Long-Haul Mercy

Sometimes it takes years of kindness
–and prayer–before we see a life changed.

A number of years back 19-year-old Burt (not his real name) was evicted from his apartment because he didn’t pay his rent. Burt didn’t pay his rent because he was fired from two jobs–one because he was constantly late for work, the other because he stood around all day talking to his friends and lifting nary a finger toward his job.

Some close friends of mine had found him both the apartment and the jobs. They had even found him a place to live when he was first kicked out of a home—his mother’s–for a laundry list of offenses (he soon violated rules at the new place and was kicked out of there, too).

Among our community of Christians that revolves around Harambee Christian Family Center, an urban ministry in Pasadena, California, we had intervened in Burt’s life in many ways. Burt spent half a year in upstate New York and half a year in New Zealand, participated in a youth trip to Mexico City, and attended Christian camps—all part of our efforts to help him. Lots of money had passed between our circle and him, as well as clothes, food, AA batteries, rides around town—you name it. Yet through his antics over a multiyear period Burt seemed determined to burn every bridge with us.

Still, no one in our community gave up on him. We were practicing the “seventy times seven” forgiveness that Jesus sets as the Christian standard (Mt. 18:22, NASB). As you may discover with your own “Burt,” sometimes we’re called to show long-term mercy—reaching out again and again, walking alongside an individual over the long haul.

Someone found Burt a spot at a school in Washington state where he could learn life skills and work toward his GED. But he arrived after a 26-hour bus journey only to find that the rules were strict. He proceeded to curse every staff member and demanded to be sent back to Pasadena. The staff was glad to grant his wish and dropped him off at the bus station at noon, even though the Greyhound back didn’t leave until midnight.

After that, I saw Burt wandering around the neighborhood looking for something to eat. Someone offered him lunch if he would only work for it. Burt didn’t answer. Within a few minutes he had drifted down the street, looking for an easier way to fill his stomach.

At that point we made a decision to take a “hands off” approach with Burt, and we stopped helping him in any way. Though it had been disheartening to feel like all that effort had resulted in so little progress, it was now even harder to watch Burt make bad choices and suffer the consequences. Yet we believed that a season of “hands off” was right. I personally felt hopeful, because Burt struck me as a Nebuchadnezzar character.

The Old Testament Book of Daniel tells how King Nebuchadnezzar gets full of himself and goes crazy. He wanders in the fields like an animal for seven years until he (in his own words) looks to the heavens and acknowledges the creator God. Then he is restored to his right mind and returned to a life of earthly glory, albeit as a kinder and gentler ruler.

The Nebuchadnezzar story said to me that if Burt would look up to the heavens, to God, he would find the security and peace that was so elusive to him. Rather than a life that replicated Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, he could be on Nebuchadnezzar’s path of restoration.

There’s no guarantee that the Nebuchadnezzars in our lives will look to the heavens. But that didn’t stop me from praying. I prayed that Burt would take his eyes off himself long enough to see that his situation could have been much worse. He wasn’t, for example, a kid from rural Mexico trapped between two options for survival: either sell drugs or leave his family and the land he loves for the perilous life of an illegal immigrant in the U.S.

Burt moved away from our community. His girlfriend got pregnant, gave birth, and they began to raise their son. Not long after they married.

And then my Nebuchadnezzar finally looked up.

With a wife and child, and living in a new community among many needs, Burt began to see life differently. Almost by instinct he opened his apartment to neighborhood boys as a type of after-school program. He saw these needed moral influences, so he tried to teach them sayings he remembered from Bible studies he’d done with us. Along the way, he got tired of his dismal circumstances.

“I knew there was something better,” he told me later, something he had seen in the lives of those who showed him long-term mercy. “The Holy Spirit took over one night and I just sat there. I could clearly see my selfish ways.” One day, he called our ministry asking for advice on structuring a youth program. The game had changed, and Burt was on the path to restoration.

My ability to walk that long path with Burt hinged on three things. First, I was part of a community rather than trying to help another person by myself. Being in a group meant that others could meet Burt’s needs when I was tired or without faith.

Second, we weren’t afraid to practice tough love, as we did in the “hands off” season and when we required actions from Burt in exchange for our benevolence.

Third, practicing long-term mercy required me to be around for the long-term. That doesn’t necessarily mean we must interact with an individual on a weekly basis for years on end. We may not see someone for years. But when he returns as a prodigal son, with proper humility and heart set right, being around long term means we embrace the individual anew and look forward to a new season of relationship.

This past winter Burt called me. He needed financial help taking two boys to Young Life camp. “Rudy,” he said, “I waited to ask you. I did everything I could to raise the funds myself. But the economy is tough. I can barely pay for what my family needs. Can you help?”

He approached me as a partner. I answered as one: “We’d love to help. Let’s talk details. Let’s make this happen.”


This article by Rodolpho Carrasco originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Discipleship Journal.