Andrew[1] can’t articulate why he doesn’t trust me, but his body knows. Where my other two sons, both around his age, will lean against me while we watch TV (I know, parent fail) or read books together, Andrew sits to the side. He’s close enough to feel near, but just far enough away to protect himself.

He doesn’t mind being carried around by my wife or me, but he doesn’t want strangers to touch him. He has deeply bonded with my wife, but in my arms he mostly remains tense, his body on high alert should he need to get away.

Andrew has been in our home for twenty-eight months as of this writing. He “entered care” (a euphemism for being taken into the foster care system) when he was just two weeks old. He was six-months old when a social worker walked into our house with him; he’d stayed in four other homes already.

Last week, at a booth in McDonald’s as our two other boys ran around with some other kids, Andrew climbed into my lap to eat. Then he leaned against me, completely relaxed, for the first time in his little life.

For over two years I’ve read to him, sung to him, played with him, fed him, and done all the other things that parents do for their kids. But it took those twenty-eight months to finally (finally!) trust me enough to relax, to let down his guard for a few moments so he could stuff his face with French fries drowning in ketchup.

Andrew won’t remember this moment, and God willing his body will forget the scarring on his heart. But for these past three years he has carried the trauma. Tense, unwilling to relax even for a moment, and constantly on high alert, he’s carried in his body the wounds of abandonment, of exposure to places and things no child should see, and of the absence of a person to help him navigate this world wrought with danger and the unknown.

The relationship between foster child and foster parent seems so fragile from my perspective. When my biological sons were born, there was this instantaneous and overwhelming love that erupted in my chest. I saw in their little faces my own face, my father’s face, and my brother’s face. Yes, these boys are mine and my family’s. And I knew then that they’d love me no matter what. After all, when my mom asked me why I defended my own father after he abandoned me, I knew immediately: “Because he’s my dad,” I responded.

Not so with Andrew. He doesn’t look like me or my dad or my brother or even my wife or her siblings or parents. He will have that primal father-love for a man he’s never met. The love he and I share is something different, something that only God can do, and something that has developed over years and through many tentative, faltering steps toward each other. It’s been a tender thing to watch God mend Andrew’s heart and to feel his body, slowly but surely, relax into mine.

[1] Name changed to protect privacy.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology