Dispatches

A Prayer for Love

A simple prayer brought about lasting change for an at-risk nine-year-old.

Sarah Wilkins

“You’re here,” nine-year-old Sam said when he saw me at his classroom door.

“Of course I’m here,” I answered. “I come to see you every Friday.” He smiled without looking at me. “I know. Every Friday, no matter what.” He looked up at me uncertainly. “Because we’re friends, right?”

My heart melted at his apprehension. It was a look I hadn’t seen in months, but it used to be the only expression his face ever held.

Thank you, God, for the progress we’ve made, I thought silently. Out loud I said, “Yes, we’re friends. Friday is my favorite day of the week because that’s the day I get to see you.”

“It’s my favorite day too,” he said quietly, and I had to look away before he saw my tears.

Three years ago, I’d signed up to be a mentor to an at-risk student through the Kids Hope program. Our church had partnered with the elementary school on our street, and dozens of church members had agreed to meet with a student for one hour each week. At the time, it seemed like an easy way to serve the Lord, but it turned out to be anything but easy.

The first time I’d met with Sam, he’d spent nearly our entire hour in the nurse’s office because he’d had a potty accident. He was seven at the time.

It happened more often than not that entire first year.

Sam rarely spoke and never smiled. He was in first grade for the second time, but he still didn’t know all of his letters. His clothes and face were often dirty. His teacher had told me a bit about his home life, and it broke my heart.

For the first half of our time together, we worked on his academic deficiencies, but we were allowed to play a game for the second half. One day, I noticed that Sam was wearing a shirt with a cartoon character on it.

“Do you like that show?” I asked him. Without looking up, he nodded almost unperceivably. The next week, I brought two games that featured his favorite character. I was excited about it, thinking I might finally earn a smile from him.

But the new games got no reaction at all. Neither did the special snacks I brought, nor the Christmas gift or birthday present.

“I dread going to see him,” I confessed to my husband, Eric. “It’s been six months of weekly visits, and he still won’t even look at me. It’s so discouraging. I want to give up.”

“He’s been through a lot in his young life,” Eric said. “A lot of adults have let him down. It’s going to take him a long time to learn that he can trust you.”

“But I go there every single week,” I said. “I brought cupcakes for his class on his birthday because I wanted to make him feel special. I’ve done everything I can, and I’ve still never even seen him smile.” In tears, I added, “It’s hard to keep loving on someone who you don’t really love.”

That was the ugly truth. I’d really wanted to love Sam, but I just didn’t. My own children were easy for me to love. Of course, because they were mine, but also because our relationship wasn’t one-sided. When I did things for them, they smiled and thanked me. My own kids loved me back.

Sam, it seemed, felt nothing toward me.

And sadly, the feeling was mutual.

I’d always heard that when dealing with a difficult person, we should “fake it until we make it.” That is, treat them with love until one day, we realize we actually do love them. I’d been trying that for six months, and it hadn’t worked.

“Lord, I don’t want to give up on Sam,” I prayed. “Help me to get through to him. Help him learn to trust me. But most of all, help me to genuinely love him. Help me to see him through Your eyes and love him like You love him.”

I prayed this prayer every day for nearly a year. Many times, I wanted to give up. Sam didn’t seem to care if I came to see him or not, so why was I wasting my time, I thought every Friday morning as I drove to the school.

Then during one of our mentoring sessions, Sam told me that he was moving across town and would be attending a different school in our district. Because the Kids Hope program partners one church with a specific school, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue to mentor Sam. I explained this to him and said, “But don’t worry, they’ll find you a new mentor at your new school.”

“But I already know you,” he said. And then he started crying.

His tears shocked me. I’d never seen him show any emotion at all, and now he was crying because we might not see each other anymore. 

I called my husband as soon as I left the school. “Sam’s moving,” I said when he answered. “I don’t know if I should continue to see him.”

“Well, you haven’t felt like you were making much difference,” Eric said. “Maybe this is a good way to transition out of the program.”

“That’s what I thought too, but Sam started crying when I told him.” I burst into tears. “And now, I don’t know what to do.”

“Take the weekend and pray about it,” Eric suggested.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. One of my favorite verses kept running through my head. It said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

I knew it was God, telling me that He wanted me to keep mentoring Sam. I contacted the Kids Hope director and obtained permission to see him at his new school.

But the first time I went there, Sam’s teacher told me he was absent that day. I was so disappointed, but as I went to leave, I spotted him in the hallway. He’d missed the bus and had just arrived at school. 

When he saw me, he smiled and ran toward me. “You came here, to my new school?” he asked. 

I nodded. “They said I could. I’ll be here every Friday.” Without thinking, I put out my arms. I’d never hugged him before because I didn’t think he’d be comfortable with it, but today, it just felt right. He stepped into the hug and giggled. It was the first time I’d ever heard him laugh. As I hugged him, my heart swelled with love for him. In that moment, I felt a flood of love for this poor, forgotten little boy. I knew God had answered my prayer. I hadn’t given up, and now, just like Galatians 6:9 says, I would reap a harvest—a harvest of love, little boy giggles, and even the occasional hug. 

I still see Sam every Friday, but now, I look forward to it. He’s still extremely quiet, and he still makes me earn every smile and every giggle. He’s still behind in his school work, and he still occasionally has potty accidents. 

On the outside, very little has changed. But on the inside, nothing is the same. 

God loves Sam just as he is, and with God’s help, now I do too. 

Diane Stark, is a writer, wife, and mother of five in Indiana.

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