I'd like to share a long story with you if you have the patience for it about why I do this work:
While playing Spades with some kids in juvenile detention, I could feel a shift in the room’s energy. What started as a noisy carnivalesque environment during free time abruptly tilted. I felt a sacred veil fall between us and the world, making our card table, the altar in the Holy of Holies.
But let me return to the beginning.
That night, I was happy to go to juvie. I knew that James1 was leaving the next day to go home. Home to his family and loved ones. I walked through the iron gates of the sally port, heard the heavy weight of the doors opening and closing with loud thuds and pops that incite a trauma response in the calmest hearts. Descending the steps, I wondered, "What will James do first when he leaves?" I thought for sure it would be food related. In my experience, most young folks want good food when they leave...whether that is a McDonald's hamburger or grandma's home cooking.
I walked down the long hall to James' unit. Peering through the thick glass as I passed the living units, I could see that it was free time—everyone was milling about, talking, laughing, making phone calls, watching tv. It was the only hour in the day where they could completely choose their own activities. I found James and we persuaded two other young men to play spades with us. Sitting down, I began dealing the cards and asked James my trivial question: "What is the first thing you are going to do when you get out?"
The answer surprised me. I thought I was beyond surprise, but here it was once again returning to me like a nagging mother. James whispered, "I wish I was going home to a normal family."
I felt a record scratch in my heart. The moment pivoted and became extraordinary. I felt the sacred veil descend upon our table, holding us together as beloved community. Listening and holding this new piece of information, I did not let a single muscle twitch in my face nor did I stop dealing the cards or playing the game. But I knew, we were starting an entirely different game, new to all of us—the Hunger Games of the soul.
I replied, "How so?"
His answer shook me to the core.
Clearing his throat, he answered, “I’m going home to live with my mom. The problem is that I’ve been here, getting clean and she’s a meth addict. I don’t want to use drugs again. But, I know that when I go home, she’ll invite me to do drugs with her and I don’t think I’m strong enough to say no.”
Bloody hell. Why should a kid have to say no to this? To their parent?
I asked about his dad. He told me that his father was a gang member and that if he went to be with his dad, he didn’t think he would live past the age 21.
Can your heart actually beat out of your chest? Because it sure felt that way.
As James’ opened up, the other two boys in our card game took it in. His sharing prompted them to begin their own sharing. One child witnessed his mother’s rape and his father’s murder. He was in jail because his temper kept overflowing. The last child at the table said nothing. It is hard to say why he was silent. But he was listening.
We all kept playing the game. Putting our cards on the table.
The conversation began to return to normalcy. Our hour was up and it was time for them to go to bed and for me to leave. The sacred veil become a shroud of hopelessness as I walked through detention, dragging it with me like a dirty blanket. This was bad. I was running through all the statistics I know about incarceration. These boys had all the markers of endless prison. They were young men of color caught in a racist system, undereducated and likely to never receive a diploma or GED, and from families of violence, drugs, and poverty. They were at the perfect intersection of “society doesn’t give a damn” and “parental failure.” Where is the hope in that? Where is the hope for them?
My drive home was tortuous. I called my family and let them know that I was coming in hot and they should probably leave me alone so I could work it out. Rather, I needed them to give me space so I could find myself again.
At home, I put myself to pen and paper and began writing. I wrote of bloody, vulturous hyenas and their prey, murdered children. I channeled the darkest writings of lament in the tradition of the Davidic Psalmist, taking the society to court and finding them guilty of murderous, death-dealing. However, the “so what” reared its ugly head. What does it matter if they are guilty? If we are guilty? Guilt doesn’t change anything for James. It was all just too horrible.
Sitting in despair, an image came to me. An easter lily floated down from the sky and landed gently at my feet. Maybe it plopped but I imagine that I remember it floating. There it was. A classic, White Heaven lily, laying at my feet. I wanted to skewer everyone with a flaming sword of vengeance and I got a flower? What the heck!
I pondered the lily with more than a little consternation. It occurred to me that there is nothing in that flower that I can use to punish people for their wrongs. Nothing. It seemed useless. If I hit them with the lily, what are they going to do? Thank me for the perfume?
The realization slowly came. The answer is the lily. Flowers are gentle and beautiful, inviting kindness and wonder. Even more, Easter is a promise that our own lives can be resurrected. Transformation is possible. Statistics do not control lives and the possibility of revolution is real, no matter what the numbers say.
I don’t know where James is today. I hope that he is thriving somewhere. The reality is that I will never know the outcome of 95% of the young people I work with. That can be hard. I occasionally dip back into that dark night of the soul, but I will never forget the image that was gifted to me. It inspired me to create the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition of Circle Faith Future and it is my motivation to continue the work even when the world seems more like a rabid hyena than a gentle lily.
Thank you for reading!
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