It all started back in the spring (quite some time ago, eh?). One of our boys, 15 years old, was dating a girl from church. Of course, this was destiny, the butterflies were floating through the sunbeams. Birds everywhere were singing their song. Soon, the boundaries we have established in the community center seemed overly restrictive, a hindrance to their love. He began to talk of pressures of him helping out his family by working along side his father as a construction worker. As time passed, his talk of this pressure increased, and so did rumors of his sneaking out to see his girlfriend. When his girlfriend’s parents found out, they didn’t want him to be with their daughter so we told him that we needed to meet with them so we can make sure we’re respecting the rules they have set for their daughter. This was when he decided he wanted to return to life on the streets, absent of any rules and restrictions. There was no talking him out of it, out of dropping out of school, out of the futility of a 15 year old changing his family’s economic fortunes, out of throwing aside his future for teen romance. And so he left.
I can’t say I’ve felt this way about every one of the boys who has walked away-and he was the first to leave the house-but this all felt wrong to me. On my walks on Holy Spirit Drive over the next month and a half, I’d sometimes see his little brother. I’d ask about him, where he was, how he was doing. The little brother would shrug his shoulders, feigning ignorance. Needless to say, he didn’t get a job as a construction worker and rumors were that he had started stealing again, and hanging out with the “wrong crowd.” Nevertheless, I kept asking. I’d ask other boys still on the street as well. And the boys in the center, who still talked with him on Facebook. One day after chatting futilely with his brother, a song I hadn’t heard in over 15 years came to my mind. It’s When God Ran, by Shaded Red (link here). It’s about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32, if you’re keen to read it).
Then one morning, in some of his posts on Facebook, he talked about suicide. He and his girlfriend had broken up for the second time, this time it was final. The reaction of his friends in the comments made it clear he was really hurting. About a week later, we had visitors from home staying with us, and most of them decided to do a prayer walk in the area. When they returned, Ana told me that they had run into the boy who had left. She told him I wanted to talk with him, and he had agreed. He was waiting at a coffee shop nearby. When I got there, as I climbed the steps, I smiled as I saw him. He was sitting with our staff pastor, and when he saw me, he smiled, but then dropped his head. When I drew near, I saw the cuts covering both of his arms, some as fresh as that morning. He was ashamed of having left the center; ashamed of what he’d done since leaving. He wasn’t living with his dad, which we had all assumed already. His food was a rice soup-cheap and unsatisfying. We didn’t talk much of the choices he had made since he left; only enough to establish his true regret. He was afraid he couldn’t be forgiven by us, or by God, for his actions over the past 6 weeks. We talked of the prodigal son and reminded him that he really is forgiven. We talked for a long time, and he cried a great deal. At the end, he agreed to return to the center that same day. Within a week, we had found a sponsor to cover his school costs and he was enrolled. My final worry was that the boys at the center would joke with him about leaving and then coming back. But I was there when the first boy returned from school and saw him as he ate his first wholesome meal in weeks. The boy coming in shouted and ran over, giving a high five. Each boy welcomed him the same way as they got home. It was awesome to see. Today, he has been knit back into the Nehemiah family and he’s enjoying his first year back at formal school and making new friends. He also meets a counselor from time to time to work on his mental health and well-being.