Kerry Busbin was one of the lost ones. I didn’t know this, of course, when the court first referred him to me. He was just one of thousands of teenage probationers the juvenile justice system was eager to place in any positive activity that might curb their delinquent behavior. Had I been more experienced with troubled kids, I would have recognized the tell-tale signs immediately – highly manipulative, emotionally aloof, a loner, sociopathic. I would have known that his odds of becoming a career criminal, if indeed he survived to adulthood, were near a hundred percent. But, as I said, I was new at this work and Kerry was one of the first kids in my program. I suppose it was good that I didn’t know. Had I been more seasoned, I would not have invested so heavily in him. But I was a battle-tested veteran fresh out of Vietnam, full of uninformed optimism and confident that my calling from God and strong doses of tough love were sufficient to turn the most troubled of young men around. So with all my youthful naïvete, I poured myself into a relationship with this fourteen-year-old, lavishing one-to-one attention on him, taking him on high adventure trips, spending countless hours trying to keep him in school, scheduling repeated meetings with teachers and counselors to appeal for patience and mercy – all to little avail.
Kerry was a quiet, skinny, stringy haired kid with a face-full of blackheads that he picked raw. I suspect his mother taught him most of what he knew about manipulation. Their house was dark, shades drawn to conceal family pathologies from the outside world. His blood-father was dead and his stepfather was seldom around, which suited Kerry just fine. What boundaries he did have he moved at will, based on whatever narcissistic impulse he happened to be feeling at the moment. It didn’t take long to figure out that there would be nothing at home to reinforce the positive changes I was striving for.
He remained aloof from the small group of other court-referred boys I had pulled together. He enjoyed the mini-bike riding and the fishing trips but never entered into group discussions. During Bible studies when I did my best to convey to these fatherless boys just how much they were valued by their heavenly Father and the good designs He had for their lives, Kerry stared off into the distance, expressionless. He seemed to enjoy our one-on-one times but would endure the group only when the activity had an exciting enough appeal. After two years he lost interest entirely and dropped out. He no longer showed up at school and was never home when I called (though I think he may have occasionally been inside when his mother said he wasn’t home). I eventually quit pursuing him and reported to his probation officer he was no longer in the program. His PO wasn’t surprised. I have not seen him, not even heard about him, in thirty years.
On Saturday of this past Memorial Day weekend, my phone rang. I did not recognize the woman’s voice. She asked me if I was the Bob Lupton who used to work with kids from the court. When I answered in the affirmative, she introduced herself as Mary Katherine Busbin. Did I remember a boy by the name of Kerry Busbin, she asked. I did indeed, I responded without the slightest hesitation. Hadn’t heard from him in years, though. "I’m his wife," she said. "He’s been talking about you ever since he saw a TV program about Vietnam this weekend."
That he was even alive was a significant shock. But that he remembered me, remembered that I was a Vietnam vet – this was incredible. "He wants to talk with you," Mary Katherine said. Kerry’s voice had a manly, confident sound, quite unlike the evasive, passive tone I remembered from the distant past. He was living in Loganville not far out of Atlanta, he said. Had been doing pretty well in the sheetrock business. Had a daughter 16 and a son 14. Been married for 17 years. Did I remember his wife, Mary Katherine, he wondered. He picked up on my hesitation and reminded me that she was the girl I used to see hanging around his house. "Oh sure," I responded emphatically but in truth my unspoken gut reaction was "You’ve got to be kidding!" Mary Katherine, the timid, greasy-blonde twiggy, insecure as a whipped pup, fodder for Kerry’s manipulative devices – she was his wife of 17 years, the mother of his two children!
"I just wanted to thank you for all you did for me," Kerry said. "It meant a lot." I sensed nothing but sincerity in his tone. He just wanted me to know that he was doing well, that if I ever needed anything I should give him a call. He gave me his phone number. I wrote it down. "Oh, yeah, my mother died a couple years ago." And then he said a friendly good-bye and hung up.
This is the very reason why we need a steady supply of fresh, hopeful, naïve young visionaries in urban ministry. Street-hardened veterans are just too prone to consider the facts, weigh the odds, and skip right over the Kerry Busbins of the city. I know.