For a week we lived out the word foreboding – an omen, prediction, or presentiment, especially of coming evil. We knew evil was coming. Nothing was right, it all felt and looked wrong. Without evidence, we could only wait and pray for truth and justice while our foreboding grew.
For a week we looked at his pictures. His innocence, his vulnerability, his happy smile and sad, sad eyes — the picture with his fresh haircut, smiling, was simply haunting. We longed to wrap him in a safe embrace, tuck him into our side and bring him into sunshine and laughter and safety – into goodness. But our foreboding grew.
For a week we studied the parent’s faces, tying the few details we knew to their actions and their words. Evil lived and walked freely among us, using words like “treats” and “play” and “pray” while we tried to absorb that they, thinking they were so smart, thinking they might get away with this, knew what they had done and could lie and so easily try to deceive us. Could a mother, carrying a child, kill a child or allow that to happen? Our foreboding grew.
For a week we looked at a house that held little hope that the inside was any better than the outside. How bad could it be? We’re finding out how bad it was inside for AJ and his brother, Parker. It’s hard to imagine how horrible what they endured. While there’s hope for Parker, did AJ ever know a moment’s safety? Did he ever have a good day — one day he didn’t live in fear?
Mercifully, just when we wondered how much more of the injustice of it all we could take, we awoke Wednesday morning to the news that those who put their lives on the line day and night, working while we slept, had enough evidence to bring forth details from the parents that revealed AJ’s grave. They found AJ’s body.
It was a quiet press conference, one of the somberest I’ve ever seen, as Chief Black shared what he could, and we felt grateful for his words, “We know you are at peace playing in heaven’s playground and are happy you no longer have to suffer.” His words echoed our thoughts.
The truth is, we went to school with AJ’s dad or his mom. We’re extended family. We live across the street or just a few miles away. We drive down Dole Ave., we march in the parade that goes by their house, we swim in the lake, we hike at Veteran Acres, we walk the same streets. We searched for him, we worked night and day that entire week, we flew the helicopters, we trained the dogs, we took the phone calls, we covered the news, we sold them groceries, we went to the vigil, we cried and we whispered what we knew, we worried and we prayed.
But for some of us, we were the child in that house. Our parents were hurtful and we know some of those horrors. We know poverty. We know substance abuse. We were hit, we had bruises. We know what it’s like to have the police at our door. We know what it’s like to live with evil. We wish someone had spoken up for us. We are lucky to be alive and we know the next AJ is already living among us.
He or she is in the house across the street. That sense of foreboding we lived with for a week, these children live with it every day. But, many find joy in simple things, like frost on a cold open window. Siblings share giggles their parents can’t hear. They find comfort in the dog that is making their room filthy.
So, for AJ, and the next AJ, and the next, if your heart is breaking and you’re wondering how to help, help the children around you because they need you more than you know. Love them well. Be a safe person. Get help for your addiction. Admit you have an anger problem. Leave the abuser. Do something about your own temper. Put your kids in foster care while you get well. Learn how to be patient with your kids. Get help for your kids if they’re wounded by you or someone else. Don’t let shame or embarrassment rule you. Step up, do the right thing for that child, for the next AJ.
More than that, that heaven’s playground – it’s real. God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, made a way so that if we choose to be forgiven of our sins through Him, we, too, can go there someday to meet the innocent little boy who is now safe and alive there and will never know evil again.
There is hope in that – in the God who created that safe place. Someday, I’m looking forward to hugging AJ. I’m so sad that for now evil walks among us and is even in us at times. We all need a God who is able to change our hearts and remove that evil. We have all, in one way or another, been guilty of sin. It’s my prayer that AJ’s horrible death will serve to draw us closer to God and help us be honest about our own failings and our neighbor’s failings and bring us to our knees before Him so that evil can no longer destroy us. May God grant us mercy and lead us to hope and healing and a willingness to do whatever it takes to be safe parents and a safe community for the children among us.
If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to our church. We’ll give helpful next steps and where we can’t help, we’ll connect you with those who can. The Evangelical Free Church of Crystal Lake: 815-459-1095 | 575 E. Crystal Lake Ave., Crystal Lake, IL
by Jill Cristao, Director of Connections and Communications
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