Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:17
Twenty-four hours into our church’s annual youth summer mission trip, I met two people who instantly changed my outlook on life. (I started to write “changed my life”… but I guess that will depend on what I do with what I learned from them.)
After a full day of orientation to our destination of Las Vegas, our team was ready to go actually do something useful. So we were excited to learn that we would be spending the evening hanging out with and praying for a local foster family whom we were assigned to through a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) organization called “Foster Connect.” Foster Connect — as a 30-ish, perky woman named Clare explained to us through role plays and Q & A — recruits foster parents through local churches in order to get more Christians involved in this broken system. Host churches support the foster families connected to their church by praying for them, helping financially, and offering childcare relief so tired foster parents can take a much-needed break.
YWAM staffers Brett and Lydia, and Deja — Clare’s 14-year-old foster daughter (who had been with their family less than a month), joined our team and piled into the unwieldy toaster-oven-on-wheels that YWAM called a vehicle for the 20-minute drive to Ken and Tracey’s home. On the ride over, I awkwardly quizzed Deja about being a foster kid.
“So… do you like living with Clare?”
“Yeah. They’re really nice. I’ve had lots who weren’t.”
“Really? That must be tough.” (No kidding. Could I not think of something more compassionate to say?)
“So… have you been in a lot of different homes?”
“When I was little. Some of them were really bad. Then I got adopted, so I’ve been in the same place since I was six.”
“Oh, that’s good — I didn’t realize you were adopted. But wait… you can’t stay there anymore?”
“No. They started abusing me a couple of years ago. So the courts took me away.”
[Awkward silence.] “But… it’s good at Clare’s house?” (Pathetic comeback.)
“Yeah. I hope I get to stay there. I have to go back to court in a couple of weeks, and they might send me someplace else.”
[More awkward silence. What do you say to that? “Gee, Deja, it must be awful to be 14 and have no stability in your life because as soon as you find a place you can call home, the courts might yank you out of it and send you somewhere that totally sucks.”]
But I didn’t say what I was thinking. I just mumbled a feeble, “I’m sorry. I hope you get to stay.”
And mercifully, the conversation came to a screeching halt along with the van as Brett squinted at house numbers in search of Ken and Tracey’s. He pulled over and parked along the curb in a cul-de-sac; we climbed out and looked around at dozens of modest, look-a-like, two-story adobe homes. Brett chose one and marched toward it. We followed, standing in the front yard as he bounded up the front steps and pushed the door bell.
No answer. Brett pushed it again.
Nothing. He knocked. And knocked again.
Shoulders slumped, we were in the process of turning away when the door opened and a tall, friendly looking middle-aged guy poked his head out. “Can I help you?”
He obviously wasn’t expecting us.
After a few awkward moments of trying to explain why we were standing en masse on his front lawn, and deciding whether we should come in anyway or reschedule for another time or just pray for them in the yard so as not to disrupt their dinner, Tracey intervened and saved us, yelling from some unseen location, “Honey, I forgot to tell you they were coming… let them in, for heaven’s sake.”
So in we went, the twelve of us taking over their small (but air conditioned — thank you, God!) living room, perching on the edges of couches and chairs or sprawling on the floor. Tracey was standing in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove and gently giving instructions to five little people who instantly stopped eating to stare at us. Our jaws dropped. There were five of them?
As the kids — three boys and two girls all under age 8 — giggled shyly at us, Tracey introduced them, pointing to each as she said their names: “The littlest one is Riley… and Summer is his sister… and that’s Ezra… and Cody and Crissy are siblings, too.” A squawk came from around the corner, and she quickly disappeared. Ken took over the introductions, explaining that they were in the process of trying to adopt Riley and Summer.
Tracey came back a moment later, holding a tiny brown baby with a head full of curly black hair. “And this is Jamal.” He smiled a toothless baby smile. Our hearts melted and we sighed in unison. Tracey told us that Jamal was four months old and came to them shortly after birth. Despite being born with five illegal substances in his little body, he was doing well. He seemed to be developing normally except for being a little stiff — for some reason, he held his body straight like a board. “Not jello-y, like babies should be,” she said. He was beautiful.
Tracey and Ken (mostly Tracey, as she seemed to be the talker in the family) joined us in the living room and shared their story over the next hour. They told us how they couldn’t have children of their own, so in their 40s (in their forties? That’s my age, and I’m already thinking about that retirement cottage on the beach!) they felt God telling them to foster parent. They were reluctant, but finally gave in and agreed to take one child. Tracey pointed to a photo of a beautiful little girl: “She was our first. We had her for a couple of years and tried to adopt her, but she ended up going to a relative instead.” I felt myself choking back tears, and as I looked around the room, I saw several teenagers doing the same. But Tracey and Ken kept smiling.
They had fostered more than 30 children over the past decade, some for years and some for a few weeks. They never knew how long a child would stay. They never planned to care for so many — it just happened. They never took vacations, rarely went out to dinner, struggled to pay the bills, and trusted God on a daily basis to provide for their emotional and physical needs — including the strength needed to tend to six children.
Brett finally tried to wrap up up the conversation by asking how we could pray for them. And then we prayed, taking turns interceding for this incredible patchwork quilt of a family. We asked God to take care of their adoption process and give them Summer and Riley. We asked Him to grant them energy and patience. We asked Him to bless them with a new van (because their current one was on its last legs, and how do you transport six kids in Vegas with no van?). We asked that Jamal become more jello-y. As we prayed, I cried. (And as I write this, I’m crying again.)
When we finished praying, we talked some more. And as we talked, the kids gradually grew bolder. They hid around corners at first, playing peek-a-boo with Danny, one of our teenagers who sat at the bottom of the stairs. Danny became the gatekeeper: Once they decided he was safe, they tumbled all over him, and then all over us — sitting on laps and doing flips and letting us tickle them. The boys rough-housed with the older kids, who asked if we could stay over. (Tracey explained that they had hosted missions teams before and had a dozen teenagers sleep in their living room, so the kids were used to guests.) The teenage girls told the little girls how pretty they were and took turns holding baby Jamal.
After extended goodbyes that took nearly a half hour, we ambled back to our van with a melancholy mix of emotions that were hard to sort out. “Ken and Tracey are my new heroes,” I told one of the teenagers. I meant it.
I felt like I finally understood fully what Jesus meant when He said these words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:24-27)
I think we Christians all think we’re doing that. I think we think that if we read the Bible enough, and pray enough, and tithe enough, we’re good to go. That idea has left me unsettled for a very long time… and now I know why. Because I’ve now seen people who are doing what Jesus said. And I know that most of the rest of us are not even close.
THIS is what it looks like to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus: It’s to give up your time, your money, your vacation, your retirement travel plans, your home, your peace, and your quiet so that you can obey God’s voice telling you to take in little children who need a mom and a dad and a safe place to stay for however long the courts decide. It’s to enter into a broken system like foster care and be a light on the inside instead of picketing or petitioning or complaining from the outside. It’s to give from the deepest part of yourself to love others in a purely selfless way that can only come from God.
I hope one day soon I can do that, too.