It's a scene straight out of a Lifetime movie. At a Mississippi bus depot, a man helps his mother onto a Greyhound bus bound for Wisconsin. She has one arm wrapped around a suitcase and the other around her 10-month-old grandson. The man walks alongside the bus as his mother and baby find a seat, then places his hand flat on the bus window. The baby reaches his tiny palm to rest against the glass on the other side. Only then does the woman realize that her son is crying.
It's a sad scene, and all the more because it's real.
Zenobia Carson, the grandmother, remembers a bit more about that bus trip. Every time little Michael saw a man out the window who looked anything like his father, he reached his hand out to that glass again. Nothing, Zenobia says, could have broken her heart more.
When she went to pick up her grandson, she says, she was answering a call, not just from her son, but from God.
Today, at age 17, Michael understands that too. But his friends have a hard time understanding him, both because his grandmother is his only parent and because he's a committed Christian.
Michael Silas grins. "[Those things] bother my friends like a demon doing cannonballs in a pool of holy water."
Lots of labels
Michael wears many labels. Dedicated student. Motivated leader. Enthusiastic Christian. All-around good kid. But underneath it all is a charismatic passion—for life, for love, for God.
That passion has driven him to get involved in sports, maintain good grades, and plan to attend college.
"I want to be a scientist and [find] cures for Alzheimer's disease or cancer," he says. "It may be a long way off, but everything is possible with God on your side."
Michael's desire to show God's love to others has compelled him into active ministry and service as well. For the Salvation Army's Northbrook Corps Community Center, his church in Northbrook, Minn., Michael has volunteered for jobs ranging from Christmas kettle bell-ringer to teacher of 3- to 6-year-olds on Sundays. He helps out with youth groups, Vacation Bible School, junior church, and youth ministry programs. He also leads worship and serves meals to homeless people. This past summer, Michael worked at the Army's Northwoods Camp.
"What really strikes me as an officer and minister is that it seems like there's never enough he can do for the Lord," says Major Ed Wilson, co-pastor of Northbrook with his wife, Major Deanna Wilson. "Some people look at that and think he's just wanting to be in the limelight. But not Michael. He wants to give back to the Lord however he can. And you don't see that in kids his age [nowadays]."
Beyond being a servant, Silas says he strives to be a real friend. He feels strongly that the best way to witness to others is by building healthy relationships with them and by being a role model.
"Michael tries to lead by example," Ed Wilson says. "He's trying to live the best Christian life he can in this day and age, and he encourages others to do the same."
But Michael's encouragement is gentle.
"I try not to push Christianity on my friends," he says. "I try to bring it up in regular conversation and tell them that God is there for them even if they can't see Him."
Michael knows something about that. At just 17, Michael has had more troubles than people three times his age.
Bus depot scene
His mother became addicted to crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Her addiction continued after Michael was born. Not a good caregiver, she floated in and out of his life. As for Michael's father, he loved his son dearly but couldn't take care of his baby and work too.
That's when he made that phone call to Zenobia Carson, his mother. When he asked her to make the trek from Wisconsin to Mississippi to pick up Michael, Zenobia says the Holy Spirit tugged at her heart. She left her own two teenagers behind and purchased that round-trip Greyhound ticket.
What Zenobia didn't know was that she would soon face eviction from her apartment. For about seven months, her family moved from city to city, homeless. Michael, Zenobia, and the teenage son still with her, David, regularly stayed at homeless shelters.
Then, Zenobia answered an ad for an apartment for rent in Minneapolis. When she arrived, she realized it was a preordained appointment.
"The woman caretaker was taking care of a child the same age as Mikey," Zenobia remembers. The woman found a "holding" apartment for the family until an apartment the size they needed became available. Once they moved in, the caretaker knocked on the door and asked if they had food to eat. When Zenobia said, "just milk for the baby," the woman immediately went to the store and purchased over $300 worth of groceries. That kindness really touched Zenobia.
"I will never forget her," she says. "We were so blessed."
Today, Michael doesn't remember ever going without anything, especially love.
Learning about love
Michael remembers that love as sacrificial.
"If we needed new clothes, she would give me new things [so I would] look nice, not her. She [still] wears the same clothes. If I was able to cry, I'd cry."
Even as a little boy, Michael didn't entirely approve of people weeping openly. So he didn't react very well when his grandmother took him to church and he saw people doing just that.
"I wasn't sure that I wanted to know a God that made people cry," Michael says. "Then I realized that God was changing their hearts." It was then, at age 7, that Michael gave his own life to Christ.
That was at New Life Church in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Then, one day when Michael was 13, Zenobia was thrilled to find a flyer at her door from The Salvation Army in Northbrook about youth activities. She recalled positive experiences she had had growing up in Army activities herself; she remembered its national magazine, The War Cry, bell-ringing at kettles, and even serving as a Salvation Army camp counselor. Zenobia encouraged Michael to get involved. He did, and he loved it. He still does.
Zenobia is overjoyed at the spiritual growth she has seen in Michael. "He's been such a good example of [a] Christian man," she says. "I could probably never thank God enough for The Salvation Army."
For Michael, Zenobia is so much more than a parent.
"My grandmother and I are really, really tight," Silas says. "We have a great relationship. I can tell my grandmother anything. And I'm not ashamed of that."
Grandmother and grandson overflow with energy and passion.
"I love having an energetic grandmother—she still acts like a teenager," he says. "[That] passion has been handed down to me."
When she and Michael are together, Zenobia says, they love to "laugh a lot and be silly."
"I think that's what can keep you alive—laughing and keeping your bones moving," Michael says.
But it hasn't always been easy, Michael admits, growing up with a grandmother instead of a mother or father.
"As I grew older and saw other kids with parents, I felt out of place only having a grandmother," he says. "I wanted parents and siblings. But, after a while, I was thankful because of all the sacrifices my grandmother made."
Although Michael and Zenobia share a remarkably open relationship, he makes it clear that he sometimes makes mistakes, just like every other teen.
"No, I don't always listen to my grandmother," he says. "And when I don't, I get in trouble."
The important thing, he says, is that he doesn't give up when he fails.
"I try to live my life as best I can," he says. "I have my downfalls; I'm not perfect."
While he freely admits that he sins, Michael says his deepest desire is for "people to see God in me and see how God can make that difference in a person's life."
Being different in Michael's teenage world can be a problem.
Michael says kids treat him differently as soon as they find out about one of two things: his faith or his grandmother.
"I've always been an outcast, an alien," Silas says with a barely perceptible smile. "When other people see how close we are, they think she's making me do things ... or they think I'm a 'goody-two-shoes.' "
Michael admits that his grandmother does lay down a lot of rules.
"She's really strict," he said. "But rather than looking at the negative things, I look at the positive. I get to go to camp and help The Salvation Army. I think really great things come from rules."
Zenobia says she tried to teach Michael from an early age that "everything has a time and a season." When his friends rushed into dating, Zenobia advised her grandson to wait.
"I'm not ready to have great-grandchildren," she told him. Despite enormous peer pressure, Michael says he has chosen to wait to start dating until he's 25.
Being another kind of "alien"—Christian—hasn't always been easy for him either.
"I actually did have many days where I thought, 'Man! I don't want to be a Christian. It's too hard and there are too many rules!' " he says. "But my grandmother told me, 'If you give up now, you won't be able to reach kids who are going through the same things.'"
Those words really spoke to Michael's soul. Unless he perseveres, he realizes, he can't bring hope to his hurting friends.
"[Michael's] life speaks volumes to kids when they talk about how tough [they have it]," says his pastor, Major Ed Wilson. "He can tell them what he went through and how he still stayed faithful to the Lord.... It's a real blessing to the corps to have someone like that."
Michael knows he wouldn't have a personal relationship with Jesus if it weren't for one person who answered a call that day long ago to take him in.
"I really want to give credit to my grandma," he says. "If it weren't for her, I would not be where I am today. I love her so much, and she has taught me so much. She has sacrificed a lot to let me be involved with The Salvation Army, and God has truly blessed me by putting her in my life."