Unrest at the youth detention center that evening brought a change in procedure. Instead of speaking to 120 incarcerated boys and girls in one room, our team was asked to split up, with some of us ministering to the few girls allowed to attend the weekly chapel service.
I ended up sitting across the table from a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl of about 14 years old. I knew nothing about her, and protocol dictated that I shouldn’t ask.
Picking at a thumbnail, she asked, “What are we supposed to talk about?”
“Whatever you want to talk about.”
Angry voices echoed down the concrete hall, spilling into the room and distracting her for a moment. Somewhere a guard blew a whistle and slammed a door. She shook her head. “This place is crazy.” And then, peeking from under a furrowed brow, she asked, “Are you kinda like a priest or something?”
She glanced quickly over her shoulder and then breathed a sigh. “Does God hear me when I pray?”
“I believe He does. Why?”
I shifted in my metal seat and leaned forward onto my elbows. “Is there something you’d like to pray about?”
She launched into a story about family drug abuse and being taken from her home. Separated from her five siblings, she’d run away from her foster placements multiple times. “Most of my brothers and sisters I see every once in a while. Usually in here.” She scanned the room. “But I asked God to let me know how Jason is doing. He’s my favorite brother and the only one I haven’t seen since we was taken away from Mama.”
Eyes reddening, she turned away. “I’m just not sure God hears me. Or even knows who I am.”
I extended my hands across the table, careful not to make contact but doing the best I could to reach this sad little girl. “Judy?”
She’d never told me her name and startled at the sound of it. “What?”
Tears welled up in my eyes. “Jason is fine. He is living in our home. Happy as any 11-year-old boy can be.”
Unbeknownst to us, 12 miles away, my wife was putting Jason, our foster son, to bed.
He asked, “Can we pray for Judy?”
“For Judy? Sure. What made you think of her?”
“I dunno. Dad’s at the ‘tension center. It made me think of her. I wonder how she’s doing.”
I reflect on this powerful testimony of prayer often. The way God orchestrated things in such a way that I would be the one to talk to Judy. That Jason would choose that moment to pray for her. That Judy would feel safe in sharing enough of her story for me to recognize it and know her name. And that she would come to realize God knew her name, too.
There have been times I could have wondered if He knew me. Like when I was away from home and dead-dog tired running ministry campaigns in Asia, Central America, Europe, South America and Africa. Even though I knew no one at any level within a thousand miles or more — I knew He knew me.
Every hair. Every thought. Every fear. Every lonely, tired moment.
Now, steering the upstart, fast-growing rocket ship that is Trail Life USA, I dig deep and lean hard in my middle-of-the-night struggles with the pressures of living in a culture that seems determined to forget Him. I hug Him tighter and am reminded that there’s scant difference between a lonely little girl, a broken little boy, and the CEO of a national ministry. In the quiet and not-so-quiet, we turn to Him and, somehow, everything is OK.
Prayer is much more than the way things change. It’s how we can know He knows us.
• Mark Hancock, chief executive of Trail Life USA (traillifeusa.com), began his career founding and running a national advertising agency for 15 years before his conversion to Christ led him into ministry. An award-winning writer, he has served as a marriage and family therapist, youth and college pastor, director of a ministry for the homeless, and director of global events for an international ministry. Mr. Hancock lives near Greenville, S.C., with his wife of 27 years and two sons.