My Year With Sam
By Leigh McLeroy
The first time “Sam” and I met was at a group home for boys not far from the neighborhood where I grew up. I knew a lot more about him that day than he knew about me, but those facts afforded me no comfort at all.
Sam had entered foster care when he was just a few months old. He hadn’t seen his birth mother since that time; he did not know the identity of his biological father. In the interim years, his living situation had been only sporadically stable, and away living on the street for many weeks, he had landed in an inner-city youth shelter, then in a psychiatric hospital. When he was released, no one who had previously cared for him was willing to take Sam in. The state placed him in the group home as a stopgap measure until he reached the legal age of adulthood.
Sam needed help preparing for “emancipation.” That’s what they call it when a child who has been in foster care reaches 18 and is sent out on his own. It’s a strange term for a boy turning 18 with no family to take him in, no job, no driver’s license, no high school diploma, and more unmatched baggage than an airport carousel could disgorge in a week. And that’s where I had come in.
Because I’d volunteered with children in protective case-worker phoned me. She explained Sam’s situation and apologized for even asking if I might be willing to help. “It looks pretty bleak,” she confessed, “and I really don’t know if there’s much we can do for him.” I stalled for time, telling her things I was sure she already knew: I was in the middle of a very busy season at work, and as a single woman from an “all chick” family, I knew hardly enough about teenage boys to fill a thimble. Surely there was someone better suited to the assignment than me?
She didn’t disagree with any part of my argument, but when I was done she said this: “I completely understand. I do. But I called you because I knew if you took this kid on, you would pray for him… and he needs it.” For the rest of the workday, I couldn’t get Sam out of my mind. I read his file on my lunch hour, and the situation described on its pages quite literally terrified me. I would be utterly and completely out of my comfort zone from day one—and I knew it. But on the drive home, I began to pray, asking God for wisdom to make the right choice, even as I ordered my arguments to Him against my saying yes.
Less than a hundred yards from my driveway, my heart was pierced by these words from out of nowhere: “He is yours.” No, I didn’t hear voices that day. I never have. But I knew. I just knew. And as disconcerting to me as the words were; I believed that to ignore them would prove even more risky. So I said yes to something I feared would change my life.
If I had known then what the next 11 months would bring, I’m certain I would have wisely refused to become involved. And that would have been a terrible loss for both of us.
The group home was a converted single-family residence in a sadly dilapidated state. It sat back on a large lot at the end of an unpaved, rutted driveway. A basketball goal with no net leaned awkwardly over the side patio, and a rusted weight bench stood outside the garage. The front door was sorely in need of paint, and a pane of glass was missing from the front window. I wasn’t sure if the doorbell was operative, so I knocked loudly. The group home’s director answered within a few seconds. “I’ll get Sam,” he said as he directed me toward the living room sofa. When I sat on it, I nearly sank through to the floor.
As Sam came in I stood and extended my hand. He looked momentarily confused, then offered his in a weak handshake. I had braced myself for a big, tough-looking, angry kid. This boy was a tall, quiet waif who probably weighed less than 130 pounds soaking wet. His black hair was straight and thick and hung to just below his chin. His skin was a rich, exotic olive, and his eyes were deep brown. With a little creative art direction and better clothes, he could have been a hollow-checked, vacant-eyed blue jeans model in a fashion magazine spread. He flopped on the end of the couch, and I sat too, explaining why I had come and what I hoped we might accomplish together in the next few months. If he agreed (and he did, without protest), I would see him every week, and we would do what we could to get him ready to be on his own.
Before I left that day, I took a photograph of Sam kneeling in front of the television set. He wasn’t smiling, but his eyebrows were raised skeptically at me as if he were amused. I still have the photo. I left him a number where I could be reached, along with a spiral notepad and a couple of felt-tipped pens; I encouraged him to write down anything he wanted us to talk about the next time I came. I stayed less than an hour—the shortest visit we would ever have. I don’t believe he thought I would be back. I couldn’t understand how a boy like him had become so hopelessly alienated and lost. Or what I could possibly do to change that.
My generation is big on return-on investment. We want results. We don’t invest in much of anything unless we’re relatively certain we’ll be rewarded. But following the
King into the mysteries of the kingdom may demand that we deny our rush to “cash in” and introduce ourselves to the discipline of long, unmeasured spending. Some might call this lack of foresight. But not Jesus. He would call it faithful obedience—and He doesn’t relent in asking for it.
Sam stole my heart away. He was not the son I had always wanted, but for nearly a year, he was the son-of-someone-else that I got, and he struggled at almost every turn. Academically he was far, far behind and had difficulty focusing on simple tasks. Spiritually a darkness surrounded him that I feared and prayed against with great diligence. Socially he was a misfit, and worse, he knew it. On the evening before his first day back in public school after a long stint in an alternative study environment, I asked him if he was feeling apprehensive.
“Yeah, kind of,” he admitted.
“What makes you most worried?” I asked, thinking he might say “Algebra” or “English” or something else we might talk through together.
He hung his head and after a long time said, “What if no one lets me sit with them at lunch?”
I hadn’t thought of that, but he had. And the uncertainty on his face when he choked out the words nearly undid me. I was beginning to understand what it must be like to be the parent of a wayward kid—and it hurt a lot more than I ever thought it might.
We had our ups and downs, Sam and me. But after a while he began to believe it when I said I would be there—that I wasn’t leaving. He acted out to test me on it. Often. I went to school meetings and talked to counselors. I pushed for a better living situation and mediated disagreements. But mostly I showed up when I said I would, listened hard, and tried to offer him some of my hope.
At times his behavior was so outrageous and immature that I wanted to scream; he would say something so thoughtless or crude that I wished I could hide. After he had skipped school one day, breaking the explicit rules of the behavioral contract we had drafted together, he asked me if this latest infraction meant I was “through with him.”
“What do you mean, ‘through with you’?”
“I mean, are you going to quit coming around?”
“No, Sam, I’m not.”
“Because I love you; and because we have a deal.”
“I don’t know why you love me,” he said. “No one else does.”
I wasn’t sure myself, but the words that came out next were wiser than me, and truer than I knew: “I love you because I’ve decided to and because when you’re acting not-so-lovable, God helps me to.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.
“Oh,” he finally said. “That’s good.”
Every time he got close enough to success to smell it, Sam acted out or sabotaged his progress. Every time he began to let himself be comfortable with goodness, he felt the irrepressible urge to run, and most of the time, he did. There were periods of calm in between, but like every roller coaster, you knew what was coming after the climb. One Sunday in May, the phone rang.
“Hey,” said Sam. “What are you doing?”
“Just got back from my parents’ house, what about you?”
“Uh, nothing. I just called to wish you happy Mother’s Day. I mean, you’re not my mom or anything, but you’re the closest thing I have right now. So…” He paused and waited. He had run out of words.
“Yeah, I know.” Then his voice lowered to a whisper, as if he were afraid someone else might hear. “I, uh, love you too.”
Three weeks later, he went missing. A week after that, he was found by the social worker assigned to him. As I hung up the phone after her call, I began making plans to visit Sam in a place I’d never been before: the county jail.
By this point my friends had begun to question my continued involvement with Sam, and my family had voiced more than a little concern about the heartbreak I had let into my life. But I wasn’t counting the cost. For perhaps the first time ever, I wasn’t running a balance sheet in my head. I was spending whatever resources I could muster—even ones I didn’t think I had—because I wanted my lost sheep to be found. And not be me, by the only one who could safely carry him home.
The county detention facility was even worse than I expected. I cried the whole time I was there—so hard when I first saw him that I couldn’t even speak. Sam looked at me through the glass that separated us and said over and over again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t get my breath—it was as if someone had pounded me on the chest to restart my heart and then just kept wailing away. For the next few weeks Sam would spend his one phone call a day dialing my number. Each time I answered, an automated voice would ask if I would accept his collect phone call. We could speak for only a few minutes. I had more than a few minutes’ worth to say, so I began to write and mail letters I was sure he probably read quickly, if at all, then just as quickly threw away.
When Sam was released more than a month later and I picked him up, he had three things in the pockets of his baggy cargo pants: a bus token, a condom, and a handful of letters that had been folded and refolded so often they were falling apart.
I wish I could report that this lost boy’s story has a happy ending. I wish I could say that efforts made on his behalf resulted in a miraculous turnaround for Sam. They didn’t and they haven’t—but perhaps someday they may. Like the prodigal’s father, I still watch the road and hope. I go to bed at night and pray that tomorrow I might hear some news, that tomorrow I might know he’s made a way out of the even deeper hole he du for himself. I spent a lot on Sam—and it looks for all the world like I spent for nothing. But I don’t regret a minute of it, even though it crushed my heart. I believe I would spend just as liberally if I heard the words “he is yours” again. Because Sam wasn’t just any lost cause. He was my lost cause. And I wasn’t recruited to save him. I was recruited only to spend lavishly on his behalf.
The last letter I wrote probably never reached Sam. I still pray its words.
Do you still have the phone numbers I gave you? Are you ready yet to change your life? I love and miss you, but until you’re ready to do something good for yourself, there’s not much more I can do for you—except pray for you daily, which I do. Do you want to know what I pray, Sam? I pray this prayer from a poet named John Donne, who actually prayed it for himself—except when I pray, I put your name in it:
O Lord, You have set up many candlesticks and kindled many lamps for my child, but he has either bloen them out or carried them to guide him in forbidden ways. You have given him a desire of knowledge, and some means to it; but he has armed himself with weapons against You. Yet, O God, have mercy upon him. Let not his life. But let him, in spite of himself, be of so much use to Your glory that by Your mercy other sinners may see how much sin You will pardon.
That may not make sense to you now, Sam—or you may not even care that you are prayed for. Matters not. You are.
When you are ready to make a change, I’m ready to support you and encourage you in it. You know where you need to start. I’ll wait to hear from you.
Where is Sam now? I don’t know. What difference did I make in his life? I can’t say for certain. To the naked eye it doesn’t look like my love made much of a dent at all. Here we spend lavishly without the certainty that our investment will pay off. Here we don’t always get the delightful resolution that rings so joyfully true in the parable of the prodigal son. Here we fall asleep with doubts and nagging questions and wake in the morning with no better answers than we had the night before.
If I didn’t believe there was more, I might despair. If I thought I was the only one looking, praying, spending, I might give up. But I know better:
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16)
I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true: Until this lost one disappeared, I had no idea how my own wanderings must have pierced the heart of God. But I do now. I know that His eye was trained on me and that He knew my whereabouts all along. I know He watched each wayward step and called to me in a voice that never stopped beckoning, pleading. Because He did so much for me, I wish I could have done more for Sam. I wish I had been wiser. I wish I had called sooner. Stayed on the phone longer. Asked more questions. Demanded more answers.
But more than anything, even today I wish to see my good Shepherd walking toward me, carrying on His shoulders the lost sheep I still love named Sam.
Article “My Year With Sam” written by Leigh McLeroy is taken from Discipleship Journal” the 2007 May/June edition.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”