“Michael, I want you to meet my girlfriend’s family. Will you come to her birthday party at their house next week?”
When Julio asked me to accompany him, his face revealed that paradoxical, yet wonderful, mix of shyness and fearlessness, which was his trademark. This was the same face that I always saw whenever he gave me one of his paintings. One Christmas, he presented me with a larger-than-life charcoal portrait of me that had taken him months to complete, in secret. The day that he invited me to his girlfriend’s home, he had that same look, as if to say, “I run the risk of being rejected, but I love you enough to take that risk.”
Of course, I said yes to his offer to meet his girlfriend’s family. After all, he was the only Micah boy bold enough to extend such an invitation in our almost twenty years of existence! I’m not sure who was more nervous as we drove to her house that evening in 2018: the 17-year-old who wanted his adoptive dad to meet his girlfriend’s family or his adoptive dad himself. As we walked into their home, however, her extended family welcomed us with open arms. I could sense the sincere affection that they had for Julio.
Julio called me his viejo—his old man. For my birthday in May 2019, he sang a song to me in front of the entire Micah family. With that same combination of “shy boldness,” he sang:
You took us by the hand and were always there for us.
Helping us dream of a better future and forming us
I had felt abandoned, but you were a shining light for me
When I got lost you went out to look for me
And you never left me.
(Link to Julio’s song: https://vimeo.com/micahprojecthonduras/juliosings).
The truth is, Julio did get lost for a season. In 2015, a street gang gunned down his older brother, Axel. Axel was 19. In 2008, he was a much-loved member of the Micah House, and although we fought hard to keep him, eventually, he returned to the streets. Axel’s violent death broke all of our hearts, but no more so than his younger brother, Julio’s.
In Julio’s words:
In 2015, it had been about a year since I had seen mybrother Axel when one day he appeared at the gate of the Micah Project. I was so happy to see him even though I knew he was living in the streets. He made me promise that I wouldn’t leave the Micah Project until I graduated from high school. He said that he loved me a lot and he didn’t want me to end up on the streets like him. The following week, I was at soccer practice when someone from Micah showed up to tell me that my brother Axel had been shot and killed. They took me from the soccer field over to the funeral home. When they brought his casket in and I saw him, I never imagined that I would see him like that. I ran out of the funeral home screaming, and I pounded my fists against the wall of the funeral home. I felt sad, and I felt hate, and I didn’t know what to do. It was like every time I began to feel happy, something came along to destroy us all over again.
After what happened to my brother, I wanted to find something that would fill me, but I couldn’t find what that might be. I felt desperate and I began to consume drugs again. I just felt completely destroyed. I started taking art classes to try to distract myself, but I still felt lost.Julio’s testimony, which he wrote in 2019.
Had I been in Julio’s shoes, there’s a good chance that years of abuse, trauma, and loss would have turned me into a bitter, vengeful person. But Julio emerged from that dark period stronger, more loving, and more determined to make the world a better place. The last few months of his life, he quietly lifted up the entire Micah family by the fierce loyalty and hope-filled love that colored everything he did.
Ever since Julio died in a motorcycle accident last January, I’ve been left with a question: How much good could Julio have done had he not died at age 21? His life feels brutally unfinished.
Christian writer Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote Lament for a Son when his twenty-five-year-old son died in a mountain-climbing accident. Even though Wolterstorff never lost his belief in Christ’s resurrection and eternal life, his faith did not magically erase his profound grief. What hurt so much? He writes:
Yet he is gone, here and now, he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear his plans for the future. That is my sorrow.Wolterstorff, 31
While writing this piece, I heard a little voice on the front patio of my cabin. Pedro, one of our grads, had arrived at Micah for his morning cup of coffee. But outside, that little voice said, “Miiichael, there is a princess here to visit you!” I’m supposed to respond, “Princess? I don’t see a princess anywhere! I heard that Princess Tana flew off to her castle on her magic dragon!” Pedro’s three-year-old daughter, Tana, giggled as she bounded through my door for a hug.
Like Pedro, Julio would have been a great dad. In one of the few pictures I have of his childhood, he is sitting on a bed in the motel room that his mom rented day-to-day to keep them off the streets. Look closely and you can see a bruise in the shape of a hand-print on his face—yet another sign of a violent childhood. But Julio would have triumphed over generations of familial poverty and abuse. He would have raised his kids to be world-changers.
I also wish that I could have seen what kind of artist Julio would have become. He was naturally talented and had worked on his craft. He was a good painter; he could have become a great painter, given more time. I have several of his paintings hanging on the wall of my office at the Micah House. One of them, though, remains unfinished. He was working on a painting of a colonial church, like the churches you see in every Honduran mountain village. He had been using a new technique, and he couldn’t get “it” quite right. He put the painting aside for a while, always meaning to return to it. He never did.
Every day, I grieve for Julio’s unfinished life. Yet, as the days go by, the taste of that grief becomes less bitter and a little sweeter. The precious memories still come with tears, but more and more, they bring the warmth of the continuing bonds of love that we share.
Our Savior pronounced “It is finished” when he died on that cross. His death-defeating sacrifice ushered our way into a kingdom in which there would be no more tears, no more sorrow, no more children doomed to the tragedy of an unfinished life (see Isaiah 65: 23). Theologian N.T. Wright has a beautiful theory about how it will look when we inherit the new heavens and the new earth. He writes:
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are…accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation . . . all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.N.T. Wright, 208
I cherish the thought that God will use Julio’s love of painting and color and beauty to flood the new creation with those things. Julio’s short life will always be unfinished in the here-and-now, but all that he was created to be will be perfectly fulfilled in the world to come.
I think Julio knew that. After his death, I flipped through pictures of him and noticed a tattoo on his arm that said memento mori. For a time Julio wanted to add “tattoo artist” to his ever-increasing repertoire of artistic skills, and he bugged me for months to help him buy the necessary equipment. I always politely declined! From the Latin, Memento mori roughly means, “Remember you must die.” But this thought isn’t morose. It is an encouragement to live each day to the fullest, knowing that our days are numbered and in God’s hands.
Hours after Julio’s accident last January, I visited him in the hospital ward, a large, open room shared by twenty others whose bodies had been broken by violence and chaos of this impoverished city. Julio lay in a coma, and I took his hand and gazed at the battered face of this kid whom I loved so much. Finally, I leaned down and whispered into his ear, over and over again, “Julio, God knows exactly where you are and what you need right now. You have nothing to fear.” A few hours later, Julio breathed his last breath, crossed through the curtain that divides this temporary world from the eternal one, and ran joyfully into the arms of his Savior.
An unfinished life in this sphere, but a beautiful beginning to an eternal one.
In 2019, Micah missionary Pat Corley and I took Julio and a few of the guys his age to Denny’s for lunch (yes, that Denny’s—Tegucigalpa has three of them). As we were eating, Julio excused himself to go to the bathroom. He returned and when we finished our lunch, the entire waitstaff came to our table, put a paper crown on Pat’s head, placed a piece of cake in front of him, and began to sing Happy Birthday at the top of their lungs (Editor’s note: it was not Pat’s birthday). As Pat sat there mortified, Julio was looking down and seemed extra interested in his dessert. When he finally looked up, he burst out laughing until he was practically on the floor, thrilled with the outcome of his prank. From that day on, Julio and Pat greeted each other every morning with hearty laugh and a “Happy Birthday!”
I will miss these little things most. While trying to process the loss of his son, Wolterstorff writes:
“Never again will anyone inhabit the world the way he did”.Wolterstoff, 33
Copy that. It’s so, so true of Julio.
But now, a year-to-the-day since his accident, I can smile as I remember moments like these. Although my smile is blurry and tinged with tears, nevertheless, it is a smile.
I wish I could have watched Julio grow old. I still think he would have changed the world. But for now, I am at peace (a little more every day) knowing that his unfinished life has begun anew in a place flooded with the beauty of his Father’s love.
~ Michael Miller, January 21, 2023
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1987. Lament for a Son.
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co.
Wright, N. T. 2008. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the
Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.