When I took this picture with Axel in a park near Tegucigalpa last week, there was something so familiar about it. Finally, it dawned on me and I went hunting for another picture, taken ten years earlier. When I placed them side-by-side, the parallels came painfully in to focus. Both are thirteen-year-old boys named Axel, and both had been in Micah just a couple of months when each picture was taken. Both have brought a lot of love into our lives, despite the jagged edges of their personalities created by violence, tragedy and loss.
One of these Axels sat next to me in the van on the way to church today, fidgeting with the radio dial and chatting about music, about soccer, about his bike. Though his first months at Micah have been terribly hard, he is a beautiful, funny kid who brings a smile to our hearts every day.
The Axel in the older pictures is just as much a part of my life as the one sitting next to me in the van, although he is no longer with us. Today is the third anniversary of his death, but his presence in my life is so palpable that he could just as easily be sitting next to me as is his young namesake. Both his life and his death changed me and changed Micah in a thousand different ways, and as I look at his picture, I realize that my life is fuller and so much richer because he is a part of it.
When I study these two pictures side-by-side, I realize that there is one other big difference, and that is in the man who is doing the hugging. The older picture shows a man who wanted to change the world using his own strength and his own smarts. When he had to say good-bye to Axel on March 18, 2015, all of that silliness went away forever. Now, he is a man who whose greatest tool for reaching these kids is a broken heart.
In his book, “Barking to the Choir,” Father Greg Boyle says, “standing at the margins with the broken reminds us not of our own superiority but of our own brokenness.” And that reminder is not a bad thing; I am convinced that reaching out to others with a broken heart brings us much closer to the Father-heart of God for lost and the wounded. This broken heart loves more deeply, shows more mercy, and sees the broken people of this world through the eyes of kinship and understanding rather than through the opinion that I, with all of my education and experience, have something to give to them.
That is the greatest gift that our first Axel gave to me. I wish he could be here so that I could explain that to him! I’m sure he’d just smile his goofy grin and playfully punch me on the shoulder as his response. Thankfully, I’ll have an eternity to try to convince him how much he means to me. In the meantime, our new Axel is probably wondering why he’s getting so many prolonged, extra-tight hugs on this hard day. Thankfully, miraculously, he’s getting as good at giving those hugs as he is at receiving them. He doesn’t realize that each tight squeeze I give him is doing double duty, showing love to him and also to the Axel in that other picture, now ten years old.
Note: I wrote this reflection on March 18, 2018, three years after Axel Lopez passed away. I am re-publishing it on March 18, 2021.
[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)
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.
My heart caught in my throat last week when I was flipping through a Honduran newspaper and came across a picture of one of our boys. Alejandro is a kid that I love fiercely—a life that Micah has fought to save. His sixteen years have been a constant battle, struggling to get beyond the streets, only to fall back into drugs over and over again. We have shed blood, sweat and tears over this kid, who so often seems to choose to live in that in-between-space between life and death.
In the newspaper article, Alejandro is backlit; his shadowed form is pouring thick black coffee into a makeshift filter. An organization has donated primitive gas stoves to the street kids, and he is using it to make coffee to pass out to his friends. He is totally focused on this task; I’m not even sure that he knows his picture has been taken. The newspaper’s caption reads, “a street-connected youth prepares coffee on a sidewalk where he also sleeps.”
It is surreal to see his picture in the newspaper, to see this grainy, two-dimensional photo of a child who is such an important part of my life. I flash back to one of the many times that Alejandro came back to Micah from the streets. We had brought him to the couch in my cabin to give time for the yellow glue fumes to dissipate. He fell asleep and, hours later, I was unable to rouse him. I picked him up and managed to carry him down the stairs of my cabin, across the sidewalk and into the Micah House. I laid him down on his bed that had been empty since he left to the streets several weeks before. He wouldn’t wake up until mid-morning the next day, bleary but ready to start again.
And now, here he is in black-and-white, back on the streets, making coffee for his friends. The reason Alejandro’s picture is in the paper, though, is not because there is a sixteen-year-old living on the streets. That’s not news in Honduras. In fact, we have visited nine or ten street kids on this corner for years. We call it the “Loco Luis” corner because of the store that’s been here for years—Crazy Louie’s—that sells all sorts of used items, from grungy couches to outdated TVs to new-to-me motorcycles. We know the names of every kid on this corner. Most often, they are ignored by the rest of the world, part of the scenery in this city where poverty is just a fact of life.
The only other time I can remember this forgotten group of kids making the news was when a nineteen-year-old street girl had her baby right here on the corner. The cameras pulled up in time to catch her screaming and in agony, fighting the paramedics trying to get her into the ambulance. A few days later, Micah’s social worker helped to place her baby in a caring home, and she went back to Crazy Louie’s corner, forgotten once again by the world around her.
A couple of days after Alejandro’s debut in a local paper, Crazy Louie’s corner made the international press. Reuters and the New York Times published articles referring to it. But this has very little to do with Joel and David and Alejandro and Joselyn and the other kids that have survived for years on this corner. On March 15, Honduras shut down its economy completely in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They closed all businesses, shut down public transportation and blocked all roads. The government even suspended constitutional guarantees and made it illegal to be out in public except on certain days. In a country where a majority of people live day-to-day, families immediately started to go hungry. A couple of weeks into the shutdown, many families began to lose their homes as well, unable to make enough money to pay rent. The numbers of homeless people on Crazy Louie’s corner began to swell. Our nine kids blossomed to fifteen, then twenty-five, then forty. Whole families—including newborn babies—began to appear on this corner, lining up their belongings on the sidewalks on both sides of the street (read the Reuters’ article here).
That is when the world began to take notice. In the last couple of weeks, Crazy Louie’s corner has come to symbolize the impact that a pandemic has on a developing country like Honduras. High-quality news organizations don’t just publish statistics; they look for heart-wrenching stories accompanied by powerful images that will bring those statistics to life. The families that have come to live on this nondescript corner of downtown Tegucigalpa have been chosen to represent the suffering that COVID-19 has brought down upon the world’s most vulnerable people.
That’s good though, right? More publicity means more help! We saw that back when Hurricane Mitch destroyed Honduras in 1998—millions of dollars of relief and aid flowed into the country. Indeed, a flood of desperate people have come to our gates asking for our help every day since the quarantine began. We have bought hundreds of pounds of beans and rice, packets of spaghetti and dried milk, and have tried to give it to as many hungry people as we can. Thankfully, we’ve also had other organizations, churches and individuals here in Honduras give us food and other supplies to help those that are suffering. And, now, when we go to visit the street youth and families on Crazy Louie’s corner, we often encounter other generous people there, lending a helping hand. It’s a beautiful thing to see the world come together to help the most vulnerable.
And yet, I am wary. Even as the Micah Project has begun to reach out for extra funds to help these suddenly-homeless families, I fret about the risk that turning our friends into an international cause will unintentionally strip them of their humanity. A kid that I have laughed and cried with, a kid that I have played soccer with, a kid who has sat next to me at my desk drawing pictures while I complete my office work—this is a kid who has suddenly become an archetype for pandemic-induced suffering. Alejandro’s picture is now a stock image that will come up when someone searches for “how the pandemic victimizes the poorest of the poor.”
Christian missions have rightly come under criticism in the past for being too paternalistic. We have been guilty of painting a picture of the heroic American church going to the ends of the earth to save the poor, helpless, ignorant natives. Too often, our missionary stories are about them needing what we have to give, blank slates ready to be blessed by our largesse. Now that my Facebook wall is suddenly flooded with images of generous Christians handing out food (including some that I have posted myself!) I fear that we are telling an outdated story once again.
An author I read recently says this: “God is in every place of poverty, degradation, oppression and anguish, long before helpful outsiders arrive.” I wonder if we come closer to the gospel message when we accept this truth as a starting point.
I was down on Crazy Louie’s corner one evening a couple of years ago talking with some of the kids. A long-time street youth name Brayan came bounding over to me, a huge smile on his face. “Michael, I have something for you!” He produced a mug on which was printed a picture of him and me smiling, arms over each other’s shoulder. The fact that he had accidentally broken the handle off the mug didn’t diminish his joy in giving it to me. “Brayan, how did you get our picture printed on a mug?” I was shocked. He gleefully launched into an explanation about a friend of his who has a printing business who gave him a deal on the mug.
At that moment, Brayan’s broken mug was gospel love in action. His gift encouraged my heart that day and brings a smile to my face every time I pull it out of my cupboard. He owns no earthly possessions, but he modeled God’s love to me through his gift and through the joy he took in giving it. Does Brayan have a complete grasp of the gospel message? Perhaps not. He definitely has his share of demons that keep him forever teetering on the edge of a cliff. But, over and over again in the gospels, Jesus saw beyond the demons to the child of God hidden behind them. He saw the potential for love that each of them had; hence, his instructions to the demon-possessed man of the Gerasenes to “go and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19). Jesus doesn’t see the man as a passive receiver of his love; he empowers him to spread that love far and wide.
One of the most degraded sections of Tegucigalpa is an area of dry river bed next to the river that separates the more formal business and government district from the chaotic, cacophonous mass of humanity that is the outdoor market. All the refuse from the market gets dumped on this dry ground by the river that slices Tegucigalpa down the middle, from rotting, unsold fruit and vegetables to the bones and other animal viscera from the dozens of butchers that line the market streets.
Before the gangs drove them out, we used to visit a group of street kids and homeless families that lived under the bridge that soared above this putrid place. They lived among the trash that was strewn everywhere, and they had a pile of meager belongings stacked up against one of the arches of the bridge. Stray dogs, pigs and the occasional cow wandered among the piles of trash, in competition with dirt-streaked kids picking through the trash in search of the day’s lunch. There was always a little kid that stuck out in my memory, a toddler named Edwin who was always covered head to toe in grime and sitting on a dirty piece of sponge mattress. Whenever we took visitors to visit this group, this little kid would almost always drive them to tears.
Does God even know this place exists? More than once, the thought ran through my mind that this place is a physical manifestation of hell, humans living amidst the decay, seemingly abandoned by God.
I noticed on a visit to the bridge that one of our homeless friends had taped something to the leg of the bridge, just above their pile of belongings. It was a poster-sized print of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. There was Jesus, arms stretched wide, looking down upon those who made their homes in this awful place.
Ever since, that picture has been a gentle rebuke and a constant reminder. I only wanted to see the trash, to smell the decay, to see the dirt on the child’s face, in order to judge this place as godless. Surely, the only way God will arrive at this place is if I am the one to bring his Good News? But one of his homeless children taped that picture to the bridge as if to say, “of course God is here! We are his children and we are here, right? Didn’t he promise never to leave or forsake us?”
Many years later, the people we used to visit under that bridge are long gone, as is the da Vinci print, washed away by one too many flash floods. That print remains in my memory as a constant reminder, though. It challenges me to avoid seeing the homeless youth only as victims, as snapshots printed in the newspapers that only tell a story of helpless despair. God was under that bridge long before we ever started visiting there. He was on Crazy Louie’s street corner years before COVID-19 and quarantines began to drive more people out of their homes. If we are to believe his word, then we must believe that even those who are forced to make their bed in depths will find Him there with them. According to the Psalmist, He will go to sheol itself to search them out. Alejandro and Brayan and Nicole? He’s been at work in their lives ever since he knit them together in their mothers’ wombs.
Of course, we can help them to see Him and His presence more clearly, even in the midst of their brokenness. We are called to become a part of their lives, to reach out with His love, even to provide for their physical needs. But our ability to do that does not make us better than them, or somehow worthier to be his children.
The next time you see those pictures of people suffering on Crazy Louie’s street corner, avoid the temptation to interpret their entire existence through the caption under their picture: “poor people victimized by the quarantine.” Choose to see them as brothers and sisters, to see them through our Father’s eyes, children beloved by Him and also capable of great love.
Don’t just see the sheol in them. Gaze upon His handiwork in them as well. And don’t be surprised when one of them hands you a broken mug as an undeserved gift—a pearl of great price—and becomes a bearer of His gospel love to your own broken soul as well.
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 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 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
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.