Mark Wakefield is the director of the Youth Ranch Home in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where he works with boys who have been victims of abuse. This is his experience in earning trust and helping his boys overcome fear…
One of the greatest challenges we face with children “in the system” is one of trust. When I think back on my 25+ years working with children and adolescents, I would say that many of my greatest struggles were due to a kid’s mistrust.
And rightly so. Of course they mistrust us, because most of them have possibly never found someone they can truly count on. So, from the very first moment we meet I begin to work to build trust.
I intentionally make promises I know seem “hard to keep”. While interviewing one boy, I promised him I would help find his long lost little brother. We began to pray, asking God to point us in the right direction. Two years later, someone called us out of the blue and said, “We know where to find Benjamin.” God led us to Ben, and the promise was fulfilled. He now trusts both God and me.
I run a boy’s ranch in Guatemala and the young victims we receive have learned to not trust anyone. Other homes, courts, family members, and even religious leaders have lied to them.
One evening I interviewed a 14-year-old boy. I said, “I am a Christian and a missionary, and I do my best to only speak the truth. I won’t lie or mislead you.” He looked me in the eye and responded, “I was in a home from ages four to six where the ‘Christian’ leaders both abused and prostituted my sister and me.” In other words, the standard of building trust with this kid was going to be sky-high. And saying I was a Christian was worthless. But God helped us to model true Christian living for this young man.
There are some specific things that we do to build trust with our boys. We know many believe we will quickly abandon them, so we take them out and about with us. We set up situations where we could abandon them.
In a mall, I will send them to the bathroom by themselves, and then move a few tables over while waiting. You can see some fear on their faces as they go alone, and return to hunt for me. But then there is the relief, realizing I am still there. By creating situations where we can fail them, they learn to build trust. This slowly builds a bond upon which we can stack further trust-building exercises.
We intentionally put the young men in situations where they are uncomfortable—push them outside of their comfort zones. When they realize things could have gone wrong, but didn’t, trust is built.
Because we all live here in the house together, things that normally would have made them fearful and nervous become mundane. Luis was terrified of being assaulted with kitchen items. He was paranoid of pots, pans, knives, skillets, and cutting boards because he had been beaten or injured with these for years. It took a long time for him to become accustomed to being with us in the kitchen.
In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus gives his followers these instructions—instructions we strive to obey, in order to build trust:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool… All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
We teach the boys we serve that God is always faithful. As humans, we will fail. Sometimes, we may not be able to fulfill a promise. Life does not always work out as we would like. There are some promises we make which may need to be left unkept. There are some promises we may need to adapt or change due to unforeseen circumstances. But, in the end, God is always faithful. If we trust in God and situations around us change, we can still know that He will fulfill His promises.
A few trust-building principles I live by—
• I work to be careful with what I say or promise.
• I want to always follow through, even when it is difficult.
• Even a great effort, such as hunting for family members, over time builds great trust.
• I promise something, but will sometimes intentionally drag it out to make them wait. That waiting builds patience.
• I will defend them no matter the cost, and stand up to any enemy. This means challenging courts, family members, and gangs if necessary.
And there is another side to this coin. It is one thing for our kids to trust us, but we must also be willing to trust them. Here are a few ways we give them the opportunity to be trustworthy—
• When they are young, we intentionally leave money out within their reach, and train them in honesty. But as they mature, the amount of money with which they are entrusted is greater.
• I will send them on complex journeys, even having them travel across Guatemala alone. This builds responsibility and confidence. A few weeks ago I had a young man meet up with me over 200km from home, so we could ride back to the Ranch together. What an amazing adventure in trust this was for him.
• I travel to the USA every fall, and I leave 12-20 guys in charge of the home for weeks. And they normally thrive while I am away.
• For older boys, this entails trusting them with great things, and teaching them to be responsible.
• We train the older boys as drivers, and entrust them with all of our vehicles. We constantly remind them of the great responsibility this entails.
I would like to end on this note—Because I work hard to build trust with our boys, I strive to keep up the communication when they leave our home. They leave for any number of reasons, and many leave on bad terms. But they still get messages from me. I check in on them, ask them about their lives and jobs, or meet up with them to have a meal and catch up. For many, I am still the only person they truly trust.
What I am modeling and saying to them is, “Please trust me, and I will also trust you.” It is an exchange which builds super strong relationships. And, “I trust God, and I hope you will absolutely trust God as well.” It is an exchange I hope will lead them to a true commitment to the Lord.
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