How often do you get to listen to another person’s prayer? If you’re kneeling in church, you’re either joining your voice with others, or minding your own silent intercessions. But at our Covenant House in New York City, where we have a chapel with a red carpet and tiny altar in our shelter for homeless, trafficked and runaway young people, there is a simple, cloth-bound book the kids write their prayers in. Its contents are worth contemplating.
During this Lenten season, as we prepare to mark the suffering and resurrection of the Son of God, I found it extremely moving to come to understand some of the pleas of these children of the street, who desperately hope for their own rebirth.
I was reminded of the courage it takes some of our kids just to walk through the door. Teenagers, by nature, often feel invincible and fiercely independent, and it hurts to admit they can’t go it alone. Once they have admitted their vulnerability, they need strength to accept, trust and work with the help we give them. Many quickly embrace the food, clean clothes, medical care and warm beds we offer, but it takes so much longer for many of them to accept our belief that they can attain their dreams.
As one young person wrote, with a lovable humility not often associated with adolescence:
“Dear heavenly Father, Please give me the strength to go on through my stay at Covenant House. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and not wrong. And please give me the strength to make the right decisions about the things that occur. I know I haven’t been making the right decisions, but I’d like to better that.”
Reading through the kid’s recorded prayers, I was reminded of the importance of fathers, both heavenly and otherwise. Oftentimes, earthly fathers disappoint our kids deeply. One of our young people told God, “Being without a mom because she died and having a father who hated me and wished I’d leave, I was so glad you were there for me.”
Another wrote, “God, please let my father accept me. I want to be something in life. I want him to be a part of my life.” But the saddest entreaty read, “Dear Lord, please don’t let my father get me.”
The entries—sonnets of Lenten hope and despair from kids of the street—were crushing and inspiring. They made me want to be the best possible father to my own six birth kids, and the kids we welcome in from the streets.
This simple plea somehow got me most of all, but it also gave me the most hope: “Dear God,” this young person wrote, “If you’re there and you care, I just want someone to love me, someone to talk to when I need to talk. Someone to cry on when I need to cry. Most of all someone to love me and walk as far as they wish through my life. Amen.”
Isn’t that what a parent does, in the luckiest families? A true parent walks as far as they want, and many miles more, to make a child feel safe and nurtured. But most of our kids have parents who, if they’re even in the picture, stumbled out of the block and sat out that long walk. So it’s God who walks with them, a God they may have trouble seeing and touching.
And this doesn’t happen remotely and mystically—the love that uplifts youth and allows them to soar into the great promise of their lives flows through us, through focused, committed adults. Not some remote institution, and certainly not government. We, the people of God, have to be the icons of Christ’s love in the world, each of us.
Couldn’t you or I walk with these kids? Couldn’t we reach out to an individual young person, with a regular phone call, visit, letter or email? Many volunteer mentors at Covenant House have developed long-standing, fulfilling relationships with our young people, offering them the encouragement and understanding they so often lack. With the proper screening and training, you could be the answer to this young person’s prayer.
In fact, this prayer reminded me so much of the parable in Matthew 25:40, where Jesus separates the righteous from the cursed, based on the compassion they had shown to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the needy and those in prison.
One of our kids writes, “Dear Lord, This is your son. I am writing you today to thank you from stopping the pain and helping me get through my ordeal that I’m facing. Help me get my life right and find a job. Amen I love you.”
How like Jesus is this kid—humbled in the face of suffering, devoted, God’s own son. And Jesus was thinking about people like our homeless kids when he said, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you (helped) one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”
Unfortunately, some kids struggle openly with despair. One writes, “Dear Lord, today I am severely depressed. I’m very scared because I might hurt myself but I really don’t want to because I think I have a lot to offer in life. But I really am thinking of giving up. Please show me the way, Lord.”
And when one writes, “Lord, please take me home,” I worry and wonder if they mean home to Long Island for a new beginning, or home to heaven, to end the struggle they face here. Please keep their prayers in your prayers.
Kevin Ryan is president and CEO of Covenant House, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless, runaway and at-risk youth across America.