I am Chris Hoke. I am a Gang Pastor, Jail Chaplain and Writer. This is a story I just wrote for our brother organization, Underground Writing, directed by my friend and colleague Matt Malyon. I am honored to be a monthly teaching-writer with Underground Writing in juvenile detention.

Hearing Voices Underground
We read a poem by Li Young-Lee, Little Father, and in response a fifteen-year-old boy in Juvenile Detention wrote about the time his dad ran over him with a car.


One time when I was like 6 or 7
I got on my bike and finally rode it successfully
and I was riding it around my yard,
but I don’t think my dad liked that too much
because he decided to run me over
because he was drunk

my uncle was in the passenger side
finishing his beer
when my dad was steering towards me
and before I knew it
I was under the front of the car

It took him a second to realize
what happened but he said that
he told me to get out of the way
at least my bike was OK

This was last summer. It stuck with me.

Last month this same teenager walked into our Underground Writing group in the classroom. (Over time, you see youth return, again and again, to this place.) I put him on the spot by saying I still remembered something he wrote a year before.

“Yeah?” Yeah, I told him. Did he remember what it was? He did; he summarized the memory.

I asked him—for the audience of five other teenagers sitting around the two round tables in their bright orange sweats, listening—why he thought I remembered it. He shook his head, eyebrows up, honestly not sure why that lousy memory would stick with the writing teacher. “Cuz it’s f–, uh, messed up?”

Yeah, I said. But more basic than that: he wrote it down, I said, plain, simple, no flowery words. The event spoke for itself. I hoped this would dispel other students’ fears of writing being about getting fancy with our words.

“And because you dared to read it out loud. You shared it with us. Otherwise I wouldn’t have heard that story, or your powerful voice.”

His face was blank. So what.

These youth are used to their voices not being heard, or wanted. They are accustomed to not being seen.

We were not discussing metaphor that day.  But I am now.

Unless we the adults behind the wheel of our communities hear these stories, hear the voices of young lives being caught under the gears of our courts and legal systems, we won’t know we need to hit the breaks.  Or sober up.

In the last year, four of the boys—all between fourteen to sixteen years old—in our Juvenile Detention workshops have been charged as adults in the courtroom across the street. They each face over a decade in adult prison. None of them are white.

I can imagine where they are headed. Because, as an adult prison and gang chaplain, I’ve also been writing letters to a twenty-one-year-old in a solitary confinement cell across Washington State.

He was already one of the highest-violent inmates in the system when I met him. He’d stabbed multiple guards in the face, neck, when they entered his cell. The homies called him Lil’ Saint. Saint was sentenced, age fifteen, as an adult.

But in our letters, I was curious about him. He told me horror stories. Being whipped as a child, locked in the bathroom for days. Through writing, he made the connection between his childhood treatment and current “animal” rage, lashing out, at being caged.

He used his pen, his voice. He was heard, and he had compassion on himself. He’s now reading Steinbeck, ancient Roman histories, and has earned his way off of high security levels.

He never wrote a poem. But his writing I’m most proud of was the letter he wrote our county prosecutor, at our gentle request. He told his story on behalf of a kid in Juvenile Detention he’s never met. He raised his voice so that the man behind the legal wheel in our county might, hopefully, hit the breaks—and see a child about to be crushed underground.

. . . and before I knew it
I was under the front of the car

It took him a second to realize
what happened but he said that
he told me to get out of the way
at least my bike was OK

The prosecutor still has not lowered the charges. I’m not even sure if he read Saint’s prison-envelope letter.  It’s likely he’ll never hear Saint’s voice.

Do we?

May we have ears to hear–the word from above and from below.

Chris Hoke is the CoDirector of Underground Ministries and the author of  WANTED: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.

2 thoughts on “Hearing Voices Underground

  1. Thank you for giving these young men a voice. We all know how therapeutic writing can be. You’ve given them a positive outlet to release the pain, hurt, frustration they surely must be feeling, and also provided a way for others on the outside to see them as human beings (which is perhaps the most important thing).

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  2. Thank you, Chris, for sharing. I wonder if I know Lil’ Saint. If I don’t know him, I know someone like him. It is so sad that our juvenile lives can be shuffled around like this.

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