“Don’t make me do this again.” I shook my head back and forth slowly as I repressed a smile. Had it really come to this again?
I looked across the nearly bare living room in the cinderblock house at the young man slouched in the torn-up armchair. He was put-off and determined not to register for school next year.
Despite our attempts to encourage him he had dropped out of our yearend two-week intensive academic catch-up program and was embarrassed to come back again next school year only to repeat 7th grade.
This was now my third visit to this young man’s house in a very short time, and this time I had brought Miss Ligia, our worldly-lawyer-turned-Christian-teacher with me as backup. It was registration day, and he had pulled a no-show, as expected.
Having heard this 15-year-old young man’s testimony of faith in Christ on various occasions and having seen first-hand the beginning stages of a very real transformation in his character as he had been involved all year with us in Bible study, prayer groups, Christian Leadership and other faith-building activities in addition to daily academic classes, we refused to allow him to simply ‘disappear’ into the multitudes of lost young men who wander the streets in our rural neighborhood and eventually fall into a life of crime.
This unexpected onslaught of rebellion and negative attitudes he had been experiencing in the last few weeks was surely an attack from the enemy, and we – as God’s hands and feet (and voice) on earth, had to intervene with the truth, bring him back into the fold.
So Miss Ligia and I left the rest of the team behind at the Living Waters Ranch as they continued receiving new and old students for registration day, and we hopped in our old Toyota pickup and headed down that long gravel road in search of that same young man who is becoming infamous for his disappearing act.
So when we arrived at the young man’s home, he – not surprisingly – was nowhere to be found. His mom received us with a big, warm hug at the little front gate made of twigs and barbed wire, and quickly let us inside. (Each time I arrive unannounced at their home, the greeting gets warmer and I am allowed farther into their home.)
We quickly devised a plan to hide behind the front door to scare the daylights out of the young man as he would likely come strolling home at any moment. (And if he didn’t return home soon? Well, we would be waiting for quite some time…)
After all, traditional butt-chewings are falling out of style (due to their ineffectiveness), and new, crazier approaches are in.
One of his family members, a female student who had already gone earlier that day with her mom to register with us for next school year, got in on the plan and was set to give us the cue when she saw him coming up the dirt path.
Miss Ligia and I – wedged like two sardines behind the open front door – began giggling uncontrollably. The student’s father – who had not been present during my previous rendezvous to convince his son to keep studying – just stared at us oddly, undoubtedly concerned why two adult women – his son’s teachers! – were laughing like little girls (and poking each other) while hiding behind his front door. Why on earth had his wife let us inside?
A few minutes later our student sure enough came home. His young female relative gave us two quick knocks on the door to cue us, and we began in a loud, spooky voice, “Sta-a-a-n-le-yyyy, Co-o-o-o-ome ba-a-a-a-a-ck tooooo the Raaaaanch!”
He jumped back and began laughing for an instant as we came tumbling out from behind the door, but once his mom pulled out the little wooden stools for us to sit on and talk cold turkey, he turned cold (turkey).
After a couple minutes of utterly useless communication – his mom chewing his butt and him slouching even lower in the ratty armchair, refusing to look us in the eyes – I said, dead serious, “Don’t make me do this again.”
His mom continued, undeterred, “If this boy doesn’t go back to school, what’s he gonna do? He’ll go straight to the street, I know it. Just goes to the street every time to wander around and get into trouble. The street –“
I interrupted her tirade rather boldly, and said, “Well, if he goes to the street, you can bet that I’ll be right there waiting for him. In the street. Dancing. Let’s go, Miss Ligia!”
I grabbed the 29-year-old lawyer with her beautiful flat-ironed long black hair and fake fingernails and before you could say “Footloose” we were both out the front door and in the gravel street.
This time my dancing was accompanied by loud proclamations that I’m sure the entire neighborhood could hear (and that was the point). Miss Ligia began some rather creative steps and arm combinations as we both spun about on the narrow street. The neighbors from the wooden-plank house across the way all came out to watch:
“Hello everybody! Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen! We’re here because this young man, Stanley Rafael Torres, does not want to study! Yup; that’s right! He just wants to wander the streets, but we’re here because we really like this kid and want the best for him! If you’re with us and want Stanley to study and seek God’s will for his life, shout ‘Yeah!’”
No one but Miss Ligia shouted “Yeah!,” not even the middle-aged man who happened to be strolling by. (He avoided all eye contact with us despite my best efforts.)
Miss Ligia continued her contemporary dancing as I did mine, her complementing my steps as I admired hers. We refused to be denied.
“We’re just gonna keep on dancing until this precious young man – did I mention his name is Stanley Rafael Torres? – decides to get his butt back in school!” My voice projected itself all around as our footwork just kept getting fancier. “God has a plan for his life, and we’re here to make sure it gets carried to completion! If you agree that Stanley should go back to school, shout ‘Yeah!’”
Again, no one shouted. This time a teen boy passed by not three feet from us. I looked him in the eyes and repeated, “If you’re with us, shout ‘Yeah!’”, hoping to get some crowd support.
He began walking faster. Away from us.
Soon enough Stanley – our stubborn run-away student – had whipped out his cellphone as was filming our antics as he sat watching us on his tiny front lawn.
Several minutes of rather aerobic dancing (think Billy Blanks in a floral blouse and skinny jeans) passed before I teetered over to the twine hammock in their front yard and collapsed under the heat of the Honduran sun. Miss Ligia and I panted dramatically before getting up again and continuing onward, determined not to leave the street until we had collected the prize. We were committed and there was no turning back.
His mom suddenly appeared from behind the front door curtain with two little pink plastic cups of cold water for us. She wanted us to continue!
We glugged down the water, sweat pouring down our temples and large earrings swinging to and fro with our rhythmic dancing until I suddenly heard Miss Ligia say, “He said ‘yes’!”
I looked up, snapped out of the intense focus required to choreograph an original interpretive dance, and Stanley, still video-taping us, smiled big. He agreed to come back!
I continued dancing a little bit more – this time out of joy rather than as a tool of persuasion – as he went inside to change.
“Careful he doesn’t slip out the back door! Somebody get an eye on the kid!” We laughed and waited for him as I continued my two-step in the street, Miss Ligia and I drenched in sweat, bathed in victory.
The moment he appeared out the front door with his mom, we threw him in the car and headed straight back up the road to the Ranch. We had other scheduled stops (other run-away students) on our agenda after him, but we couldn’t risk that he would change his mind or jump out of the car. So off we went!
Sure enough, we arrived safe and sound (and he only jumped out of the car once, but continued walking in the right direction, following the car rather than bolting away) and he registered again for 7th grade, which he will begin at the end of January when all of our students return. God’s love: 1. Shame: 0.
As we finished the very quick registration process, Miss Ligia and I with Stanley and his mom jumped back into our old Toyota pickup along with four of our other returning students and someone’s little sister. We headed back into our rural town to drop them off and continue onward with the rest of our scheduled rescue missions.
Charlie, a very precious 13-year-old student who likewise had not passed our 7th grade program due to immaturity and many absences, was next on our list. Stanley, with a very happy grin on his face as he sat in the car’s backseat, promised to show us the way to Charlie’s house (it would be Charlie’s first house-call.)
Everything was going fine as we were a couple minutes into our very short drive when somebody shouted, “There he is!”
My attention snapped to the left, seeing a small dark speck along a far-off gravel path that had been identified to be Charlie. I felt paralyzed – what to do? If we drop off Stanley and his mom first, Charlie might keep on walking (where was he going?) and we would lose all chance of finding him. I had to act fast!
In a split-second decision, I glanced over at Stanley and his mom and blurted, “You okay with participating in this rescue mission?” and, before they could reply, I swerved the car to the left and began rather quickly bouncing up that rocky path.
Nearing the small boy in tattered clothes and dirty flip-flops, I forced the car into park in the middle of the road, put on my flashers and hopped out of the vehicle. This had to be a surprise attack, otherwise he would surely run.
I sprinted around the far side of the vehicle and came upon him as I said, panting, “Charlie! Come back. We love you. Today is registration day, and we’ve been waiting for you.”
As expected, he wouldn’t look me in the eyes and was very mopey, on the verge of some kind of extreme self-pity attack. Was ashamed and discouraged, had no plan, no desire. He was on his way to the river, the favorite pastime of the dozens of lost youth in our neighborhood who have no daily commitments. No school; no work; just wandering around gravel roads aimlessly and wasting their lives away at the river before eventually turning to crime and vice.
Soon enough Stanley’s mom – who is in no way related to Charlie – hopped out of the passenger’s seat of the car and began participating in the rescue attempt. Miss Ligia came out, too, and several of Charlie’s old classmates formed a large cloud of loving witnesses in the truckbed.
Seeing as we were getting nowhere – all of our well-intentioned persuasive techniques only seemed to propel him further down the well of despair – I clapped my hands vigorously and called upon my sidekick, “Miss Ligia! You know what we’ve gotta do!”
My sweat-stains growing exponentially in my nice floral blouse, I turned in a wide circle and announced as loud as I could (and that’s pretty darn loud), “Okay! Charlie Anthony “Tony” Rodriguez doesn’t want to study, so his teacher and I are gonna start dancing to convince him to continue trusting in God’s good plan for his life! This is all for Charlie Anthony “Tony” Rodriguez! Gosh we love this kid, and God loves him more! Hit it, Miss Ligia!”
So we began Act II of the Dancing Rescue Mission (within a yard of hell) as we began prancing about on that very rocky road in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rural homesteads steeped in poverty. Stone-cold Charlie broke down almost instantly and began laughing. His classmates – who had not been present for Act I and had no idea that Miss Ligia and I were such talented dancers – began cheering as everyone looked at little Charlie expectantly. Would such an extravagant display of love convince him to return?
After a bit more dancing and a few more loving words of encouragement, he hopped in the truckbed and we zipped him off to registration day.
With Charlie in the backseat, I turned as I was driving to look at him: “Charlie, you know that this is not about you being our ‘student’. If you are in 7th grade or 8th grade, that makes no difference. This is about the work that God has already begun in your life, and we want to be able to continue to walk with you day after day after year as He continues to teach and transform you according to His love.”
He smiled shyly, as you do when you’re completely convinced of what someone is telling you.
I added, wanting to make sure he understood that we do not see him merely as some poor teen or sub-par student, “Charlie, you decided to get baptized last month. In Christ we’re family.”
He spoke up for the first time, visibly content. “I know,” he smiled big and glanced up at me after having had his eyes trained on the floorboards.
That afternoon – several hours after the rescue mission with Miss Ligia – my husband Darwin and I and the 8 kids/teens the Lord has placed in our family had arrived at the local park for an afternoon of play. As we hopped out of the car, Darwin began dancing in a very silly fashion and making up nonsense songs to get the kids to laugh. He extended an arm toward me to include me in the goofy routine, but I sighed wearily and said, “Oh, I’ve had enough dancing for one day…”
Darwin and the kids looked at me, perplexed – had I not spent the day just as everyone else, signing up students and stapling paperwork? – and I began telling them the story…
Amen! Glory to God!