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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Let him rest
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 to 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.
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,
- 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
- 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
- “Bring him Home” from Les Miserables. Sung by Josh Groban: https://youtu.be/fXnRf3TQcpk