When You Love a Prodigal – Part 1

Perhaps nothing is harder than watching someone you love choose a life that will hurt them. Today, we’re joined by Judy Douglass who shares about her life with a prodigal son. More than anything, she emphasizes how the journey alongside a beloved prodigal is never easy but always worth it.

Gary Wilkerson: Welcome to the Gary Wilkerson podcast. We're thrilled to have you with us here today, we're continuing talking about issues that I believe are really important in our lives real down to earth stuff. And so, we're thrilled to have with us in the studio today, Judy Douglass. Welcome, Judy. Thrilled to have you with us.

Judy Douglass: Absolutely delighted to be here. Thank you, Gary.

Gary Wilkerson: You just shared to our staff a devotional really, precious message about mercy and love and grace when particularly dealing with prodigals. You've written this book called "When You Love a Prodigal" and you also you and your husband are presidents and leaders of CRU. Some people know it formally as Campus Crusade for Christ but it's CRU. And this book really, ministered to me and my wife, it's something that we have dealt with in our family more than we wanted to.

Judy Douglass: Almost everyone knows someone who is making those kinds of destructive choices.

Gary Wilkerson: Is this a topic you were always thinking about interested in? Or did something happen in your life that sort of piqued your heart's interest in this?

Judy Douglass: Yes, it stabbed me in the heart.

Gary Wilkerson: Stabbed you, not just touched?

Judy Douglass: Yes, we had two wonderful girls, and had moved from California to Florida. And God said, "I have a gift for you. I'm sending you a son." I said, "Okay." I wasn't really looking to have more children. And he said, "Well, I'll take care of it for you." And so, we've only been there a few weeks when a new friend said, "Do you know someone who could take in an eight-year-old boy?" And I went, "Maybe," and God said, "This is the gift I have for you." And so, it took a year with the county and everything. He'd been taken from his birth mother, because of neglect and the danger she put him in. She's an alcoholic and drug addict and a lot of unsavory people around, and so they were looking for a home and he was going into foster care and God said, "Yep, he is my gift for you." Took a while and he was almost 10 when he came to live with us.

Gary Wilkerson: Okay. And how old were your daughters at this time?

Judy Douglass: They were 11 and let's see, almost, yeah, 10. 10 and 12. That's what they were. That was a long time ago. Numbers and I are not good friends.

Gary Wilkerson: You brought somebody into their life, not just your husband and somebody who's kind of same age as them but yet came from, could not have been more opposite background that he came from than what your daughters were experiencing, correct?

Judy Douglass: Absolutely. They both knew Jesus. They were mostly doing, walking with God. They were certainly doing well in school. And were good kids. And then this boy comes in with so many needs. He's going into third grade at almost 10 and could barely read or write, because his mom had not taken him to school very much. And it was shocking to both of us when he came because I don't know who more so for him, it was shocking one, that you didn't stay up all night watching whatever you wanted and eating chips and dip for meals, and that we had regular meals, we had regular bedtime and oh, he went to school every day. And one day he said, "I'm not feeling very good. I better not go to school." I kind of run through things. "No, I don't have a stomachache, no." "Then you're going to school. If you're... If you're dying, then you don't have to go to school, but otherwise you're going to school." And so, those were shocking for us. His unbelievable need for attention. He just was desperate for people to pay attention.

Gary Wilkerson: Was he in foster care before he came to you? He's with his...?

Judy Douglass: Well, he'd been staying with his grandparents for a while, but they were already raising his half-sister. And they said, "We can't do it. We can't add him." And though that was hurtful to him, it was true. And so, he came straight to us from their home. And he was used to not knowing even what his next meal would be. And so, one of the things that I found out, is that for people in poverty or homelessness, for children, especially, their main source of vegetables is ketchup. And so, I would find that he had hoarded, we would go to a fast food place, and he'd picked up all the ketchup packets that he could fit in his pocket. And they were in this room.

Gary Wilkerson: Well, there's sugar in those little packets too. So, it's probably a little bit of a sweet?

Judy Douglass: Yes. So, he just he had a lot of needs. He was ADD, he had a learning disability. His brain had some patterning issues because of those drugs and alcohol his mother had when she was carrying him. And so, we just had a lot on our hands with him that we really weren't prepared for.

Gary Wilkerson: What was the first, let's take a look at the first two months, two to three months. The initial adjustment period. What was it like for you personally?

Judy Douglass: Well, all of a sudden, my life, which I was involved with our ministry and caring for our daughters, and he became almost the only thing I was paying attention to, because he just needed attention, he needed some parameters for his life, some boundaries.

Gary Wilkerson: And was that more than you expected?

Judy Douglass: More than I expected, and at school what to discover he really could barely read or write. And so, we got a tutor for him. I found this doctor who did brain repatterning exercises to try and overcome some of the stuff that his mother's drugs and alcohol had caused in his brain. And so, every day for an hour for over a year, we did these brain patterning exercises, which he grew very weary of and so did I, but mostly he just was a little resistant to anything that we wanted him to do. He wasn't angry. He just was trying to keep his boundaries. For most kids like that it's called RAD, reactive attachment disorder. And if the people in your life haven't been there for you, then you don't believe anyone will be. And so, he was sure we would just be like the others in his life who had not been there for him.

Gary Wilkerson: Yeah, and we've talked in this podcast quite a bit in the past about attachment, how necessary it is particularly the first few years. Without that, I was, years ago in an orphanage in Romania and the kids had no one ever paying attention, they just bought a meal and they had these little cribs and they had, their brains not had not developed, they couldn't speak well, they couldn't walk, they could hardly even walk let alone run. And all of that, the doctors later found out was from that simple thing a lack of somebody holding them.

Judy Douglass: Holding them as children. And he probably wasn't entirely lacking all that, his mother tried to be a good mother to him, but her addictions won out over and over.

Gary Wilkerson: Yeah, most kids like that, not carte blanche but in my experience is that what's hard for them. Before Josh came to you is, the unknowing. Mom might be here today, and she might take me to the park, and we might feed ducks and I'm thinking life's going to be good. And the next day she comes home and she's drunk and she's yelling at me, I'm not sure that was his experience, but to some degree then it's almost scarier because you just have no knowledge of what's happening next.

Judy Douglass: Yeah. His grandparents had set him up in a little, his mother and him in a little trailer in a trailer park. And so, every once in a while, the neighbors would call the grandparents and say, "She's gone again you better come get the boy." And so, at least they were there for him but that they couldn't keep him was very devastating to him.

Gary Wilkerson: I want to talk about your daughter's first and then I want to ask you about the first few months as opposed to the next year. So, the first few months how was it for your daughters?

Judy Douglass: Well, they were excited about a little brother. And we didn't do this without their agreement. Yeah. So, they said, "Yeah, we should do that." They were generous people on the whole.

Gary Wilkerson: When they first saw him act out a bit, was showing much anger at first? He wasn't yelling, screaming, throwing things?

Judy Douglass: No. He just was grabbing attention. Anytime if it was someone else's birthday, it didn't matter. Everything had to center around him and that was annoying to them, but they were patient at first. And probably they were patient mostly, but it grew difficult for them because probably, more because they lost my attention, which is to me the hardest thing personally, that I did, the worst thing I did, in my opinion, in my choosing to give attention to him who needed it desperately, but I therefore neglected my daughters some, and we talked about it, they've forgiven me, but that makes me sad that I missed out on those important years of their life of some. I was there for all their soccer games and my other daughter's art stuff. I did things but still he stole a lot, and that was hard for them.

Gary Wilkerson: Is that from the RAD or is that a little bit of his personality? Because some people are just sort of born like that, they just want to be the center of attention.

Judy Douglass: It's probably both.

Gary Wilkerson: Is he like that little bit today? Does he still like to be the life of the party?

Judy Douglass: Not as much.

Gary Wilkerson: Okay, yeah, so that was the need for the deficit of attention, craving in his heart for that. Yeah, yeah. So, the after... So, there's this, when I do conferences, I speak at conferences and talk about this issue some. And oftentimes, I'll ask the audience, "How many of you have a prodigal in your life?" And I'm shocked about 80% have somebody not just distant either.

Judy Douglass: That's how my book got published.

Gary Wilkerson: Okay. Yeah, there's so many people. Yeah, they see this title and they're going to want to get that, how to love them. Not only just... I'm glad just put up how to endure a prodigal. You could have titled that but to love them is that step that God wants us to take. So, there's 80% of them are dealing with that, and some of them similar story to yours. Somebody they brought into their family, and there's that. I've heard the story of, I don't know how it's for you, but there's kind of this, the Christian romanticism, "Oh, we're going to save this, we're going to bring this child and rescue them," and then all sudden all hell breaks loose and it's, "What have we gotten ourselves into?" Did you guys experience that at all or no?

Judy Douglass: We did. I don't know that we, because it was so clearly that God had sent him to us. We're like, okay, we'll do the best we can and depend on God for that. It took a lot more than we knew that it was going to, but I know so many people who have done foster care or adopted, and for all of them, and it's almost always harder than they thought it would be. For some, it's extremely harder than they thought it would be. They just, even if you, in the process of getting accepted to do this, you're supposed to learn these things. We had no idea. I had never heard of RAD at that time, and I did not understand all that he had been through, and that, that's trauma, the abuse that he experienced, the abandonment that he experienced. Anybody now, who diagnosis these things would say, "Those are cases of PTSD." And we think of it as just military people.

Judy Douglass: And it's not just military people. And PTSD may not show up for a while. And so, you have no clue that you're going to run into somebody who has been traumatized, and that they're going to have to deal with that. And therefore, you're going to have to deal with that. And it's a wonderful gift that you can give to a child to be able to bring them into your home and love them and do those things, but it will not be the easiest thing in the world. And people assume well, if I adopt a brand-new baby straight from the birth to us, then that'll take care of it. No, because there's a hole in their heart that, there's a book about that, that they knew that mother, and this isn't that mother, that person. And so, there's a lot of issues that people are increasingly understanding. And I hope, therefore people are learning. It's a wonderful thing to do, but it will be harder than you think.

Gary Wilkerson: That's good advice. Yeah. Make sure it's God.

Judy Douglass: Make sure that God is telling you to do this. And that's what I tell people, they say, "What should we think of adopting?" I said, "Well, actually, everyone should because that's what God did." He adopted us. And he says, we are to care for the homeless and the fatherless. And so, absolutely, we should ask the question, do you want us to do this? But you better hear Him and not do it unless you have that, because it will take supernatural wisdom, and strength, and endurance, and love to be able to live through it well.

Gary Wilkerson: Reading your book, it's obviously that God gave that to you, that supernatural strength and love. Because it's not a story of, he came home at 10 and then oh, praise God, everything got worked out well, from that point on you hit some real roadblocks. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened in his life? Say from 10 to 18 or so?

Judy Douglass: Yeah. I'll try to be brief. At first, it was just, for the three years he was a foster child, it was primarily dealing with his educational issues, and his attention needs and ADD and his resistance to any kind of structure in his life. And those were, well and the chaos, his friends. It was, we basically had a peaceful home, and he came in, and it was chaotic. He was noisy, he was never ending motion and his friends were similar, that he would make friends. And so, that was challenging.

Judy Douglass: When we adopted him, we really thought it would change, that there would be a security in that. And it didn't happen at all. And he went into middle school and middle school, as everyone knows, it's a challenging place. And he was in a Christian school. But it was no, not then, that was in elementary, we put him at a public school, he begged and that was a hard place and partly because he's almost two years older than most of the kids. And he became quite a bully. Partly because of his ADD, the teachers were always unhappy with him. Partly because of his learning disability, which is a storage retrieval issue.

Judy Douglass: You put it in and then you're going to take a test on it and you can't find it in your brain and it's not because he didn't study, it's not because he wasn't smart, it's because this has happened in his brain from his mother's drugs and alcohol. And so, those things were really challenging, but then he joined a gang and the school was threatening to kick him out. So, that's when we went to this program, a wonderful Christian program, but not easy to live through. But worth it for sure.

Gary Wilkerson: Not easy why?

Judy Douglass: Well, one of their approaches is they have to learn to live with rules and so, they had hundred thousand rules it felt like, so that they were sure to break many of them, and there would be consequences every time and so, there was resistance there. Probably, it was hard for me because of something that happened. The night that, while he was there, he met Jesus, his house dad led him to Christ, his house dad's still in his life. Wonderful couple. They work for Youth for Christ. And anyway, so he called me to say that Josh had just met Jesus, and they had baptized him. And that night, I had a conversation with God, and it was almost like a vision of God is above me, and he has this huge vat and he's opening me up, and he's pouring into me what's in this vat. And I said, "What is that?" And he says, "That's my love for Josh, I'm going to share it with you." And then he said, "You're going to need it." "Oh, thank you," but that was very real.

Gary Wilkerson: Was that a residential program Josh was in?

Judy Douglass: Yes, it was residential, but it was in Orlando, and we had to be very involved in it. And so, what happened was, that night it was like he was born in my heart as my son. Before that, he's this boy we're taking care of. And all of a sudden, I was in love with him. And the program had no sympathy for that at all. And so, they were very restrictive and anything that they thought that I was too involved, which was silly, because they wanted us involved, then they would get after me.

Judy Douglass: And so, it was hard to have him at the time when I would love to be connecting more with him. And we were on Sunday afternoons when we went to spend time with him, but it was just hard for him because it was so restrictive. And he learned like most of the kids did. You learn to work the program. And so, he learned to do what he had to do, to go graduate to the next stage so that he would get out and he became good at that. It was just it was a challenging time, but it was still good because he did learn and grow a lot. And when he came home from that he was in a good place wanting to walk with the Lord, wanting to make good choices for his life.

Gary Wilkerson: It must have been encouraging to you.

Judy Douglass: Very. You're hopeful. Okay, we've come to a new place.

Gary Wilkerson: I've experienced that as well, that up and down that roller coaster, it's almost harder than if they're sort of like staying in one, either staying good or staying bad because it's consistent, but that roller coaster can really break the heart.

Judy Douglass: It does, and I started homeschooling him to catch him up. And then he begged, begged to go back to school. And so, we said, "All right, we'll try it," with all sorts of boundaries.

Gary Wilkerson: Is he in high school at this time or not yet?

Judy Douglass: He was ninth grade. So, that's high school. And because he's two years older, he has a driver's license and his grandparents gave him a car. And so, he's going to school, and I don't think it was even three weeks before he was back with his old friends. And they just increasingly made bad choices and school was an issue. I asked the school to tell me when he wasn't there, and they didn't do it. And so, he was skipping after first period most of the time, which took me weeks to months, before me to find out. So, after one semester there, where he did pass keyboarding, typing and weightlifting and nothing else. He came home and I homeschooled him rest of the time. And, which was not something I ever thought I would do.

Gary Wilkerson: All the way to his graduation, you homeschool him?

Judy Douglass: When he turned 18, which of course he's two years ahead kind of age wise, he says, "I don't have to do school anymore." I said, "You're right, you don't." And so, he said, "Well I quit." I said, "Your choice." And I said, "You'll be sorry." And after about six months, and nobody would hire him, because he didn't have a high school diploma, he came back. He said, "Can I finish school?" I said, "It's up to you. I'm willing to give you another chance, but you have to do it, I can't do it for you." And so, he did. And he did finish, and he graduated, top in his class since he was the only one, we did a whole graduation ceremony and it was a big deal that he finished high school, because that was not something that looked like it was going to happen.

Judy Douglass: And we did creative work there and the supervisor, I was under this program for the school said, "I think this is the most creative education I've ever seen." Because of his learning disability, I had to turn things into things that would work for him. So mostly he did, open book tests, and he learned actually a better skill than memorizing, he learned how to find what you need. And he could do it. And so, it was good. The nicest thing that's happened for him educationally is YouTube. Now, because he doesn't learn by reading, anything he wants to know how to do, he watches on YouTube and he can do it. And I go, boy, if they'd had that when he was in school.

Gary Wilkerson: Well, while he was graduated, he was still in the gang? No, not at that point?

Judy Douglass: Well, not a gang. No, he wasn't. But he had been.

Gary Wilkerson: Drugs and alcohol or no?

Judy Douglass: Yeah.

Gary Wilkerson: Is that the season we're talking this morning about him, that nervous time in your life where you didn't know where to be the hospital or the police?

Judy Douglass: It was during that time. He had friends. Some of them were neighborhood, some of them were gang friends, some of them were from school, they were, he had a group of people, and all of them were making bad choices. They joked over several of them had the same probation officer. And so they would get drunk, they would go party, they had girls and my husband and I are traveling a lot at this time. And the girls are in college or about and so, it was challenging to make sure that until they're 18, you don't get to suggest they're moving out.

Judy Douglass: So, we're trying to help him. So, we had a wonderful man, young man who worked with CRU, who became his friend. And whenever we traveled, he would come and stay at our house and Josh joked, he says, "So, is Larry my babysitter?" "Oh, no, Larry's here just to watch the house so you and your friends don't destroy it," but I just had a conversation with Larry the other night, and he loves Josh and Josh loves him, and they have a good relationship. So, God brought people into his life, which were part of the roller coaster actually. There was Larry, there was Josh McDowell who came into his life, and kept him for a whole month.

Judy Douglass: When Steve became president of CRU, Josh said, "I have a gift for you." He says, "I'm going to take your son for a month," we said, "Okay." It was a wonderful time and Josh comes home and he's ready to walk with God. And then there was this young Christian surfer who started spending time with him, and God did that over and over. And so, he would be crashing, and somebody would come in his life and then he would come back and try and make good choices, but he just didn't have any ability to stick to those things.

Gary Wilkerson: But having especially, with some of that attachment disorder and having those mentors and those friends and that community surrounding. I was just reading the last couple days the parallel of John five and Mark two, Mark two is the man laid, they come, four men, they break through the roof because they couldn't get the Jesus. So, this guy was a paralytic, but he had, obviously, somebody that loved him and cared for him to bring him to Jesus and lay him at his feet. He had to get up himself after he hears the command, but people can bring you to Jesus, but you got to get up and follow him. But then the other guy at the pool of Bethesda. He says, "I have nobody, I have no way." And so, he's at 38 years. So definitely, I see that in my own son's life, you see that in Josh's life that these friends, I think they're where they are today not just because of praying parents, which I think is-

Judy Douglass: Certainly. I thank God all the time for the people that he brought into our son's life.

Gary Wilkerson: And you said that this morning to be intentional about trying to get people to move into their life a little bit then don't be afraid to ask, "Please come over."

Judy Douglass: I did that with Larry and Larry proved true to do that. He was very faithful. He's the one who bailed him out of jail one time.

Gary Wilkerson: Amen. Thank you so much for being here. That was a wonderful conversation. I know it's going to be so helpful for all of us who are wanting to love like you're talking about the kind of love here, and the book is called, when you love a prodigal, and 90 days of grace for the wilderness. Pick it up on Amazon or anywhere. We're going to have it in bookstores. Yeah. Thank you again, come back soon.

Judy Douglass: Thank you so much, Gary. God bless you.

Gary Wilkerson: Thank you.

Key Questions from the Podcast 

  • How did your biological daughters adjust to their new adopted brother?
  • Was adoption harder than you expected it to be?
  • What is reactive attachment disorder?
  • What challenges did you face raising and loving your prodigal son? 

Notable Quotes from the Podcast

There's kind of this, the Christian romanticism, "Oh, we're going to save this, we're going to bring this child in and rescue them," and then all sudden all hell breaks loose and it's, "What have we gotten ourselves into?" – Gary Wilkerson

It's a wonderful gift that you can give to a child to be able to bring them into your home and love them and do those things, but it will not be the easiest thing in the world. – Judy Douglass

I tell people, they say, "Should we think of adopting?" I say, "Well, actually, everyone should because that's what God did." He adopted us. And he says we are to care for the homeless and the fatherless. And so, absolutely, we should ask the question, do you want us to do this? But you better hear Him and not do it unless you have that, because it will take supernatural wisdom, and strength, and endurance, and love to be able to live through it well. – Judy Douglass

Resources Mentioned in the Podcast 

About Judy Douglass

Judy is a writer, speaker, missionary with Cru. She is an encourager—urging everyone she encounters to know God and to entrust their lives to him for all He wants them to be and all He has prepared for them to do. She also writes about women, prodigals, becoming a true follower of Jesus, the homeless, grandparenting, learning from children.

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About Gary Wilkerson

Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO.

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