I can’t get passed this season without returning to a painfully vivid childhood memory every year. As many of my friends know, my amazing parents were foster parents to dozens of kids across two decades. They were refugees from dangerous and destructive homes within miles of my own. Growing up, I did not know anything but a noisy, chaotic, Christmas with presents stacked so high in the living room that we could barely see the tree – and usually 6-10 kids tearing into those presents with a frenzy on Christmas morning.
Four of the kids were my biological siblings, my big brothers Terry and Doug, and my little sis, Tami. The other children were my emotional and spiritual siblings. Our lives were tied together by the intersection of their need for a safe, stable home and my parents’ open doors. We learned much from each other and the daily routine of cranking out necessary chores, walking to and from school, and sitting around a crowded dinner table made “family” happen for many of them and certainly redefined what family meant for me.
For eighteen months, one foster child captivated all of us – my parents and all the kids in the house. His name was Michael. His mother had actually been a foster child in our home for a few years. When she was unable to care for him after graduating from high school, he stayed with us. Then she left town and no one heard from her for over a year. It looked as if Michael might suffer the same foster care fate his mom did as she began a cycle of repeating the mistakes that her own parents had made.
At some point, it looked as though my parents might be able to adopt Michael since his mom had disappeared and we were the only family he really knew. I was overjoyed at the thought of a baby brother. Already invested in his life – I helped feed and care for him, posed him for funny pictures with hats and sunglasses, and just loved his sweet and gentle spirit. He was my little brother.
One day, I came home from school and sensed a shadow of pain and loss in the house. My mom had been crying and my father could barely find the words to tell us that Michael was gone. There had been some court hearing that day. His mother actually made a surprise appearance and in a matter of minutes, Michael was literally taken from the arms of the only parents he recognized and given into the care of a confused, wayward mother that he did not know or recognize.
I never got to say goodbye. And, because of the legal parameters of foster care at the time, rarely were foster families able to stay in touch with foster children after they leave. So, I never saw him again, either. Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t find a picture of Michael, wonder where he is and pray for good things in his life. I also pray for his mom, because even though she wounded us terribly, I understand the past she struggled to escape. I know that when she and Michael left our lives, there was much help and healing left to be done that could not happen.
It’s amazing how such losses can become driving forces in our lives. My passion in ministry has been defined by the “Michaels” that I don’t want to see leave my life with unfinished spiritual and emotional business. And, in my parents’ example, I learned that sometimes we are called to open our homes and lives even when it might mean a painful goodbye someday.
These few weeks out before Christmas, and because the refugee debate continues, I keep wondering what it would mean for my life to intersect with a refugee’s need for a safe, stable homeland. What should open doors look like in my life and in my community? What would it look like if we could sit around a dinner table and redefine our understanding of “neighbor”?
I wish every year that things had turned out differently with Michael. I still hope that he got the healthy and safe childhood he deserved. I also pray I will not lose sight of other Michaels in my world right now for whom my hope and action can make a difference today.