Monday, August 25, 2008

Them is Us

Above: the slums above Micah house
Below: Ole breaks in

To read this post in printable form, click here.

Many people ask me why I chose to put the Micah Project in such a violent and drug-infested neighborhood as the barrio in which we live here in Tegucigalpa. There are safer places…places farther removed from the difficulties of modern urban life. The simple answer, though, is this: we are called to be a light in the darkness. Even so, a stolen cell phone and a face-to-face encounter with the thief yesterday reminded me that being a light is easier said than done!

Lately, I have been so convicted in my own heart to do away with the “fortress mentality” of modern life that seeps into our Christianity as well. This mentality says that we need to build high walls, get better security systems, and even separate ourselves geographically from “bad people” in order to keep ourselves safe and keep our sense of comfort in tact. In our case, in order to combat potential break-ins at the Micah house, we have added more razor wire, installed security cameras, and even hired a night watchman.

The problem with the fortress mentality, though, is that it seems to go against the very heart of the gospel. We have a stream of people that come to our door daily to ask for food or other assistance. Most of these people are pretty offensive to modern sensibilities: often, these men, women and children smell bad, or they’re hiding a bottle of yellow glue somewhere on their bodies, or their request for food comes out more like a demand…even a threat! Alas, one young street kid threw a rock at me a couple of weeks ago when the food I brought him wasn’t to his liking.

Because of these onerous qualities, it is SO tempting to want to shut our door tightly against these people and hope that they just go away. But an idea comes to me at the back of my mind (one that I’m pretty sure is true), that if this were Jesus’ house, He would not have just handed food through the door; He would have invited these folks in so that they could join him at the dinner table! I even have the sneaking suspicion that he would ask me to give up my chair at the table and go into the kitchen to serve these gruff and unlikable people. And, I’m pretty sure that I’d obey (He is Lord, after all), but in the back of my mind I’d be thinking, “why does He eat with sinners?” (For His reply to my grumblings, read Mark 2:17).

Can God really love these drug addicts and hoodlums as much as He loves me? Look at all that I’m doing for Him, after all! Can’t He see that? My mind can come up with a million reasons to defend myself in the eyes of God and to keep the wretched at arm’s length…to create an “us versus them” mentality. But then God’s words keep seeping into my reality (“there is no one righteous, not even one…they have together become worthless”) and makes me remember that THEM IS US (with apologies to my English-teacher mom).

We are the ones who should be standing at the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven, grateful for any scraps that God would choose to throw our way. It is only because of His incredible mercy that He adopted us as sons and daughters in His kingdom...and absolutely not because of anything that we can say or do to earn it. Only because of His grace, we are on the inside looking out.

Many of my guys certainly understand this better than I do. Yesterday, we went to visit Jerson in the Christian rehab center where he is spending six months overcoming his lifelong addiction to drugs. At one point, he said to me, “if you had not come to Honduras, I would be either dead or on the streets.” Jerson understands that, if a few circumstances of his life had been different, he would have been one of these burned out souls coming to our door to beg. He understands God’s boundless grace to him despite his life of rebellion to God’s will. The question is…do I…middle-class college-graduate proud-to-be-from-the-most-prosperous-and-advanced country-in-the-world…do I understand that only God’s grace separates me from them?

So as God tries to teach me these things (again) this year, I’ve been trying to be obedient. I’ve been trying to talk with the people that come to our door…to help them when I can. Gosh, can these interactions expose my own weak sense of tolerance and mercy!

Yesterday, when we got home from church, we inadvertently left our van unlocked. One of our neighborhood thugs, a crack addict with the street name Ole (óh-lay) was at our door asking for lunch. Ole is the kind that, when he extends his right hand to ask for a handout, you’d better be sure you know what his left hand is doing. Anyway, Ole saw his chance, and he opened our van and stole the cell phone that was inside (see our surveillance camera footage of the event above). When our guys found out, they took off after him, but he quickly lost himself in the vast network of alleyways and shacks in the slum area that starts just a few blocks beyond the Micah House.

I spent the rest of the day feeling violated. I won’t share the R-rated version of my thoughts, but the general idea is “how can this ungrateful piece of trash ask for our help one minute and steal from us the next?” Shoving into the back of my mind that this is exactly what we do to God all the time…asking Him for things one moment and rebelling against Him the next…I decided that the world would be better off without Ole in it.

Last night, as I was preparing my classes for the coming week, I got a phone call. It was from one of our boys’ mom, who lives in the slum area where Ole went to hide. Ole’s current “wife” found out that he stole from us, and she went to tell our boy’s mom where he had pawned the phone. So off I go, at 9:00 p.m., into one of the most dangerous areas of Tegucigalpa. I met Ole’s wife, and she and I, along with our boy’s mom and stepdad, went in search of the phone.

We wound down stair-case after stair-case, alley after alley, until coming to the other side of this mountainous slum. When we got finally got to the woman’s house and asked her for the phone, she said that she had no idea what we were talking about. (It turns out that her business is buying stolen property and re-selling it for a profit). Ole’s wife called a neighbor’s cell phone to see if Ole was at home. When she said yes, we decided to climb back up the mountain into the heart of the slum to confront Ole head-on. After a few minutes of climbing, we came to a pitch-black stairway that led up to Ole’s shack. As I carefully picked my way up the stairs, I wondered what would happen if we found Ole. Would he attack? Would he claim ignorance? Would he sneer? Would he run?

When we finally got up to his shack, Ole was nowhere to be seen. But as we were getting ready to leave, one of the neighbor girls stuck her head out of her shack and pointed upward, indicating that he was hiding on the roof. When his wife found this out, she (ahem) impolitely screamed for him to get his --- off the roof. A dark form emerged, and Ole sullenly climbed down.

Ole just stood there, surrounded by accusatory looks. Then looked at me and spoke: “I am so sorry, Michael.”

That was not what I was expecting. Excuses, anger, threats, anything but a surprisingly sincere apology. At that moment, my heart melted. Finally, after a day of anger and thoughts of revenge, I was able to see Ole as Jesus would. This is a kid who was on the streets before he was out of diapers. A young man who has grown up just yards away from one of the most notorious drug dealers of Tegucigalpa—one who seemed practically destined to become a crackhead. One desperate enough to steal even from his friends when his need to consume crack overwhelms every other thought. Now I understood. His apology was laced with defeat, with self-hatred, with knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is the refuse of humankind.

In other words, exactly the kind of person that Jesus wants us to love.

After Ole’s apology, he joined our strange little group as we made our way back to the lady to whom he sold the phone. He stood there in front of her door as a circle of cross-armed people waited for him to make things right. He did, and the lady reluctantly gave the phone back, but not before berating him in words that would make a pirate blush.

So there we were, me, with the phone in my pocket, the Micah boy’s mom and step dad, Ole and his wife, and a couple of other people that had come along just to see what would happen...a little free entertainment on a sultry night in the slums. What do I say to Ole? Do I make this a moral lesson against the evils of theft and drug-use? Do I just glare at him and shake my head and confirm silently to him that he is trash?

I said, “I know how hard it is when addiction takes over your whole life.”

He responded, “I am so sorry, Michael.”

We talked a little longer. I encouraged him to come to the Micah House this week so that we can find a way to get him some help. We shook hands and parted ways.

Will Ole get help? Will he stop stealing from others to feed his addiction? The pastor who runs the Christian rehab program that we visited that same afternoon said that only about ten percent of the guys who go into the program are able to put their addiction behind them permanently. If that’s the case, then why bother?

Why bother? Because them is us. Because in the eyes of God, Ole is me. When I look at my brokenness, rebellion, lack of faith, lack of passion to do God’s will, the only thing that I can think to say to Him is “I am so sorry, Father.”

And that’s all it takes to be welcomed in as a son…an heir to His kingdom. Ole may think that he is the refuse of the earth, but, yesterday, he taught me that the refuse of the earth, poor in spirit as we are, are the ones who can indeed inherit the kingdom of God.


Michael Miller

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ten Years

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Today is my tenth anniversary in Honduras…ten years exactly from the day I packed a few things in a couple of suitcases and left my life in the United States behind.

I moved to Honduras in August of 1998 to start an educational program for street kids in Casa Alianza’s crisis center. I had worked with Casa Alianza (Covenant House) for a few months in 1993 as a senior in Wheaton College’s HNGR program. When I met my first street kid through their programs back then, I knew that this would be my life’s work.

A little over two months after moving to Honduras permanently in 1998, though, hurricane Mitch swept through Central America, creating massive destruction and loss of life. The bridges, homes and businesses of Tegucigalpa seemed to fold before the flood waters as if they were made of matchsticks. You couldn’t be in Honduras without trying to do something—anything--to help those who had become damnificados, homeless victims of the hurricane.

Villa Linda Miller wasn’t my idea. In fact, it almost seems like God’s idea of a practical joke. Let’s take this green, 26 year-old, recently-arrived boy, whose never laid one block on top of another or mixed a batch of cement or done anything even remotely like community organizing, and let’s use him to build a new community of 165 homes. Ha ha! On second thought, I’m pretty sure that God used someone as inexperienced as me to build Villa Linda Miller in order that all witnesses to the event would be ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that it was God who was in control and not man. Isn’t that how He always works, after all???

As I began to meet daily with the hurricane victims, generous people from all over the world began to donate to us. In the beginning, it was just simple things…funds from my home church, Central Presbyterian in St. Louis, to by mattresses and gas stoves for families that were crammed onto the floors of churches and schools. But by February of 1999, we were able to purchase the beautiful rolling land that would become Villa Linda Miller. Through grit, determination and unity, the families of Villa Linda Miller raised their own community out of land that used to be an arid and over-grazed cow pasture. Today, they have a beautiful school for their children to study in, a clinic to get well in, and a church to worship in. The kids that have the run of the community are too young to even remember hurricane Mitch; but many of the adults say that it was the best thing to ever happen to them because it brought them to a beautiful new place.

During the busy year of planning Villa Linda Miller in 1999, God started to disquiet my heart again. After hurricane Mitch, the problem of street kids in Tegucigalpa only increased, as more children were driven into poverty by the tragedy. But after all that God was doing through Villa Linda Miller, my perspective on the work had changed. Yes, working with street kids must involve feeding and clothing them, educating them and helping them to detox from their addictions to yellow glue. But first and foremost, it must be about reintroducing them to God…the One who created their inmost beings, but had since been displaced in their lives by the bondage of a broken world. If God can take a tragedy like hurricane Mitch and make a beautiful thing like Villa Linda Miller, surely he can take the violent and tragic young lives of these boys and turn them into something beautiful—something that glorifies Him—as well? With that, the Micah Project was born.

When we opened our group home in January of 2000, I had no idea what was in store for me. Walking alongside young men as they struggle to come out of addiction and the incredible evil that they encounter on the streets is a terrifying and yet glorious experience. So often, throughout the years of Micah, we have asked ourselves-- is this really possible? Can these kids really be transformed?—only to have God move again and again in their hearts to bring that transformation. So often, their lives seem to be on the brink of utter chaos…only to be reigned back in again by God’s loving hand. Back in 1999, did I think it was possible that these lost little boys would one day graduate from college and become leaders in Honduras? Actually, after seeing all that God had done for Villa Linda Miller, I was convinced that He could do anything. Even so, I am constantly surprised by the way those same guys are becoming confident, well-spoken, purposeful and compassionate men of God.

2008 has been a different year for me. You’d think eight years of living in the Micah House would get routine, but God has a way of bringing a freshness to it year by year. In some ways, it has been a harder year, as some of the violence and addiction of the streets has once again invaded our home. But these very things have reminded me to open my eyes and see that this work, with these kids, is on the frontlines of the battle between good and evil. And—lest I forget---the Mighty Champion is fighting on our behalf!

Maybe it’s because this ten year marker has made me reflective, but I admit that, lately, I’ve been overtaken by overwhelming moments of gratitude that almost bring me to my knees. I told the guys at our Sunday evening worship time that I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody else’s. I’m thankful that God chose to use me in this work, when He certainly could have chosen someone smarter, better-trained, more organized, etc., etc., etc. I am thankful that He has given me a life where I get to see His mighty hand transform lives on a daily basis. I am even thankful that he has given me a ministry that often includes tears and sorrow and uncertainty, because these are the only things that make me remember to fly back to His arms and cling to Him for dear life.

If anything, large amounts of gratitude and contentment can lull us into neutral…to staying exactly where we are because it is such an awesome place to be. But I dream that one or two of our young men will take over the Micah Project and use all that God has taught them to keep transforming the next generation of Hondurans…and in the process, make me obsolete. But for now, every morning when I open my eyes, I thank Him for allowing me to do His work in Honduras for another day.


Michael Miller

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Our own "extra mile"

If you have been keeping up with our blog, you know that Darin Swanson ran an ultramarathon in the end of July to help support the Micah Project. To read more about Darin's fifty mile adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail, click on his blog: In support of Darin Swanson’s ultramarathon on behalf of the Micah Project, we decided to stage our own Micah run that same day, to at least feel a little of his pain!

On Saturday, July 26, seventeen of the guys and staff headed out to the mountainous road that leads to the colonial town of Valle de Angeles. Together we ran our own 6 mile run, with a lot of laughter, a faithful intern throwing us bags of water from the Micah van, a dramatic bicycle crash between running Maycol and a disgruntled bike rider (amazingly, no one was really hurt), and an overweight chocolate lab who only made it about a mile before climbing into the van. Mocha was the only who didn’t finish though, and we cheered the final participants across the finish line, everyone feeling the satisfaction of having faced a challenge and met it together (click on the pics above to see our not-so-ultra marathon above!

Thank you Darin, for not only running for us without even knowing us personally, but for encouraging us to run our own personal races in life with faithfulness and courage as well.


Your friends from the Micah Project