I had known Michael for a few years, and had spent a lot of time and effort investing in him. We met when he was in fifth grade. We were just acquaintances then but he started coming to basketball practice with a friend of his. Our relationship grew in the usual manner. We spent lots of time together when I would pick him up for practices and events. He drew disciplinary action because of outbursts in practice, which led to interactions with mom and home. I felt like I had him hooked. He would come to camp and retreats and discipleship meetings. He invited Christ into his life at one of these events.
Michael was short, much shorter than anyone else on the team and he didn’t like it. It wasn’t so bad though, because his best friend was just as short as he was. He was an oldest brother, with two younger siblings. He was the “man of the house” as there was no father in the picture. The basketball team was his group, his family outside the house. Although he was short, he played a crucial role on the team at shooting guard. He was our best shooter and everyone praised him for it. But after three years, when he was a freshman in high school, he stopped coming around. I went to his house and his mom told me she was having problems with him because he had fallen in with a bad crowd. I found him and talked things through with him and he started coming around again. That lasted for a while and then he stopped. I asked his friends, “What’s going on with Michael?” They just shrugged, said they didn’t know. Finally his best friend told me that Michael had started associating with some gangbangers and he was worried for him.
I asked the boys how that had happened. These guys had been his closest friends. Between them and me and basketball how had he slipped away like that? His best friend told me that Michael had always had a problem with being short and he thought Michael was doing these things to prove that he “wasn’t no punk”. It broke my heart, but nothing any of us could do would bring him back. His mom moved the family out of the city to a nearby small town to try to get him away from trouble. The last thing I heard was that Michael had been arrested for robbery and theft.
Looking back I feel like I did everything I could to keep Michael straight, providing positive relationship, peer group and activities. His mom went to extreme lengths to help him avoid trouble. His friends were loyal to him and challenged him about his choices. But he still slipped away. This is the hardest thing for me in working with young black men in the city. You can do everything you know how to do, but they can still slip away.
Because he lives far away, I have to move on. One got away, but there were eight of his friends that were still with me. They all grew up in the same neighborhood as Michael, struggled with the same dynamics in family, peers and school; but they have evaded the pitfalls that trapped Michael. I mourn for Michael but I have hope for him. I know that his conversion was genuine. He has slipped away from me but he hasn’t slipped away from God. I know that God will bring him Home.