It’s early. Really early. Just after 3 a.m. early. I am up, sitting in my chair, close to the sliding glass door that is the entrance to Room 36. Praying. Most nights find me here, middle of the night, in this chair. The rap is tentative and quick. Like the rapper knows this is an imposition. I am tempted to ignore it; after all, it is the middle of the night. But Room 36 is about showing up and loving people; right now, it seems I should answer. 

I slide the curtain back. No one. I peer left and there she is, leaning over the rail. Minnie,* one of our friends and part of our odd flock. I open the door. She walks over, looks me in the eye and says, “I need my mommy.” Something in my heart melts and I forget that it is the middle of the night, forget the imposition, aware of her need for love. My mind flashes back to raising our five daughters, to the times they needed us in the middle of the night. A hug, some water, a calming word against the night terrors—the heart of parenting. I invite her in, hug her and call for Diane. The two of them settle on the couch, snuggling, talking, laughing. Occasionally Minnie* will whisper and giggle, some secret she doesn’t want me to hear.

I sit back down, coffee in hand. There isn’t anywhere else to go, so I tune them out and slide back into prayer, reflecting on those words— “I need my mommy!” On one hand, what odd words. Minnie* is 50’ish, a grown woman with five grown children. Not an age when you expect someone to say, “I need my mommy!” But her life is chaos—mentally ill, addicted to crack, selling her body. She knows Jesus and tries hard, good stretches followed by bad stretches. Chaos always returns. She and Diane have become “besties,” friends across a vast divide of lifestyles and choices. More, Diane has become mom to her, the kind of mom who is there in the middle of the night, there to listen, to love, to snuggle with. A refuge from the night terrors. 

While they whisper, I think about parenting—the incredible gift it is when parents are even moderately healthy and love their children well, beginning with unconditional love. And the wreckage it leaves when done poorly. Most of our friends live with the wreckage of bad parenting. With rare exception they never got the basics to build a healthy life—unconditional love, boundaries, discipline, even food and clothing. We listen to childhood stories—absent parents, abusive parents, neglect, sexual abuse, exposure to drugs and alcohol—and want to weep. Their current chaos, in many ways, is simply the outflow of the chaos they experienced in childhood. Small wonder most spend the rest of their lives crippled. That damage leaves them with an almost desperate hunger. I saw it first as a hunger for a simple friendship, someone who would come and treat them like human beings. Behind that I could see the even greater hunger for someone who would love them without strings. We hear it regularly— “No one loved me unconditionally until you came.” Those hungers create endless ministry opportunities for us. But another hunger lurks, the hunger that brought Minnie here at 3 a.m.. It is a hunger for parents—mom, dad, even a fill-in. A hunger for someone who greets you at 3 a.m. with a hug, who will love you when no one else will and believe in you when others have given up. A hunger for a safe harbor in a sea of chaos. “I need my mommy!” 

By surprise, we have become parents for some of our friends—Diane especially, but me as well. I think of two men, about my age. One calls me dad. I have a memory of being at his motel one night. He came over for a hug, laying his head on my chest, like a small child finding security in dad. Same motel, same night, another friend does the same. Head cradled against my chest, maybe listening for a heartbeat, catching a breather, safe for a bit. Then, back to chaos. We love being Mom and Dad, both for our children and for our friends. In many ways, it is the great work of our lives. With our children and here on Colfax, we start with the first great work of parenting—loving unconditionally, no strings, no expectations. Simple love offered continuously and whenever needed. Even at 3 a.m.!

 The second great work of parenting—order, stability, discipline—is muchharder here than it was with small children. Here we are trying to “parent” adults with a lifetime of dysfunction. They don’t change easily, and we have no authority over them. We enforce boundaries as best we can and coach as allowed, but progress is slow; we do the best we can. 

 The word orphan comes to mind. Minnie*, like many of our friends, is in some deep sense an orphan. They grew up without parents, adrift among relatives, cast into foster care. Or, their parents were dysfunctional, even abusive. Orphaned, left to navigate a hard world alone, their parent-hunger is at times palpable. The Scriptures are clear and passionate about God’s love for those on the margins—widows, lepers, prostitutes. And orphans. God loves orphans. So, it seems, should we. Here in my chair, watching Diane being mom, I see the beauty of it, her gifts at work. But the needs here for someone who will become mom or dad are endless. For those of us who follow Jesus and have mature wisdom, what are we doing about these beloved orphans? Will we make room in our hearts and lives for them?

 Minnie* and Diane quiet down. Time to go. We circle up, pray and hug and off she goes. Nothing fixed, no great break-through. But we were available at 3 a.m., when night terrors come. We did what we could to love her, then watched her walk into the night, accepting our loss of sleep and aching concern for her, the feeling of helplessness.  Parenting, I guess, is like that—doing our best, loving unconditionally, teaching the basics, pointing to Jesus. The Father ever over our shoulder, ever in our hearts as we stand in for Him, doing the best we can.

*Her name was changed to protect her identity