He approaches us every Wednesday as we walk. The encounter begins with some form of harassment aimed at Brother Jim: throwing a football at his back, tugging at his denim habit, or asking repeated questions, perhaps. The projected toughness of this ten-year-old mirrors that of his only role models—the young men who control the streets of Back of the Yards, hardened on the outside to any childhood desire that was left unfulfilled.
Unfortunately, it is not the first or even the hundredth time that I have looked into the eyes of a child and seen the rage of a bitter old man. In yet another case of a child drowning in the system of poverty, violent neighborhoods, a drug-abusing parent, and failing schools, this young friend has learned defiance at any early age. Refusing to listen to authority or participate in school, he chooses instead to project an image of an independent soul who needs no one. He is protecting himself from the vulnerability of trusting adults who do not fulfill his needs.
However, he is not lost. There is a small glimmer of hope in his actions; He cries out for attention from Brother Jim. Despite his defiance to adults, he still wants to be loved by them. Last Wednesday, when Brother Jim offered him a chapter book, his demeanor changed completely. The childish voice returned: “You gonna bring me a book next week?! I like adventure.” Cautiously optimistic, this boy is testing whether or not Brother Jim can be trusted.
We can see the trajectory of this child, and it does not look good. And yet his parents, teachers, and mentors feel lost at finding a solution that changes his path. Can you really be too far gone at age 10?
When have we decided that it is too late to act? States give up in 3rd grade; they track literacy test scores of this age group to plan prison populations. The practice is accurate enough to be useful. Leading psychologists give up as early as age 3, when they believe that certain behavioral development of the brain is set in stone.
It has been my experience that those who do not do anything to change the trajectory of “problem” children feel helpless. Teachers and community workers are engaged in conversations and feel frustrated with the lack of options. They are overwhelmed and paralyzed. The ability to lose a child to the streets is the result of losing hope in these moments. The prevalence of inaction happens because are a great many ways to legitimate it with fatalistic excuses.
When does BSL think it is too late to act? Never. On this same Wednesday walk, we stopped by one of our dear friends to catch up. A 50-year-old woman who admits her past includes prostituting, drugs, and squatting to survive, has turned her life around. In recent years, she has worked with the support of BSL to improve her health, take care of her home, and become a better community member. She now contributes her extra medical supplies to our neighbors at Port Ministries, is always helping a neighbor find a meal, mentoring the teenager upstairs, or offering part of her own link card to help our other friends in need. A “lost cause” is now a shining light of hope for her community.
Our immediate instinct for action in ministry is to “do.” If there is not an immediate 3-step plan, we think the cause is lost. More often than not, though, people need us to “be.” Missions and ministries fail when they focus too much on doing. Creating plans for others to change their lives does not show love; it shows control and conditionality. Be. Be present, be ready to help, and be there when people make mistakes. Love unconditionally, and create the space people need to change themselves when they are ready. Change cannot be a pre-requisite for love. Love has to come first.
The story of most evil in the world has started with a child who was ignored when he or she cried out for love. Do we learn this lesson, or allow history to repeat itself with the youngest generation of the poor? On this Valentine’s day, will you give your love to those who are perceived as lost? Despite your fears or hopelessness, it is the only tool you need to act.
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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