by Burt Rosen
Not long after our oldest son, Matthew, disappeared after dropping out of college, my wife Carolyn and I, not knowing whether this would be a shortlived experience, sought counsel from our pastor. He meant well, but only offered supposedly comforting phrases like “God has all of this under control.” He wanted to assure us that God knew all about Matthew and that He would bring him home. While the comments were theologically correct, we found no comfort in them. Our family had never experienced anything like this and we were beside ourselves. We had no idea what to do. We already knew we needed to trust God. But we were looking for more than what our pastor offered. We were looking for some guidance and support.
I vividly recall how often Carolyn would look out the front door to see if Matthew might be sleeping out on the porch swing, having come home in the middle of the night. That was hope in action.
Well, Matthew didn’t come home. Weeks turned into months … months became a year. Then two … three … four … five. Still no Matthew. Still no word. But we never lost hope that Matthew would return. It was all we had to hold on to since we assumed he was still alive.
After Matthew had been gone several years, with me continuing my daily Google searches, Carolyn was struck with this notion — this hope, if you will — that Matthew, like King Nebuchadnezzar (who had lost his mind, but had it restored after seven years), would have his mind restored as well and show up on doorstep at the seventh year, healthy, of sound mind, whole, saying, “Mom and Dad, I’m home.” I vividly recall how often Carolyn would look out the front door to see if Matthew might be sleeping out on the porch swing, having come home in the middle of the night. That was hope in action. That was Carolyn holding on to hope. Well, seven years came and went. Still no Matthew. Hope dashed. A reed bruised. But a smoldering wick not stuffed out.
We hung on to hope.
And then there are the robocalls. You know how that is. Phone rings. You say hello, but there is no one there. Silence, as the automated dialer notifies somebody that a live person is on the line. In the silence, instead of hanging up, Carolyn asks, “Matthew, is that you? It this you, Matthew?” No answer. “Matthew, if this is you, we love you, we miss you, and want you to come home.” Never an answer. Click. Was it ever him? Who knows? Yet we hold on to hope.
We know that our real hope is only found in Jesus. But I am talking about a different kind of hope here: the kind that parents have for the full recovery for their seriously injured child. Or for a missing child, hoping the child will be found. The hope, bolstered by prayer, that everything will be OK. But with no answers on the immediate horizon, hope must hang on until there is some resolution. In our case, the hope is for some closure to what Carolyn refers to as “mourning the living.” Closure, even with bad news, allows a person to move on.
God — as He is known to do — uses situations in our lives to ultimately reveal His glory and sometimes, as in our case, to redirect our lives. Such is our story.
I directed a halfway house in Miami, Florida, for 10 years, followed by 17 years of working with Prison Fellowship Ministries. It was in our final years there that it became clear change was in the wind, that God — as it reads in Numbers 9 — was going to move our cloud. And so we prayed. But after hearing no voices, seeing no donkey in the middle of the road and no handwriting on a wall, our “ask” of God was to show us what He would have us do. We had thought when Carolyn survived cancer and we experienced firsthand what that does to a family, we might be called to work with families experiencing similar trauma. Nope. Then, after a near-fatal accident put Carolyn in a wheelchair (permanently, we thought), we experienced personally and for the first time just how challenging life can be. Carolyn did walk again thanks to God, great rehab, and the miracle of titanium. With that new sensitivity to life’s challenges, we wondered if God might be leading us to a great ministry like Joni and Friends. Nope.
Neither of us ever imagined our son would drop out college, become homeless, and disappear. Never. Matthew is one of four children. A stellar student, he played high school football and decided on Virginia Tech for college, where we visited him often. In his third year, something went awry. Matthew dropped out of school and came home. But the son who came home was not the son who had gone off to school. He eventually disappeared for what has now been 21 years. No trace. A year after his disappearance, I received a call from a search firm inquiring if I would consider an opportunity to become the next CEO for Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM). Nope, I thought. But God had other plans, and Carolyn and I have been with KARM since 2003.
But with no answers on the immediate horizon, hope must hang on until there is some resolution. In our case, the hope is for some closure to what Carolyn refers to as “mourning the living.” Closure, even with bad news, allows a person to move on.
When we first arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, people were interested to know what brought us here. We shared our work journey and how having our son disappear to the streets impacted us and ultimately brought us to KARM. It was amazing how many people came to us afterwards, privately, to share similar heartaches. People in churches, Sunday school classes, and civic clubs were struggling with their own “prodigals.” These are people you and I interact with regularly — people you might never suspect, who are sitting in the pews with you at church, quietly dying on the vine.
In our work here we have seen similar stories lived out. The child has disappeared for a variety of reasons, sometimes wanting to be found … sometimes not. Regardless of the reason for a family member disappearing, whether the person ends up homeless or not, families begin to search — for answers, and for their missing loved ones. They, like Carolyn and me, want to understand what happened. But after a while, worry sets in, and before long things have changed from being initially hopeful to thinking the worst. In time, as hope is deferred, the heart becomes sicker. You’ll hear or read of someone saying, “I don’t know how I’ll live if I do not find my son, daughter, mom, dad.” And his or her search can lead to a mission.
The woman shared that her son was a drug addict and could not live at home, but she had not heard from him in a long time and only wanted to know, “Is my son still alive?” She just needed to know — to hold on to that hope.
Recently, Carolyn was walking through the KARM hallway, near the front door as a sobbing woman entered. Carolyn, of course, wanted to know how she could help. The woman shared that her son was a drug addict and could not live at home, but she had not heard from him in a long time and only wanted to know, “Is my son still alive?” She just needed to know — to hold on to that hope.
About a year ago, I received an email from a mom and dad informing us that their 38-year-old son had stayed at KARM in 2019 and wondering if he had come back. After verifying the facts, I was able to confirm that their son did stay with us in 2019, but has not been back. “But,” I said, “if you are asking us if he is here, it means you do not know where he is.” I was able to share that my wife and I understood what that’s like, and if they would ever find it helpful to have someone speak with, to hold their hands, to help them hold on to hope as they search, we would be pleased to do so.
We are in Knoxville, the other couple is not, but we have been Zooming for 11 months now, offering encouragement, prayer, and the opportunity to share and work through the guilt, shame, embarrassment, and other feelings that can make most days, but holidays especially, challenging. In our home, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is always an empty seat at the table.
For those of us in mission work, we make the holidays special for those we serve — and rightly so. It is and should be part of what we do for our homeless neighbors. Special meals. Gifts. As Carolyn and I and our other kids serve Thanksgiving here at KARM, we delight in the joy it brings to our guests, a taste of home if you will. Yet we are always mindful that for most of the hundreds we serve that day, a seat at the KARM table likely means an empty seat at the family table at home. And there is always a reason for the estrangement, albeit many different ones. It is painful for everyone.
Joshua Coleman, in his July 28, 2022 article in The Atlantic, writes that as a psychologist specializing in family estrangement, his days are spent sitting with parents who are struggling with profound feelings of grief and uncertainty. “If I get sick ... will my son break his four years of silence and contact me? Or will I just die alone?” “How am I supposed to live with this kind of pain if I never see my daughter again?”
A large number of these estranged children and adults are living in our shelters. Some want desperately to be reconnected to their families — others do not. Regardless, there are likely families worried about them, even if living back at home is not an option. Families just want, and arguably need. to know if their child is alive.
Broken relationships are often a major contributor to other life challenges that can lead to homelessness. I suspect such breaks can be found in most of the nearly 600,000 people who are living in shelters. One report indicates that 70 percent of that number are individuals, and the rest are people in families with children.
Born from our experience, Carolyn and I recently launched Hold On To Hope, a ministry to the family members often forgotten when we think about family ministry for the homeless. We are working with Citygate Network and others to establish a nationwide network of people who understand and are willing to help other parents hold on by providing prayer, support, and encouragement for as long as necessary.
Burt is CEO Emeritus at Knox Area Rescue Ministries (Knoxville, Tennessee) where he served for 19 years before retiring in 2022, and he has served on Citygate Network’s board. He and his wife Carolyn have four children and launched the Hold On To Hope ministry in May 2022.
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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.