They call him Lou-Box because he liked to box as a kid. He learned to fight because he had to. His dad was an addict and alcoholic, volatile and often violent. Luis tried in vain to avoid the rage, but one afternoon at the age of twelve he could hide no longer. The memories of dad's knife; mom's terrified cries for help; dad's fist in her face – it was all too overwhelming. Desperate, Luis summoned the courage to charge, swinging wildly. Lou-Box connected repeatedly, and Papí finally left. Luis never saw his father again. Several days later, a family friend called to say that he was found hanging in a basement. I first met Lou when he was 15. He was well on his way to becoming a statistic. Besides boxing, he had found comfort in the streets, discovering “Sex, Booze, and Money” and literally running with a crew called SBM that aspired no higher. He was failing in school, dabbling in drugs, and drinking heavily. He walked around with a razor hidden in his mouth.
We developed a relationship two years later. One evening, Luis took me outside for a walk, circling the same block two or three times before heading for the park. Not the one down the street; the one across the highway, by the water. We sat on a bench before he finally told me that what he was about to tell me was a secret. If I told anyone, he would never trust me again.
I don't remember exactly what he shared that night, but I do remember that I never violated that trust. We became friends, worshipping together, playing together, eating together, and working together.
In 1996, Lou-Box co-founded Generation Xcel, a youth center in the projects, a few blocks from where he lived. For eight years he has served at Xcel, investing everything he has into kids just like he was. First as a volunteer, then an intern, then as part-time staff, then full-time, then a volunteer again. As often as possible, Lou has been there. Loving the kids.
In December 2002, the dynamics of Lou's relationship with the center changed. He had decided once and for all to finish his education, and would be moving upstate for two years to complete his bachelor's degree.
I sat at Lou's going away party amazed. One by one, children nine, ten, eleven years old came to the front of the room in tears to thank Lou for all he meant to them. What stunned me wasn't that they had nice things to say. I expected nothing less. What was amazing was how they described him. Not as a friend, a teacher, a great guy. Not as a brother.
But as a father.
Lou-Box, 24 years old, just twelve years after his own abusive dad had committed suicide, was being praised as a father to the fatherless.
That same year, Luis received the “After School Educator of the Year” award from the Partnership for After School Education. He described his motivation for starting Xcel as, “to provide kids with real hope by offering alternatives to the streets.” Why? “Because the kids Xcel reaches, “remind me of myself when I was younger.” How so? “They walk around with hidden hurts that influence their decision-making.”
How many kids like Lou? 19.6 million children in the United States live without dads in their homes, and 23.2 million live in homes without either or both parents.
They are your neighbors, attend school with your kids, and worship at your churches. They shop in your local supermarkets, play in your parks, and hang out at your favorite pizzerias.
There's a special place in God the Father's heart for such children. They're not nameless and faceless to Him. From the moment He first made covenant with Israel, as He described his essential character to Moses, He declared that he would defend the cause of the fatherless (Deut. 10:12-22) and would provide for them (Deut 14:29, 24:19-22, 26:12-15). In the Psalms, He pledged to “father the fatherless” (Psalm 68:4-6). The apostle Luke declared that “making ready a people prepared for the Lord” means, in part, “turning the hearts of fathers to children.”
Will you dare allow you heart to be so turned? To become a person a fatherless child can trust? One who will uphold their cause and fight their fight? One who won't abandon them and will love them despite their secrets?
Lou-Box reminds us, “If we the people called by God won't make a difference in the lives of such kids, then the wicked streets will.”