Brian's prayer*

Mercy Home for Boys & Girls

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By Julie Rattey

*Based on the story of a Mercy Home resident. Names have been changed for privacy

Brian, 13, awoke just as the night sky was fading to dawn one Saturday in St. Robert, Missouri. The air that gently lifted the curtains in his windows was cool and inviting. It was a perfect morning to go fishing with his dad. Brian leapt out of bed excitedly, his bare feet warm on the cool floor. He had one arm inside a fresh Tshirt, one out, when memory hit like a punch to the stomach. His dad was gone.

Brian sat back on his bed, pulling on the T-shirt and listening to James, his older half-brother, sleeping soundly in the adjacent bed. A few days ago, Brian had awoken around 6 a.m. to a more disturbing sound — his parents arguing about their relationship. Again. Things had gotten worse between them after they both got out of jail. That particular morning, their voices were particularly passionate, full of sharp words dropping like hail.

“I can’t deal with this no more,” he’d heard his dad say. And then, a few minutes later, he was gone. Brian had kept hoping he would come back, but a sinking feeling said he never would.

Brian looked over at James. Soon the comedian of the family would be up, smiling and joking, making him and his mother laugh. Brian looked up to James; he was smart, funny, and strong. Brian’s dad wasn’t James’ father, but he had been a father figure to him. James, then, had been abandoned twice, but he hadn’t let that knock him down.

God, Brian prayed, please promise me You’ll make something good of out of all this. Things have to change.

A soft knock came at the door. “Boys? You awake?”

The door opened, stirring James from sleep. It was early, but their mother looked as though she had been up for hours. She stood awkwardly in the door frame.

“The landlord stopped by.” Brian noticed dark circles under his mother’s eyes. “We have to leave.”

James blinked. “What?”

Their mother rubbed her face with her hands, as though she longed to go back to bed until tomorrow and see if the world looked any friendlier then. She sat down on Brian’s bed.

“Brian’s father got out of jail before I did,” she said, although they both knew this, “and when I got out, you know we all thought he had been paying the rent. Well, he wasn’t. We’ve fallen behind, and I can’t keep up.” She paused. “We’ve been evicted.”

“What are we going to do?” Brian asked.

“We’re going to have to stay with James’ father,” she said.

Brian was quiet. The condition of that house was really poor. There was no running water. No tub. No electricity. He’d been praying for change, but not this kind. This was not going to be good.

Three years later, Brian’s mother was again telling him he had to move. Only this time, it was without her.

“No way. I am not going to another shelter,” Brian said, turning to face her on the couch in the shelter where they’d been watching the news.

“Mercy Home in Chicago is not a shelter,” his mother countered. “It’s a home for boys and girls. Your aunt told me. She’s the social worker, she did the research; she ought to know.”

Brian buried his head in his hands. This is the worst year of my life.

Things had really gone downhill since the eviction. His mother’s health hadn’t been great from the start — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — and then she’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Then she’d gotten arrested again. Brian had ended up fighting at school and was kicked out of eighth grade. Things had been better for a short time when he moved to Chicago to live with his uncle, but it was almost as if he hadn’t known how to handle “better”; he’d gotten caught shoplifting and his relationship with his uncle began to deteriorate. This past year, he’d been back in Missouri, trying to care for his mother while they shuffled from the homes of family and friends to hotels and shelters.

The only things that had been good about this past year were his grades — Brian had a 4.0 and was at the top of his class. If he could make school his number- one priority, he could go to college, get a good job. And if he could do that, he might have a shot at improving life for himself — and for his mother. Going to Chicago might give him a chance to attend a better school. But it meant leaving his mother for someplace called Mercy Home. He hated it already.

Brian’s mother placed a hand on his back. “I don’t want you to leave,” she said, “but I think it’s for the best. You need something more… stable,” she continued, flushing slightly, “and your aunt says Mercy is one of the best places to be. I’ll always be there for you, Brian, even when I’m miles away.”

Brian, 18, pulled on his tie and tried not to appear nervous as he sat with more than 100 other students waiting for the judges to announce the winners of the Loyola debate tournament, which had begun about nine hours before and was finally nearing an end. His first speech had been nerve-racking, as it always was, but he had grown in confidence as the day wore on. He wouldn’t win an award, Brian told himself, but he could congratulate himself on a job well done.

Since his freshman year of high school, when his mother suggested he join a debate team (he was interested in politics after all, and why not put to use all the hours they’d spent watching the news and Law and Order and CSI?), Brian had found an unexpected passion. As a kid, he’d wanted to be an architect, a designer of buildings. Now he was a designer of arguments, ideas that would make the world a better place.

Looking around the room at the students gathered, he marveled at how much had changed in the past three years. He had arrived thinking Mercy Home would be just another shelter; now, it was home, a place where he’d made friends and, with the help of staff therapists, begun to work through some of his most difficult issues. In Missouri, he had wanted to attend a better school; now, thanks to Mercy Home, he was at St. Ignatius College Prep, where he’d discovered a passion for debating and for serving others. Before Mercy Home, he never imagined living a truly stable life; at Mercy Home, he’d learned day-to-day skills like how to cook, pay bills, and even hold down a part-time job. His confidence, his skills, his faith in God — all of these had grown with the help of Mercy Home and St. Ignatius College Prep.

“This is it!” Mark, Brian’s fellow debater and best friend at St. Ignatius, poked him in the ribs. Nine of the top-10 debaters had already been announced. Only one — the first-place winner for the league — remained.

A moment later, Brian heard his name announced. “What?” he blinked.

“You won!” Mark laughed, clapping his friend on the back.

Propelled by the realization, Brian jumped from the table and ran up to accept his award, the cheers and claps of his team warm at his back. Brian took the trophy in his hands, beaming with happiness and gratitude as he looked at his teammates’ exuberant faces. In his darkest moments, he’d told himself that God would make a way for him out of the struggles in which he was entangled. All those years he had prayed for change. And here he was. Things hadn’t changed the way he’d expected, but in some ways, life was turning out better than he had ever imagined. Mercy Home, he realized, had been God’s answer to his prayer. CD

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from