empathy

Jan 14, 2019

Guest Contributor

by Sammy Mathews, Back2Back Field Staff

The first time I heard about a simulation training called Life in Limbo, I’ll admit I wondered why our staff team was spending two hours out of a day on “experiential role play.” The goal was to help us experience what it’s like to be a child separated from their biological family. I’d spent the past ten years loving, serving, and even living with kids from hard places. I was convinced I knew what it was like in their shoes. 

“I was wrong.”

My role was of a 10-year old child. I was introduced to my “biological family” and then promptly blindfolded. My “mom” whispered in my ear, “I can’t protect you.” A loud knock sounded on the door, voices shouted as I was pushed from my home. When the chaos stopped, we were told to sit on our hands.  This calm after the storm, silence and powerlessness, suddenly felt more terrifying than the chaos or shouting before. As I adjusted to my “first night” in the children’s home, in a room of strange people and noises, I considered the times I’d tucked children under my own care, in for the night. How had they managed to hold themselves together with such resiliency and bravery? 

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My new caregiver had great intentions, but there were 10 of us. I needed food, clothes, school supplies, to be seen and understood, to have my questions of what just happened answered. Our needs were shared by passing him small, plastic balls, and if those needs were met, he passed the ball back. He tried, but his arms were full, his attention divided by 10, every last child doing their best to garner his focus. The room erupted in chaos, plastic balls flew wildly, and screaming and bad behavior took over. I kept silent. It seemed safer to avoid the line of fire, rather than be disappointed yet again. How many times have I seen this scenario play out before my eyes? How many caregivers have felt their arms were overflowing, the burden too great to bear alone? 

Next, the “biological parents” played a game. They had watched their children be removed from their homes and cared for by strangers. Now was their chance to rebuild a home, reuniting their family. 

The social worker read the long list of requirements – must have four walls, a roof, a floor, be structurally sound, and safe. Parents were given a small stack of playing cards with which to build a home. The children cheered to the side, willing victory, a safe place, a return home. 

Suddenly the table moved, the earth shook beneath them, houses crumbled. Over and over, they tried and failed, stuck in a system knocking the foundation from beneath them. My heart broke for parents who desperately wanted their children back, but were caught in generational patterns and their own hurt. How many parents felt caught in this never-ending cycle? What must it have felt like to walk with the grief and frustration of being separated from one’s child?


It was a two hour simulation, and the smallest taste of what vulnerable children go through, but I was unable to shake the thoughts tumbling through my mind as it ended. 

Children are so unbelievably brave. The caregivers so overwhelmed, literally juggling the needs of multiple children in their care. Biological parents aren’t the villains of the story, they’re processing their own trauma. They are stuck in systems that don’t work, endless cycles of guilt and shame, and they need a way out.


The entire Monterrey staff team walked away different that day. Genuine change begins with a shift in perspective. One small shift can change an entire trajectory. For two hours, we had  the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our hearts and minds were changed because of it. 

As a ministry, we value learning. We seek to enrich and deepen our own understanding of the hard places the children we serve come from. We also value sharing.  Following this role play experience, nine members of the Monterrey team were trained to facilitate the Life in Limbo experience. 

To date, over 500 people, ranging from social workers and psychologists to caregivers and judges, have participated in Life in Limbo in Monterrey. Each of them left with their perspective shifted and their hearts and minds altered. Can you imagine the changed trajectories because of it? Can you see the faces of the children and families being cared for, talked to, loved on, differently? We are excited and expectant to see what God will do next. 

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