[Note: I wrote this reflection in October, 2017 but decided not to publish it at that time. It is painful, and, in parts, angry and even hopeless. I have learned since, though, that those deep, dark cries of the soul are vital in our journey from mourning to broken healing. God is not afraid of them. So I present to you an honest, vulnerable snapshot of grief. Jumbled as it is, I pray that it paints a picture of a God whose love is big enough to receive it and transform it.]
Ask Me about Sorority Life:
A Confused Chronology of Death and Life
My relationship with Wilfredo is really just a series of snapshots taken over the last two years. Snapshots taken on the streets of Tegucigalpa, or in the brief times that he was living in the Isaiah House. Though I did not know him well, these pictures began to piece together a mosaic of his character. They show a kid with a with an easy-going smile, an open and friendly face, a young man who gives and receives hugs easily.
There is a picture from last November when Micah’s staff and the young men from our three homes were on a retreat in the mountains east of Tegucigalpa.
It was Wilfredo’s birthday, and we brought him up to the stage after one of our worship sessions in order to celebrate his nineteen years. Sixty-plus people singing to Wilfredo: what must he have been thinking? A kid who grew up on the streets, being loudly serenaded by so many? Our leaders laid hands on him and prayed over him, asking his Father to bless his life.
Wilfredo responded to being celebrated with words of hope; promising us that he wanted to leave street life and addiction behind, that he wanted to study and have a career and a family. He wanted to tough it out in the Isaiah House in order to leave the streets behind for good.
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure… (Isaiah 25:1)
The next snapshot, though, seems misplaced and out of order. I run into Wilfredo in one of the plazas in the downtown area of Tegucigalpa. He is back on the streets, his burst of hope and willpower drowned out by all of the things that keep kids on the streets: addiction, low self-esteem, complex trauma, even the fear of how exposed and raw his heart could become if he truly were to go through a process of healing and restoration at the Isaiah house. He still greets me with a genuine smile and a warm hug, but what’s different about this snapshot is his eyes. They have gone back into survival mode; they dart from point-to-point, taking in our surroundings as we talk. He promises me that he will go to the Isaiah House to talk to the caregivers there about giving him another chance (will this be the third or fourth? I don’t remember…). We talk for a few more minutes, but he is distracted and is soon off on some mission, which, whether innocent or dangerous, is surely tied in with that very survival that his eyes were searching for.
…For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat…(Isaiah 25:4)
There are other snapshots of my brief times with Wilfredo, but they continue to be jumbled and strangely unchronological. He is in the Isaiah House having lunch with the rest of the guys. He is huddled asleep on the street corner with a large group of kids. He is at Micah on a Sunday night for a combined time of worship with all three houses. He is back in that same plaza where I ran into him…when was that? Weeks ago? Or have months already passed? There is no forward movement in his life, only cycles of hope and despair that always seem to bring him back to the same point.
…On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined… (Isaiah 25:6)
Except for the last snapshot I have of him. That one is brutally chronological. I am standing over Wilfredo’s casket, looking at his face, which has been damaged beyond recognition by the three bullets that ended his life last week. There is no longer an easy-going smile; no longer are there eyes trained on survival. The forces of destruction in this world, whether they reign over streets, over families, over governments, or over international commerce, were more powerful than Wilfredo’s survival instincts. He will not see his 20th birthday next month and there will be no more snapshots.
And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:7-8)
Since 2015, we have buried too many kids. Axel, Marvincito, Charlie, Edgar, Jeferson, Rony, and now Wilfredo. I don’t know what to do with that anymore. I don’t know how it fits into the ebb and flow of the Micah Project’s story, or my own, for that matter. The narratives of our lives are supposed to have forward movement: high school, college, career, marriage, kids, grandkids, retirement…it is a storyline that has direction and purpose. But I have 46,853 pictures on my computer that tell the story of Micah that are now too hard for me to look through. I see Axel clinging to me piggy-back as I run down a beach, and a picture of me teaching Jeferson how to swing a bat at a baseball. There is Charlie, narrating a video tour of the Micah House, and Marvincito, asleep on my shoulder during a long bus ride. And there we are celebrating Rony’s first year of being clean and sober, and once again, there’s that picture of us laying our hands on Wilfredo last November, asking the Lord to intervene in his life.
But those pictures are all jumbled now. For they are happy moments, hope-filled scenes of guys making the right decisions to move their lives forward. But when I look at them now, all those pictures are tattered, faded and tear-stained due to tragic endings–lives snuffed out way too soon. The stories those pictures tell no longer make any sense.
It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him…(Isaiah 25:9)
At Wilfredo’s funeral, I begin to get scared about the narrative flow of my own soul. Try as I might, I can’t convince my brain to grant me access to my emotions. With each senseless funeral, the survival part of my brain seems to be building a wall around my heart, knowing that yet another death might just be the thing that destroys me. Is anybody reading this a student of the human psyche? Then answer me this: what is the maximum amount of kids that a person can bury before it buries him? Any doctoral dissertations out there that can give me a number? I see my staff slowly being torn apart by each funeral, and I wonder if, as individuals, we each have a point where the next funeral will do us in. You’ve buried seven kids? Sorry, Michael! You’ve reached your limit for one lifetime. Game over! Thanks for playing!
So I stand by Wilfredo’s bullet-ridden corpse, but I feel disembodied. I am going through the motions, consoling people, making all the logistical arrangements, saying the words that people want to hear from their leader. But it as if I am floating above this whole scene, making my body move marionette-like, making my lips say the right things with all the skill of a ventriloquist. I am asked if I am going to give my funeral sermon: I’ve got it memorized, after all. Though I have given it six other times in the last couple of years, no words come as I stand by Wilfredo’s casket. One of my main jobs is to bring meaning to senseless tragedy, but this time, there is only a buzzing silence in my heart.
…let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain…(Isaiah 25:9-10)
People are looking at me, expecting me to be the mourner-in-chief, again. There are at least twenty street kids in the funeral home. After a while, they start coming up to me, one-by-one, saying they are hungry, or thirsty, or need a pair of shoes. I smile at them, but have nothing to give them. I have nothing for any of them. How was I ever so prideful to think that I had anything to offer this broken group of kids? I walk out of the funeral home and go to the street corner, ostensibly to wait for the bus that will take us to the cemetery. But really, it is to get away from the street kids’ broken neediness, from Wilfredo’s broken body, from my own broken spirit.
And he will spread out his hands in the midst of it as a swimmer spreads his hands out to swim, but the Lord will lay low his pompous pride together with the skill of his hands. And the high fortifications of his walls he will bring down, lay low, and cast to the ground, to the dust. (Isaiah 25:11-12).
The bus finally comes, and we all follow Wilfredo’s body out of the city and to the cemetery. The hole is dug when we get there, and we stand around the grave silently as Wilfredo’s two sisters wail and moan and writhe on the ground in front of Wilfredo’s casket. I start to panic again, thinking that I am the one that is going to have to do the “dust to dust” speech as the body goes into the ground. But thankfully, there are a couple of ladies from the church where the Isaiah House residents attend, and they do an admirable job reading the right funeral verses.
As Wilfredo’s casket is lowered into the ground, there is a street girl named Benellamin standing at the edge of the grave. She is one of the saddest people I have ever met. At nineteen, she has already been a glue-user for so long that it is affecting her mental capacities. She has lived on a street corner in downtown Tegucigalpa for years, and a few months ago, she had a baby on that corner. Several Micah staff members fought to get her the help she needs in order to be able to keep custody of her baby, but she seems to be beyond fighting for herself. In the end, we helped her place the baby with a cousin of hers until we can find an orphanage that will accept it.
Benellamin continues to stand there by the side of the grave, huffing from her glue bottle when she thinks no one is looking. Her shoulders are permanently stooped, and she is wearing someone’s old hand-me-down shirt, that has written in big blue letters on the back, “Ask me about sorority life”. And after this whole tragic day, this image is what does me in. I imagine the original owner of this shirt bubbling on about the life-long friendships formed in sororities, about shared hopes and dreams, and serving others together, about the carefree fun of being a young college student. The shirt in the picture is the opposite of anything Benellamin has ever experienced, and it makes a mockery of all of the injustice, degradation and evil that has been heaped on this girl her whole life.
Benellamin picks up a fistful of dirt to throw on top of Wilfredo’s casket. It is the last picture that I have of him, and maybe the most honest picture of a life doomed to misfortune. With lots of helpers, the casket quickly disappears underneath the muddy dirt, and the burial is finished. We all stand around looking at each other, not quite knowing how to end things. After a bit, we quietly head back to the entrance to the cemetery. We say goodbye to the street kids, who will take the bus back downtown; we will take a separate car back to the Micah Project in the opposite direction. Benellamin asks me for money to buy some food downtown, but I cannot give her any. She will most certainly use it to buy a fresh bottle of glue. She gives me a hug anyway and gets on to the bus, back to the streets where she will resume her death-filled life.
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. (Isaiah 25:1)
October 12, 2017
Post-script: This author believes in the unchanging goodness of God and his pure and perfect love for his children, even if he does not always understand how that operates in the daily reality of life—and death–on the streets. He also believes in a God whose love is big enough to listen to our deepest, hardest questions about life in this broken world. And he is very thankful, over the last nineteen years, for the kids who have left the streets behind forever thanks to what God has done through the Micah Project.