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‘The slow work of God’

DANIEL OF THE YEAR | In Honduras, many residents feel trapped by poverty, violence, and addiction. Michael Miller has spent two decades hitting the streets and devoting his life to some of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable

‘The slow work of God’

Miller with two boys at Micah House (Rebecca Drexel)

It’s a bright Sunday morning in Tegucigalpa, and Michael Miller is late for church.  

Miller serves as an elder at the bilingual Union Christian Church, but he’s spent the morning trying to talk a 15-year-old boy off the streets and back into the Micah Project—a Christian ministry Miller’s led for nearly 20 years. 

It’s been a long night.

A little after 2 a.m., another boy in the residential home awoke in a panic. Years of living on the streets of Tegucigalpa as a child left trauma in the teenager’s mind and soul that still disturbs him at night. Miller and another caregiver sat with him and calmed him in the early morning hours.

But by the time the congregation at Union Christian Church receives communion, Miller is sitting in his usual Sunday morning spot. He’s thankful the 15-year-old has agreed to return, and he’s focused on listening to a sermon that includes a reminder from Christ’s words: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

THAT’S A LESSON Miller chews on often.

He talks about it over a lunch of authentic Palestinian food here in the Honduran capital. Tegucigalpa’s large population of Palestinian immigrants is one of the unexpected layers in a city with other famous anomalies, including the dramatic 45-degree turn pilots execute when landing on the airport’s short runway in a valley surrounded by mountains.

These days, Honduras is famous for other reasons: Years of violence, corruption, and poverty have driven a surge in Honduran and other Central American migrants seeking to cross the U.S. border. The situation has created a political crisis in the United States as well.

But on a Sunday afternoon in Tegucigalpa, Miller is more interested in talking about the Hondurans who stay—particularly a deeply vulnerable population of street children who spend their days inhaling yellow glue from empty Coke bottles and begging for enough money to buy a meal.

It’s this population that Miller, 47, has devoted himself to helping for the last 20 years. 

Some of the boys in the Micah Project have kicked addiction, turned to Christ, grown up, and built careers and families of their own. Some have returned to the streets. A few have died tragic, early deaths. Miller loves each group, and he doesn’t expect quick or predictable results. When he sees a 13-year-old street kid, Miller imagines what he could be like in a decade.

He often thinks about what Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called “the slow work of God.” Miller says: “For us, trusting in the slow work of God means realizing these guys we really love may still have a very hard road ahead.”

For 20 years of praying, working, and waiting for the slow work of God in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Michael Miller is WORLD’s 2019 Daniel of the Year.

FOR MILLER, life in Honduras began in a literal storm.

In 1998, Miller moved to Tegucigalpa to work with another ministry to street children, but found himself dealing with a different calamity: Two months after he arrived, the deadliest hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere in 200 years swept straight through Honduras: More than 11,000 people died across Central America.

From his balcony in an apartment high on a mountain, Miller says, “I could see the city just coming down.” He could hear the river swelling far below in the valley, and he watched a neighborhood wash down the mountainside.

The entire city was devastated: Bridges collapsed, buildings fell, and thousands of homes were destroyed. Food and water shortages quickly followed. With no electricity and no cell phone, Miller wasn’t sure what to do or how he could help anyone else.

In some ways, a different kind of storm had prepared Miller for such a tumultuous start. 

Miller was raised in a Christian home in St. Louis, Mo., and still maintains close ties to Central Presbyterian Church (EPC)—the same congregation where he grew up. (His mother’s Sunday school class at the church has supported the Micah Project every month for the past 20 years.) 

Rebecca Drexel

Miller with two boys at Micah House (Rebecca Drexel)

After his junior year at Wheaton College, Miller spent a few months living in Honduras, working with a street ministry. He grew more passionate about helping vulnerable people but found his childhood faith shaken. “I fell off a cliff spiritually,” he says. “I really was trying to figure out how we can talk about a just and loving God when there are 9-year-olds using yellow glue on the streets.”

For a few years after college, Miller lived in Houston and worked as a bilingual schoolteacher. He was still struggling spiritually, and he calls those years his “wilderness experience.” Over time, he learned to grieve the sorrows he’d encountered, and he came to a deeper understanding of how God works in the brokenness of the world.

The crisis was formative: “If my faith had just been a straight line up, I wouldn’t have had an understanding or compassion for our guys when they go through dark nights of the soul.”

By 1998, Miller was back in Honduras, looking for ways to help those going through dark nights in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. He learned that a large group of residents from a neighborhood near the river had taken shelter at a church near Miller’s apartment. He stayed with them in the shelter for a week.

When electricity returned, Miller made treks to an internet café and started writing simple updates for friends and family back home. Supporters wanted to help, and they began sending donations.

Over time, Miller and other locals identified a large tract of land for sale high up a mountainside. Miller used the funds to help purchase the property, but the group didn’t have enough money to build homes.

Meanwhile, a Red Cross representative visited the area and said the relief agency had funds for building materials, but no access to land. The agency offered to donate the materials to the residents to begin building simple homes. Miller helped the 165 families form local councils, and they sent representatives to city meetings to ask for water, electricity, and other services.

When they completed the project, the residents asked Miller to let them name the neighborhood after him. He demurred, but eventually agreed to let them name it after his mother. Two decades later, many of the same families still live in the “Villa Linda Miller” community—a neighborhood locally known as “the Miller.” 

But as the hurricane victims were building new homes, Miller was still thinking about children who had no homes at all.

Rebecca Drexel

Pedro Martinez (Rebecca Drexel)

VISIT DOWNTOWN Tegucigalpa, and it won’t take long to find children and teenagers living all or most of the time on the streets and under the bridges of one of the oldest cities in Central America. 

In front of a Catholic church built in the 1700s, street merchants sell avocados and boys clutch empty soda bottles with a goopy mixture in the bottom. For less than a dollar, drug dealers sell enough industrial-strength shoe glue to keep a child high for most of the day. It works like a depressant, giving little boys a vacant, hollow stare.

Some of the children have been abandoned by parents who have gotten caught up in gangs, drugs, prostitution, or other crimes. Others have family members at home, but sometimes flee an abusive environment.

Miller says he started the Micah Project with the goal of providing a Christian home and family environment for street boys to live in. Pedro Martinez was one of the first boys Miller met after establishing the Micah Project in 2000. Today, the ministry’s Micah House sits on property adjacent to “the Miller” neighborhood.

On a recent Monday evening, Martinez, now 31, stopped by the ministry on his way home from work to lift weights with some of the older boys. He vividly remembers what it was like to be in their position.

Martinez says he first hit the streets when he was 7 years old. His mother abandoned him in a hotel room, and his father wasn’t in the home. His aunt took him in for a time, but she grew sick from cancer and died within a year.

“That’s when the reality of street life started for me,” he says. “There was no food. There was no one who told us right from wrong. No one who gave us limits.”

Martinez says he quickly started using yellow glue, and then moved to harder drugs. He spent his days looking for food and stealing money to buy drugs. He spent his nights with seven other boys looking for a safe place to sleep. Safety often eluded them. Martinez says he was sexually assaulted twice when he was 8 years old. When he was 10, he was caught in the crossfire of a gang attack and was seriously injured by a machete.

Still, his aspiration was to become a powerful gang member. That was the only life he could envision for himself. Martinez eventually met Miller and other staff members from Micah. But he was almost 13 before he agreed to live at the Micah House.

The transition was painful. He struggled with his addictions. He hated his mother for abandoning him. He thought about going back to the streets. He thought about killing himself.

Things eventually changed when he realized Miller and the others at Micah House were his family. “When they told me they loved me and they cared for me—when Michael told me that I could do it—I had never heard words like that before,” he says. “Sometimes we don’t understand that a fraction of a second can change a person’s life.”

Martinez still had plenty of struggles ahead, but he says Miller was like a father to him. He attended church, and began to learn God could bring good out of the evil he had experienced. 

He graduated from high school, and Miller helped him enroll in college. Martinez graduated with a degree in civil engineering a few years ago. On the day of his graduation, he says, he realized how big God is: “To be able to take someone like me from nothing … and now I was becoming a member of society.”

His new career has kept him close to home: Martinez worked on a city project to pave roads in the Miller neighborhood. He also planned the community’s water treatment plant. Five years ago, he married a woman he met in the neighborhood when they were teenagers. He points to the spot nearby where they married under the gazebo. They now have two children.

He’s come far from the underbelly of Tegucigalpa: “And you can go by and see any kid on the street with his yellow glue or his marijuana or his cocaine,” Martinez says, “and you realize—he could be somebody too.”

These days, Martinez drops by to have coffee each weekday morning with Miller, and he marvels at the sacrifices he’s seen Miller make over the years to serve generations of street kids. Martinez says Miller, who is single, has given his life for them. 

“He really is my father,” Martinez says. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own defects or failures … but he’s my family.”

Jamie Dean

Miller shows a street-connected boy a video about Micah Project  (Jamie Dean)

MILLER IS QUICK TO POINT OUT that not all stories have happy endings. He’s deeply thankful for Martinez and other men who have grown up in the Micah Project and gone on to live productive lives.

But he’s also known plenty of heartbreak. Sometimes boys leave the project. (He estimates 20 percent to 25 percent end up leaving.) Some return, but still struggle on and off for years as they continue to grapple with sin and sorrow. 

“A long time ago, I stopped doing the missionary speech—where everything is all happy and great,” Miller says. “There’s another side to it that American Christians especially need to know about—that often preaching the word of Christ to a broken population means that you’re going to deal with very significant loss and pain and disappointment.”

That loss has been especially acute over the last few years. 

In 2015, the ministry staffers experienced the first death of a boy they had cared for. In the last four years, they’ve buried eight boys they’ve either cared for or known from the streets. All the losses are hard, but a particularly excruciating loss came two years ago: A teenager who left the Micah Project in 2016 was later kidnapped and killed at the age of 14.

The losses left the staff reeling, and they left Miller grappling with what 20 years of ministry has reinforced for him: “I can’t save another human being.”

For the first few years, Miller says, he was uptight about showing results. “But I’ve learned that being a caregiver with a broken heart is much more effective than being a caregiver who thinks he has all the answers,” he says. “It makes me more compassionate, it makes me more forgiving of myself and the boys, and it makes me have to trust God—come what may.”

Jamie Dean

Elvin shows Miller his schoolwork (Jamie Dean)

DESPITE THE HEARTBREAK, there are still plenty of reasons to be hopeful. 

On a recent weekday morning, 15-year-old Elvin dropped by Miller’s office to show him his schoolwork. He’s one of 16 boys living in the Micah House now. Most are between the ages of 13 and 19. 

Elvin came to live at the Micah House in January. He had been on the streets since he was 9. It took almost two years after he met the Micah staff before he decided to live at the home.

That’s not uncommon. Children living on the streets usually have been making their own decisions for years. If they’re addicted to glue or other drugs, it’s hard to imagine giving that up. If they’ve bonded with other children for protection, they may feel they’re leaving a family behind.

When boys do arrive at Micah, the staff assesses their needs, including their academic level. Some have never been to school at all. The ministry provides teachers and tutors on-site and sets a schedule that’s realistic for each child. (Some children haven’t slept or eaten on a regular schedule for years, so the staff doesn’t impose a single formula on all the new residents.)

The boys attend morning devotions and church on Sundays, and Miller says daily discipleship through relationships with the Christian staff members is a crucial part of spiritual formation. (Staff members also go through training for trauma-informed counseling to learn how to respond to individual needs.)

Wendy Varela, a Micah social worker, tries to contact and work with any existing family members before bringing a boy to live at the home. She also works to keep the boys connected to their families while they stay at Micah.

This week, it was Elvin’s turn for a visit home. On a sunny morning, he loads the ministry van with a few simple gifts he wants to take to siblings and other children back home: a soccer ball, candy, and some shoes he asked permission to take from a storage closet at the ministry.

The van climbs high along rocky mountain roads before stopping at a street corner. Elvin runs to a tiny, two-room shack perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking a craggy hillside that runs down to a river where locals are bathing.

A group of five children and an older teenager greet Elvin, laughing and talking as he passes out gifts in the tiny house filled with a few beds. (His mother isn’t at home.) The group moves outside, and Elvin asks Varela for help to buy lunch for the group. They disappear down the steep roads and reappear a while later bearing a bag full of fried chicken and French fries. Elvin eagerly passes out plates full of food.

Later, he seems happy and content on the ride back to Micah. It was a good day, he says.

Back down in the city streets of Tegucigalpa, Miller and other Micah staffers spend an afternoon visiting boys still living on the streets where they met Elvin a few years ago. They hand out a bag of simple food from a local vendor and spend time talking with people they meet regularly through their ministry.

One of the boys, Jesús, has recently started using yellow glue. He’s 13 years old. He follows the group around, but has a vacant stare as he huffs on a bottle he grips in his hand. Miller hopes the staff can work to bring him into the Micah House in a few weeks. (Admission is voluntary and the boys are free to leave if they choose.)

For Jesús, the need appears urgent. His addiction will only grow worse, and the dangers of living on the streets will escalate. That may not be enough to convince him to give up street life, but this afternoon he gets a boost from someone who knows what it’s like. 

Junior, a 19-year-old who has lived at Micah House for a few years, is on his way through the square after going to an English class.

He meets Jesús and throws an arm around his shoulder. He talks to the boy for a couple of minutes before moving to others in the crowd. Later, he explains what he told the boy—that he used to be just like him, but he’s found a better life: “I told him there’s still time.”

Rebecca Drexel

(Rebecca Drexel)

MILLER KNOWS TIME DOES RUN OUT for some boys eventually, but he’s thankful to see how God has blessed his desire to create a Christian family for children living without one.

It’s a modest picture of the larger family of God that was on display at a Micah event last summer, when an American staff member decided to have her wedding at the Micah Project instead of back in the United States.

The couple invited family and friends from back home, but they also invited friends from the streets: On the wedding day, Micah staffers sent buses to the streets of Tegucigalpa to pick up street kids and prostitutes the ministry had befriended. When the buses arrived, volunteers offered a mini spa day, helping the women and children pick dresses, clothes, and shoes from a collection of beautiful garments sent by a donor. 

Near the same gazebo where Martinez got married a few years ago, a picture of the kingdom of God came into full view: People from different nations, from every walk of life, from the highways and hedges, standing together and celebrating a wedding feast. 

Twenty years after Miller started the ministry with just a few other people and a desire to nurture a family in one small corner of the world, he smiles when he thinks about the day. And he’s grateful for “beautiful signs of God’s grace on a daily basis. … It give us the energy to keep going forward.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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  •  Lowell W's picture
    Lowell W
    Posted: Thu, 11/07/2019 04:40 pm

    Great article Jamie. I have a friend in Tegucugalpa who does the same thing as Miller but she does it on a lot smaller budget. I'm glad there are folks like Miller and my friend, Amber Foster, who care enough to live there and try their best to make a difference.