pulled across the bed to give it a little privacy, but he opened it up and invited me to sit down on it, since there was nowhere else to sit in the suffocating space.  He said he only had a few minutes; he had come to re-pack his backpack with a few worn pieces of clothes that his mom had washed for him in the sink.  As he packed, I spoke words of hope and love to him, telling him how important he was to me, how smart and compassionate he was, and how much we wanted to see him become the man that God had created him to be.  Axel listened–he was always polite and thoughtful—but on this day, he seemed distracted.  After he packed his backpack, he splashed some water on his face and told me that we needed to head out.  He walked me back to the boundary between the red-light district and the market district, gave me a hug, and headed off.

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Above: Axel, walking through his beloved market district in 2009.

A few weeks later, Axel did rejoin the Micah Project, and we helped to place him in a six-month drug rehabilitation program.  He made it for a while, but unfortunately, he ended up on the streets again in 2013. Though it seemed like running the streets was going to be his destiny at that point, we never gave up hope for him. He had always been such an empathetic, big-hearted kid; surely, he wouldn’t end up on the streets the rest of his life?

On March 18, 2015, we were hosting a youth group from my home church in St. Louis. It was a hot, dusty day, and after several hours of building a section of perimeter wall on Micah’s property, I decided to go into my cabin on our property for a few minutes to cool off.  I received a phone call, though, while sitting there in front of my fan:  they had found Axel’s body earlier that morning, shot to death in one of those same market alleyways that he used to run so happily.

I would eventually go pick up Axel’s mom and drive to the morgue with her to identify and claim his body, but in the few minutes I had there in my cabin, it was as if my mind and heart had become unmoored from my body.  I’m not sure how much time passed by, but, when I came to, I was at my bedroom window, staring out at the distant mountains, weeping.  After fifteen years of ministry to street kids, this would be the first time I would every have to say good-bye forever.

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And how was I supposed to do that?  In all those years, I had developed a robust vocabulary of hope—of God’s unending love and mercy. It was the vocabulary of “it’s never too late because God will always give you another opportunity.”  But now, I had to develop a whole new vocabulary: the language of lament.

Though today is the fourth anniversary of Axel’s death, I’m still trying to figure out what lament looks like.  I suppose that lament begins by going deep down into the depths of my soul, to the part of me that was changed forever by Axel’s death, and by crying out to God from that space.  But that space in my heart can be a scary place to visit; after Axel’s death, there is sorrow there, but dig a little deeper, and you also find anger, and bitterness, and revenge, and hopelessness.  It is not a place I like to visit often.  And what happens to my faith when, upon visiting that place, I end up shaking my fist at God and blaming him for Axel’s death?

The beautiful thing about lament, though, is that God invites us into that place; in fact, He expects us to go there.  He is not scared of the fist-shaking, for He knows that it is part of our healing journey.  We might be scared about what we will find out about ourselves if we abandon all facades and walk into that place with complete honesty and vulnerability.  But then we hear our Savior, at his moment of utter desolation, say, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  If our sinless Savior can go to that place of utter desolation, surely, he beckons us to follow Him there as well!IMG_8065

My journey through lament has been an uneven one.  Some days, I will go to that deep place and truly lament Axel’s loss. At other times, it is just too hard, and I can go for weeks at a time without visiting that place again.  Some days, my heart has words to process his loss, while on others, the Spirit has to accept my groaning too deep for words.

On the days in which I do feel the need for lament, I am learning not to fear that deep, dark, desolate place.  Every once in a while, I will play a song from the Broadway show Les Miserables, titled “Bring Him Home,” which serves as a gateway to that place of lament. Though, in the show, Jean Valjean sings this song as young Marius goes off to fight on the barricades, I always sing it to my fallen Axel:

God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there

He is young
He’s afraid
Let him rest
Heaven blessed.
Bring him home.

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone.

Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy

You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home.

As the years have gone by, I have been able to go deeper and deeper into that place of sorrow and lament. It’s not that it has become easier to reside there, it’s just that the pain that I experience there has become more familiar; it has a vocabulary attached to it now.  In that place, I can say, freely, “Everything is not all right. It is wrong that Axel died before reaching manhood.  How long, Lord, how long, will the world be like this?  How long will we have to cry for kids who were born doomed to misfortune?”

I am discovering, too, that God meets me in that place of despair.  He doesn’t come in a “happily-ever-after” way; often, when he meets me there, his silence matches my own lack of words.  He doesn’t bring me any answers to all of my “why” questions, and yet, over time, his quiet presence there is enough.

In that, I am learning that the vocabulary of hope is not diametrically opposed the vocabulary of lament.  Lament is hope, in the sense that it gives us a way to confront the evil, the brokenness, the injustice of this dying world.  Then, it points us to a promise:  that this world is not our home.  It says that, when I sing “Bring him Home” to Axel, that home is not here; it is a better place, one in which he can live into the fullness of who he was created to be, in a world in which He will someday make all things new.

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Lament is hopeful.  That sounds crazy, but it is.  That does not mean that you have to force yourself into a happy mindset, it just means that, slowly, and usually imperceptibly, God buds tiny seeds of hope into the dark soil of sadness.  You can’t speed up that process; it happens as your soul aches, questions, cries out, and eventually, begins to heal.

Today, four years after Axel’s death, I do see those sprigs of hope peeking up. They are so tiny as to almost be invisible, but they are there.  In order for that hope to grow, God calls me to keep ploughing deeply into the fertile soil of lament.  He challenges me to not accept shallow answers, and to not let the deep hurt of losing Axel get lost in the frenetic pace of everyday life.  He promises me that, if I continue to walk in those deep, shadow-places of loss, he will always meet me there.  And he whispers to me there that some day, in a far better place, Axel will meet me there as well.

In hope-filled lament,

Michael Miller

Resources:

  1. In 2016, for the first anniversary of Axel’s death, our boys produced this video in his memory, called Recuerdos: A Modern Psalm of Lament.  In it, there is footage of our beloved Axel walking through his beloved marketplace:  https://vimeo.com/159499493
  2. Aaron Niequist has recently produced a prayer of lament for his series, A New Liturgy. It is a powerful tool for those needing to walk into those deep shadowlands of lament: https://store.anewliturgy.com/album/no-7-lament-free-download
  3. “Bring him Home” from Les Miserables. Sung by Josh Groban: https://youtu.be/fXnRf3TQcpk

God of the Impossible

 “Hola.  My name is Miguel, and I’m not a believer.” 

Hearing these words, I start to sweat.  Miguel and I have spent the last twenty-four hours hopscotching from Tegucigalpa to Panama to São Paulo and finally, to Curitiba, Brazil. Tomorrow, he’s supposed to start six months of intense Bible classes and missions training on a Youth with a Mission base far from home.  His journey will not be an easy one.

We have taken his new roommates to lunch, and although our conversation is a messy mix of Portuguese and Spanish, they clearly understand his meaning.

 “If you don’t believe, then why are you here?” one of them asks.

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Miguel and I arrive in Brazil.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to come to Brazil and learn Portuguese,” Miguel nonchalantly responds.  Sighing, I think to myself, “Oh Miguel, the next six months are really going to be long.”

In reality, though, Miguel’s declaration isn’t shocking. When we first met on the streets in 2010, he was twelve years old and already huffing glue and using the fumes to cloud out a lifetime of pain. And after he had lived for only three months at the Micah House, the home we run for street kids in Tegucigalpa,  his mom passed away from cancer that had been diagnosed just weeks before her death. What does a kid do with so much loss?

Becca Bell, my colleague, was Miguel’s hero during that time. She stayed by his side during his mom’s funeral and in the months ahead as Miguel came to terms with overwhelming grief as well as rid his young body and brain of dependency on yellow glue.  Surrounded by love, Miguel began to blossom, and we celebrated when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and was baptized in October 2010.

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Above:  Miguel and Jefferson in 2016.

One of the foundational truths of the Micah Project, though, is that our boys’ healing journeys rarely travel forward in a straight line.  Often, when the boys become young adults, they have to re-process all of the trauma and loss they experienced in their childhoods, this time from a more mature perspective.  During Miguel’s senior year in high school, dark clouds gathered over his life once again. In January, one of our younger boys, Jefferson, whom Miguel dearly loved, was shot and killed—he was only fourteen.  The intense grief of losing Jefferson ripped open the still-healing scars of his mom’s death and drove Miguel back into depression, despair, and doubt.  He fell into such a low place that we worried about whether he would ever be able to emerge on the other side.

Amazingly, Miguel pushed through his last year of high school, and with lots of encouragement from Becca, signed up for the six months in Brazil.  Three weeks into his Youth with a Mission classes, however, I got a call.

   “Michael, you have to buy me a ticket to come home. This just isn’t for me.  I don’t belong here.”

“Miguel, you need to hang on. It’s always tough in a new place, especially one with a different language.”

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Above: Miguel shares at a church in Brazil.

Two weeks later, I received a very different message: “Michael, it’s amazing to see all that God is doing here!  He is truly changing lives!”  For the first time in a long time, Miguel is allowing God into some of the most damaged areas of his heart.  And, as he opens up those broken spaces, he doesn’t encounter criticism or judgment; what he finds is love.

A week later, Miguel writes: “Michael, I’ve been able to forgive so many of the hurts from my past while I’ve been here. God is so faithful.”

And a couple of weeks after that: “Michael, I’m seeing the power of prayer like I’ve never experienced it before.  Wow!  God’s love for me is SO amazing!”

What we thought was impossible, our Father was doing before our eyes.  Where despair had reigned, peace now resided; confident joy quietly replaced deep sadness.

Near the end of his time in Brazil, Miguel wrote Becca and invited her to his graduation ceremony.  Most of the Youth with a Mission students would have family present, and Miguel wanted Becca to be there. What better person to celebrate what God had done in his life than the one who had loved him unconditionally in his hardest moments! But this wouldn’t be easy since Becca was on an overseas trip with her family and would only return home, which was now in Atlanta, hours before she needed to leave for São Paulo.  But thanks to a dear friend who gave her a free United Airlines standby ticket to São Paulo, Becca was determined to attend Miguel’s graduation!

That wasn’t going to be such an easy journey, however . . .

Bleary-eyed after an overnight flight with their two squirmy preschoolers, Becca quickly re-packs her suitcase and heads back to the airport.  The problem when you fly standby, however, is that there must be an available seat on the plane.  Becca’s flight to São Paulo is full.

She texts Miguel and me the bad news.  Miguel responds: “Don’t worry about your trip! I have been praying and the Lord has told me that you will be here for my graduation!  I’ll see you soon!” 

Though I’m in Honduras and Becca is in the Atlanta airport, we send him the same message: “Miguel, there aren’t any seats on the plane. Can’t get there on time.”

Miguel writes again: “You don’t have to worry!  My friends here at Youth with a Mission and I have prayed, and God has said that you will be here for my graduation!”

Becca runs across the airport to the Delta terminal to see if she can buy a seat to Houston or Chicago and fly standby with United from there. But the flight to Chicago is canceled and the one to Houston is full.  Desperately searching online while standing at the gate, Becca sees that Delta has a direct flight leaving Atlanta for São Paulo in less than an hour with plenty of open seats, but an economy fare for the one-way flight is currently $3800.  She mentions this flight to the gate agent, while admitting that as much as she wants to attend this graduation, that price was way out of her budget.

I text Miguel: “We love you. We’re so proud of you. But Becca can’t get a flight and won’t be there.”

He writes back: “I know you’re worried, but you don’t have to be. God has told me that she will be here!” Reading his text, I wonder what this disappointment will do to his newly renewed faith.

As Becca turns to leave, the Delta gate agent says, “Ma’am, hold on for just a second.”  She starts typing on her computer terminal.

Finally, she looks up.  “You know, they give us airline employees several buddy passes every year, and I never use them all.  So write down your information for me here, and I’ll give you one of my passes for the flight to São Paulo. You need to hurry though; the flight is already boarding.”

Shocked beyond words, Becca grabs her carry-on, sprints down the terminal and is one of the last passengers to board the Delta flight to São Paulo.  She is even more surprised when she is ushered to a first-class seat, a fancy one that has its own little booth and folds into a bed. Although there was no humanly possible way to get there, Becca is on her way to Brazil. And she will be well-rested when she arrives!

When Miguel calls me with the news, I am standing outside a restaurant in Tegucigalpa where I have just finished dinner with friends. “Michael, Becca is on a flight to São Paulo!  Someone gave her another free ticket!” I start to weep. God has done the impossible. Why did I ever think otherwise?

Becca arrives at Miguel’s graduation an hour before the ceremony begins.  It is a joyful, Spirit-filled celebration of God’s incredible faithfulness to his children. And Becca is there to cheer on Miguel and to celebrate the man he has become.

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Above:  Becca arrives in Brazil!

As I started to write this piece, I told Miguel that I was going to tell the story about Becca’s miraculous flight to Brazil.  He is back in Honduras now and investing time in our younger boys before he starts college in January. This is what he wrote to me: “Becca’s story reminds me that, as human beings, our way of living our lives and our view of God are just too small. He loves doing the impossible in our eyes.”

Though I have been a missionary for twenty years, sometimes I still forget that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  Thanks, Miguel, for reminding me!  Miguel’s Heavenly Father transformed a broken, lost, addicted street kid into a man of deep, abiding faith.  He even used an anonymous Delta employee in Atlanta to show Miguel that with God, all things really are possible.

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Above:  Miguel gets a lift from the other young men who live in the Micah House.

 

Michael Miller

http://www.micahprojecthonduras.org

 

My Beautiful, Broken Barrio

DSC_0695 (3)I still can’t believe this painting is hanging in the living room of my cabin at the Micah Project.  I had admired it for over two years every time I visited the studio of talented Honduran painter, Denis Berrios.  Apparently, I was dropping pretty major hints, because some friends banded together in August and bought this beautiful piece to help me celebrate my 20thanniversary in Honduras.

I ditched my TV to make room for this three-by-three-foot masterpiece.  There is something about this painting that perfectly captures the beauty and the chaos of Tegucigalpa, the city I have loved and called home for almost half my life.  The brushstrokes that created it pulsate with life. If it were possible to turn the volume up on this painting, you would hear children shouting and laughing while chasing a soccer ball down one of these hillside alleys; you would hear roosters crowing, dogs barking, and every block would have its own self-appointed DJ, some kid blasting the beat of the Latin street, reggaetón, from his family’s stereo, the nicest thing they own.

This place clings to a hillside for dear life, teetering on a razor’s edge of survival.  But how resilient its people are!  So many Hondurans I know are creative, tough, optimistic, persevering people who have figured out how to make it despite never knowing exactly how they will scrape up enough money to survive through the end of the week. They are poor, but they always find a way–to use a favorite Honduran phrase–to salir adelante:  to keep pushing life forward.

That is, until they don’t.  It is easy to sentimentalize poverty, especially for those of us who don’t have to navigate its too-narrow and often-blocked  pathways that lead to a place where its residents go to bed at night having done all they can to survive one more day.

But there are sounds in this place that are hidden in the romanticized version of the painting.  In that pink house high up on the hill, three toddlers cry because they and their burning stomachs will go to bed without dinner.  In the brown house next to the church, an anguished mother recites the rosary for her teenaged son who has joined the drug trade because it is the only future he can see for himself.  Carpenters and welders and bricklayers drunkenly smash empty beer bottles off that swinging bridge as they try to drown out the fact that for every thousand carpenters in this city only one carpentry job is currently available.

And there is gunfire; oh man, is there ever.  Gangs rule this place with a heavy hand, and funeral processions down this mountain to the cemetery are much more frequent than paychecks in most of these homes.  Many of these houses used to have small shops in their living rooms, little pulperias that sold everything from plantain chips to cigarettes to shampoo.  They are mostly boarded up now; the owners couldn’t afford to pay the “war tax”—a stylized phrase for a shakedown—to the gang members that came to collect at the end of every week with pistols stuffed into their belts.

And something else hangs over this place, a quiet, dense layer of loss.  Though life here is people on top of people on top of people, this place is a little emptier than it used to be.  And that’s not only because of those who lost their lives to violence, though almost every person here carries a heaviness in his or her heart because of a loved one who met a violent death.  There are other stories of loss that, while not as permanent, still leave that painful emptiness.

There’s Juanita’s son David, who used to drive a taxi until the gang burned it to ashes because he couldn’t pay the war tax.  He and his wife packed a few things into backpacks, grabbed their newborn and fled one night without a trace.  And there is the house up the street that sits empty; the Ramirez family ran when their son turned twelve and became a ripe target for gang recruitment.  Suddenly, dozens of empty houses exist in this one neighborhood, which seems to have lost some of its vibrant color as families and neighbors united for decades have faded away.

Where do Hondurans go when they flee?  Their journeys have been frontpage news for a couple of years now, and they have become major talking points in the political wars that attempt to divide us into angry bands of red and blue.  I am not going to wade into that fight.  My main mission in life, providing a new life to kids living on the streets, consumes every ounce of energy, passion and intellect I have—and then some.  It doesn’t leave a lot of brain power for politics.

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Above: Jefferson and I in 2016.

But let me tell you one more story:  I lost my Jefferson in a neighborhood like this one.  He had lived at the Micah House through most of 2015 and 2016, and I loved him like a son.  But because he was born on the streets to a mentally-ill prostitute, he never fully understood the inner workings of human attachment, and he never had an internal mechanism to help him know what it meant to be loved.   He would ask me almost every day, “Michael, am I doing ok today?  Am I behaving?”  Usually, he wasn’t in the least, but I would always say, “Yeah, Jeff, you’re doing okay. We love you and we’re so proud that you’re here.”

Jefferson’s struggles took him back to the streets in late 2016.  And last year, when he was only fourteen, one of the gangs kidnapped him, took him to a neighborhood just like the one in this painting, and executed him.  The next day, we collected his body from the morgue to bury him.  To the very end, he was a desperate, broken soul, doing what he could to survive before the situation on the streets made that impossible.

I am not saying that fleeing Honduras would have saved Jefferson.  In fact, another boy that lived in our home for several years, Marvincito, died on the border of Guatemala and Mexico in 2016 trying desperately to flee the same violence that killed Jefferson.  So please believe me when I say that I understand the terrible consequences of fleeing your country on foot.  But in the depth of my very broken heart, I also understand the reasons that many choose to do so.

I look at my painting one more time, at this beautiful, broken barrio.  And I know one thing for sure: God knows each of these houses as if it were His own; He knows who was born in each one and who died well before their time or in the fullness of their years. He knows the intimate details of the lives in the green one, and that lopsided yellow one, and even in that little grey home perched all the way up on top of this mountain of human souls.  He knows each of their names because they are written on his heart.

They are Juanita and David.  They are Jefferson and Marvincito.  They are His children, known by Him to the greatest depth of their souls and loved by Him with a fierce, Fatherly love that has no starting point and no final limit.  And though we live in a world where there are no easy answers to human suffering, we too, as God’s sons and daughters, can start and end with love.

Michael Miller