Prodigal Forgiveness

Nine years ago, in my idealism, I thought I was coming to Freetown to help, to serve. Now I am much more aware of God’s intentions to undo and remake me.

Skinny spritely Jonathan* was about thirteen when I met him nine years ago. He was living “in the park” then, sleeping on makeshift market stalls and scrounging around for sweeping jobs when he wasn’t stealing or smoking pot.

Over the years Johnny has participated in Lighthouse, a holistic program to help youth reunite with their families, build relationships with Christians, hear the Word of God, and attend schooling or trades training.  We’ve been through many seasons together, Johnny and me. At first he loved the idea and image of going to school, much more than actually attending and studying. How many times did his tireless Lighthouse leaders search for this truant student? I cannot count.

Slowly, like the shift from winter to spring, this morphed into a genuine curiosity and love of learning. In recent years Jonathan’s inquisitiveness has broadened from merely academic interest into a genuine hunger for God and truth. A couple years ago he initiated an ongoing accountability partnership by asking one of the WMF community members to meet with him regularly to discuss some of his struggles. Meanwhile he has gained trust and been given leadership responsibilities among the rest of the WMF community. It was my secret hope that Jonathan would join us in accompanying and supporting more youth towards Jesus and community in years to come.

Then one of his buddies suffered a psychotic break after a drug overdose about a month ago. In the following days, between the violent rants and rages, this friend weeped rivers as he shared his own tragic story for the first time. Confessions of theft and trickery jumbled and tumbled out of his shattered consciousness as well, implicating Johnny as a drug dealer and ring leader. Further investigations have confirmed that over $1000 of property have been taken from Alé Alé House and sold on the streets of Freetown.

My heart is heavy. My intestines are in knots. I’m finding it difficult to take treasonous thoughts captive as they accuse him, accuse me.

So I sit for a long time with Rembrant’s Return of the Prodigal Son, just like Nouwen. Grace is so f***in’ scandalous. And crazy. And vulnerable. Forgiveness is so hard. 70 x 7, REALLY? Now? Today? Does this really mean welcome and embrace?

I am acutely aware of how much I need that grace. I sit dry and well-fed in my nice apartment. Meanwhile my brothers and sisters in Kroo Bay are trying to wrestle and wring out their mattresses that have become muddy sponges, soaked in cholera-infested flood water.

Candlesticks from Les Miserables dance in my head, inviting me. On stage it is so simple, straightforward. This is really messy here, like the miry muck of the Kroo Bay flooding.

“But he almost killed his friend,” my mind defends. “How many cases of MANNA (a peanut based nutritional supplement) did he deprive the little ones in Kroo Bay of? Can the tender broken heart of his accountability partner ever dare to trust again? How many times have we already forgiven Jonathan, just to endure more deception?”

Oh this name we have chosen: WORD MADE FLESH. Oh his invitation to incarnate unconditional love and grace now. How do I put a heavy gutteral sigh into print?

God, how much easier would it be to serve with an NGO, writing reports and creating projects devoid of deep relationship and understanding? The air conditioning and 4-wheel drives, as tantalizing as they are, are not half as appealing as the airy false freedom from the true responsibility for reconciliation required of an authentic life. Richard Rohr pokes fun at the meritocracy that waters down grace in many Christians’ worldview. Sitting in silence with the Prodigal Father, I realize how many of these “ifs” and “whens” and other stipulations mold my own consciousness and actions as I try to process the revelations of recent days.

Jesus washed Judas’ feet. Can I wash Jonathan’s again, when my whole body is wrenched with disappointment? How do my friends in Kroo Bay warmly welcome me, day after day?

Oh Holy Spirit, transform me. Renew me.


*Name has been changed.


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