"What is the biggest thing you learned from your time at Micah?" This is the already-frequented question (as if the plane ride had given me enough time to process this). Sifting through my grief-stricken heart, a response finally surfaces: "Faith... and love."
When first called to Micah, I came knowing the Lord loved me and he called me. And if he called me, I would go--no questions asked. (Actually, questions were asked, they just weren't deal-breakers). I knew the Lord loved me, yes, but I had no idea how much until I saw how much he loved these boys... through how much love he gave me for them--no questions asked.
Case and point: Axel Josue. Our newest Micah boy. Fresh off the streets and as edgy as they come. A thirteen-year-old firecracker--you don't have to come within 100 feet to hear the slurs, threats, and cascade of curse-words. Short and scrawny, physical threats are laughable (but if you ask my scalp, the hair pulling is real). Listening skills? Yeah right! This kid has ruled his own life on the streets--why would our word make any impact?
Me: Put the knife away. Anna can cut the watermelon for you.
Axel: (Approaches me with said knife in a threatening manner.... testing me.)
Me: (Doesn't flinch) Give the knife to Anna.
Axel: (Puts down the knife but not his bravado) I am the shit. No one can tell me what to do!
Axel Josue. Define him by all his words and all his actions, and you may not find anything worth loving. But if you find nothing worth loving, it is because you have defined him wrong. I confess, I have. But in those moments, I was defining him by the wrong thing.
The turning point: Michael Miller, a veteran of ceaseless compassion.
The shift in my approach toward Axel came the morning I was his one-on-one companion of the day. As I followed him around the Micah property (often sneakily since he specialized in running out of my sight), Axel grabbed another boy's bicycle and rode shamelessly into the house. Chasing him down I attempted my patient yet stern mom-voice "No. No. No. No." I was determined to show him my love through discipline, so when he finally parked his faithful steed in his bedroom I gave him two options: "You can either bring the bike back outside or you can ask Michael permission to keep it in your room." Deep down kids crave boundaries, and so this is how I determined to love him. While this may be true, I missed an essential element: trust. I hadn't yet built that with Axel--so all the boundaries I was attempting to set for his benefit meant nothing to him. And so Axel kept the bike in his bedroom and stormed off--to again do whatever he wanted. Until what he wanted was to do something with me: play Uno. "When you take the bike outside or ask for permission I will play," I leveraged my newfound power with him. Axel went to get his bike.... but not to bring outside. To do circles. In the living room. Over and over again. So what did I do? Go get Michael. To back me up. Did he? No.
Me: Can you tell Axel to bring the bike outside? He isn't listening to me!
Michael: Actually, right now I'm not concerned about him having the bike inside.
Me: (Freaks out that Axel is stomping all over us and getting whatever he wants and how is he going to know we love him if we just let him be a monster blah blah blah).
After an I'm-not-proud-of-this pity party for not feeling respected/stood-up-for, I finally apologized to Michael for my initial resistance towards his leadership and heard him out. Michael graciously explained how he believes what Axel needs right now is our unconditional love. A love he wasn't shown by his parents or by the streets or by the shelters who'd abused him in more ways than I am able to share. He needs love from the bottom up. Maslow's hierarchy of needs--base level: air, water, food. Next up, safety. This kid needs us to feed him first. That's it. And next up--safety. He needs to know that no matter how unloving he can be towards us, we aren't leaving. With time, Michael said, we'll start adding the boundaries, little by little.
I'll admit, this approach was foreign to me. But that's because I don't remember having passed through those first steps. They were givens to me. I learned I would be fed as an infant. Safely coddled in my mother's arms. Axel had not. So, I set my mind on following Michael's advice--whether or not I fully bought into this approach--to love him as an infant (who just happens to be big and mouthy enough to make the temper tantrums a whole lot more volatile). Food and presence. Okay. Let's do this--all of us! As a team--together.
And it really has been a group effort--we have come at him from all sides. One of our summer interns, Axel's main companion, has taken the brunt of his fury. Axel once strut around showing off his perceived lacky by calling him "Mi perra!" (Translation: my bitch). The first day of our First Presbyterian group visit, Axel introduced himself by jumping on the mall's food court table and "dancing" (err, 'girating' may be a better word). "He's new," one of our missionaries smiled awkwardly at our shocked guests. At one point I even remember him slapping me. With a smile and sparkle in my eye, Jesus words' to "turn the other cheek" came to mind. So I did, literally. Axel's response? Sheer confusion. After a long perplexed stare, he walked away. We were beginning to love the hate out of him.
Little glimpse: One afternoon our missionary Jessica brought Axel and a few friends to the movies. Axel's determination to cause mayhem certainly caused a number of how-on-earth-are-you-letting-him-_____ stares. Surrendering her own reputation Jessica kept going, she kept loving him... and Axel noticed. After throwing his popcorn at her, he also threw her a few unexpected words: "You know we love you right?" I imagine Jess thinking to herself: "No I didn't actually." But then Jess noticed something: Axel was starting to listen without being told. In little ways like picking up trash or fastening his seatbelt. Once they finally pulled back up to the Micah property, Axel turned to the one who'd loved him and said with sincerity: "Thank you."
Axel Josue. Bravado, knives, fists, and pomp... all just a cover for his love-starved heart. When we love him, he often doesn't understand it. And because he doesn't understand it, he doesn't trust it. But trust takes time, and slowly he is beginning to. I've seen it. He is changing. Come to think of it, maybe it's not that he is changing into someone different, but rather that he is finally finding finding who he truly is. The person he was made to be--the person that is unveiled when he finds the safety of knowing he is loved no matter what. The kind of no-matter-what-ness that has turned a tough-edged knife fighting, you-can't-hurt-me troubled teen into a child who breaks down weeping over a scraped-knee. Why? He's starting to find that we are a safe place for all of those wounds to be opened. To be healed.
And so, what have I learned at Micah? Faith.... love. Faith that God loves us no-matter-what. That his love is relentless. That he would go to the cross and back to show us that there is no slur, no fist, no nail we could throw at him that would stop him from relentlessly loving the hate out of us. And as we take step by step in trusting that his love will never stop, we finally find who we really are. Jesus is the bread our love-starved hearts are craving. None of the givenness of the love we have received from anyone else will cut it. That love fails, it dies. Literally. We all know deep down that death is coming--if not metaphorically, physically. That's why we are so scared. But with Jesus we don't have to be. Not only will he love us to death, he loves us back to life. He showed his disciples his resurrected body and told them to spread the word so we would know that his love never ends. And once we fill up on Jesus' no-matter-what-forever love, then we finally have the love we need to feed others, too. And, don't worry, there is more than enough to go around.