Photo By: Curt Devine
Written By: Curt Devine
Juan Roberto doesn’t go to school.
He doesn’t watch movies or play sports, and he certainly doesn’t go to parties.
In fact, Juan Roberto has not experienced any of the things that make up the lives of most 16-year olds. Although he is in good physical health and looks like any other Nicaraguan teenage boy, his life is the polar opposite of average.
For the past four years, Juan Roberto has been chained to a tree.
After smoking cocaine-laced marijuana and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms as a pre-teen, Juan began having fits of violent rage and uncontrollable anger. His mind deteriorated as he sank deeper and deeper into crime and addiction. His frail mother, Maria, reached her rope’s end trying to restrain him, so as a final attempt to protect Juan, their family and neighbors, she chained his ankle to a 6-foot tall tree stump.
Now he lays restrained on a small wooden bench in their dilapidated backyard 24 hours a day. Living on the small island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Juan has little hope for government intervention or professional care. More than likely, years will pass before he sees the outside world again.
I first heard about Juan Roberto a few weeks ago when I landed in Managua, Nicaragua.
I began a two-month mission’s trip working with a local church and orphanage. A long-term American missionary told my team and I that we should ask a pastor in Ometepe about “the boy in chains,” but I refused to believe that a mother would imprison her child like a wild animal. Still, I wanted to pay him a visit.
A few days later I found myself walking with six of my teammates down a slender dirt road. “Estamos aqui,” our local pastor said, letting us know we had reached Juan’s house, a small cottage made of bricks and sheet metal. We passed through a rusted barbed-wire fence into the backyard.
As we progressed, I saw a white sheet covering something in the form of a human body. Then I saw two arms sticking out of the sides. Finally, I saw a thick, corroded chain attached to a foot poking out of the bottom.
“Hola Juan. Como estas?” the pastor said.
Peering through smoke from a nearby fire, I saw the face of a malnourished teenage boy. He lay naked stretched out on a makeshift bed, covered only by a thin white sheet, which functioned as his clothing.
“Me llamo Curt,” I said, introducing myself with a difficult smile. “Tu quires oir una estoria?” I proceeded to share a story about my life and why we came to visit him. When I finished, I waited for him to give some sort of response, yet he simply lay with his arms covering the shame on his face.
He clearly had little interest in whatever we came to share.
My teammate Tori tried reading from a Spanish storybook to draw him out. She used vibrant hand motions and asked him questions, yet he still lay lifeless, as if his body had become the mere shell of a person. The silence grew heavier.
We left after an hour or so, feeling somewhat defeated and questioning if we could actually impact in his life. After praying however, we decided to consistently visit him for a short time every day. Could he really ignore us forever?
The next day, we returned with few expectations.
We sat around him sharing stories, yet he continued to stare into space with empty black eyes. We tried playing games, painting pictures and giving him toys– all with no response.
Suddenly, I had an idea. It would either fail miserably or get an absurd reaction. I pulled out my guitar and played the one Spanish hit I had learned as a joke– Enrique Inglesia’s Hero. Somewhere between the sappy chorus and the closing line “You can take my breath away,” we saw it. A small grin formed over Juan’s mouth. It grew and grew, then erupted with laughter. He finally opened up.
The boy in chains once again felt what it is to be human.
With the progress we made, our translator Addys asked Juan if he would pray with us. He subtly nodded, seeming disinterested, yet once the prayer began he repeated every word, asking for more of God’s grace and love in his heart.
Although Juan remains a prisoner in his own backyard, I trust that God will continue to show him greater life and freedom. Next month my team and I will leave Nicaragua and lose touch with Juan completely, yet I know that Christ has the power to break evey chain– whether physical or spiritual. Even in a hopeless situation, hope remains.
Curt went to Nicaragua to lead a college-age missions trip known as the Passport, sponsored by Adventures In Missions. Passporters spend one to nine months working with local churches, orphanages and other Christ-centered ministries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. For more information on available trips, visit www.adventures.org/