Host Dad’s Perspective by Stephen Schahrer
“Hi, my name is James and I will change your life…” Okay, those weren’t his first words to me but they may as well have been.
My family has the privilege of serving the ministry of Better Together as a host family. When I first heard about Better Together, I did have certain reservations. As a father of an infant, my first inclination was to protect my own. A million and one circumstances that could arise crossed my mind. Admittedly, the most extreme of scenarios raced through my head. What if we brought a child into the home that caused harm to my own child or my wife?
As I learned more about the program, my initial objections began to subside and I realized my fears were misplaced. Better Together is a voluntary program to help mothers and fathers in crisis. Unlike foster care, no one is taking these children away from their parents. Rather, in many instances, the parents are faced with an impossible choice: surrender their kids to the state or allow their children to face homelessness.
Take the first single mother we served, for example. She escaped a domestic violence situation with a six and a three-year-old. There was room for the mother at a women’s shelter but no room for her children. Had Better Together not been there, she would have been left with the impossible choice of either calling DCF on herself or living on the streets with her kids. Instead, my wife and I were able to host her two children until she was able to move into a new apartment. We regularly met with this mother so she could spend time with her children. She was extremely grateful and was always present when her children needed her.
Better Together is focused on helping parents take care of their children and recover from crises. We can move over a bit and welcome these children into our home. It has been worth every minute.
So back to James. He was a special case. Before we met James, he had lost his mother to an unexpected heart attack. As his mother was the primary caretaker of the family, James’s father became overwhelmed with the responsibility to both work and care for his three children. Through a series of events, James’s father became solely responsible for James with no support system and faced living in his car with his ten-year old boy.
That’s when we got the call. Now, this wasn’t an ordinary placement. Given the circumstances, the team at Better Together knew this would be a minimum 90-day placement. We would be in this for the long haul. They also knew to tell us that James had a history of behavioral issues both in school and at home. My wife and I nervously listened as Better Together explained all of James’s history. Our hearts broke for him on the spot. We knew we had to try. We accepted the placement not knowing how our home and our hearts would be changed forever.
To say James was a difficult kid would be the understatement of the year. The first time I told James “no” he proceeded to throw my young daughter’s toys around the room in anger. Don’t worry. Things improved with time and structured, healthy discipline (I told you, we were in it for the long haul). But I saw something in James that I hadn’t seen in any other kid. Every time he would break down, I could sense a feeling of abandonment and desperation in his eyes. After some more talking with James, I learned that many people in his life (besides his dad and his late mother) gave up on him when he was difficult to deal with. Whether it was his teacher, family caretaker, or otherwise, I could see how this sense of abandonment had shaped his life. Unfortunately, I knew what this meant for our family: we couldn’t give up on James, no matter how difficult.
Over the next few months, we started to work with James on his behavior. We also started talking to him about how much we cared about him. He was skeptical at first. He just didn’t believe that we actually cared about him. I think this was in part because of how many people hadn’t followed through on that. His behavior slowly improved, but more than that, I started to see James’s hard exterior softening. I would come home to find him snuggled up on the couch next to my wife. I started to hear him talk about his future with hope and purpose. You see, when James was given the safety of knowing that no matter what happens, he has people in his court and on his side, he started to view the world as a place to explore and he started to actually believe that not everyone was out to hurt him. A heart of stone, hardened by abandonment, was softening before my very eyes.
The day we met James, one of the things he was most proud to tell me was that he did not believe in God and that, if there was a God, he hated Him. I believe he thought his pronouncement would cause me external surprise and dismay but, to his surprise, I was not shocked by his statement. How can you blame a ten-year-old for not being able to see how a good God would let him lose his mother? I could see his pain and I knew God saw it too. As time went on, our family had the opportunity to demonstrate the gospel to James. A ten-year-old, for the most part, can only believe what he sees. So, for the first couple months he was with us, he watched and he asked questions. How could God let his mom die? How can God love everyone? What about the bad people?
We never “preached” to James. In fact, my wife and I weren’t sure that it was our responsibility to even attempt to reach James with our words. Of course, we answered his questions, we talked about the Gospel, and as is our regular practice, talked openly about the things of God in our home. James was increasingly intrigued and increasingly open to these conversations.
One day, my phone rang while I was in a meeting at work. Seeing that it was my wife, I picked up. I honestly expected something to have gone wrong with James. Instead, I could hear joyful tears in her voice as she said, “James has something to tell you.” James picked up the phone and said, “Stephen, I have decided to become a son of God.” Writing this, I still remember the way I felt on the other end of the phone—shocked but overwhelmed with hope and joy.
As we spoke about this decision more with James, we learned that, by chance, he picked up a book off our bookshelf titled Radical by David Platt. He read only the first few pages and was immediately drawn to put his faith in Jesus.
James went on to be reunited with his father who had also turned his heart towards Jesus through his Better Together mentor. You see, God was doing something in James and his father that was so much bigger than my family and even Better Together. God had brought James and his father into our lives so that he could reach them both with his Gospel and his Grace. Jesus didn’t need us to preach, teach, or otherwise explain. He simply called us to love people who were desperately in need of some stability and consistency. Jesus simply needed the context through which to work. He sent His Spirit to do the heavy lifting and brought two souls from darkness to light.
James touched our family in a way that I cannot even begin to describe to you. We watched for months as God literally transformed a heart of stone to flesh right before our eyes. To see the work of God so up close and personal changes you…for the better. No one is too far gone and God leaves no one behind. Because of Better Together, we were able to be the hands and feet of Jesus to James and his father and we are forever changed because of it.
People often ask me how I can open up my home to house children in crisis. I usually tell them that I do it because God has given me the capacity to care for others in need and I would be remiss to reject his call to care for those who have been abandoned. Make no mistake, it can be difficult. It will involve some risk. But it is worth it. Every time.