That’s me in detention on Christmas morning. I was teaching some folks how to make a selfie and lo! The resulting picture just captures what it means to work with youth in detention. The simultaneous holding of hope and the desperation that can only happen by arriving at detention in the wee hours of Christmas morning after running three church services the night before.
I started working in detention as a chaplain in 2008. That fall, I met with a young man named “James.” He had come into detention high on drugs. After detoxing and fulfilling his commitment, it was time for him to go home. The night before he went home, he and I sat together along with a couple other young men and played a game of Spades together.
As I dealt out the cards, I asked James, “What is the first thing that you are going to do when you get out?”
The answer I expected was, “I want to go to my grandma’s and get some food!” That’s the answer I get about 90% of the time when I ask that question. Or some variation of a food related answer.
But not this time. This time, the answer was, “I just want to go home to a normal family.”
I kept quiet. Kept dealing the cards. He continued talking.
“You see, if I go home to my mother, she will ask that I do drugs with her. And I just came clean! And I really don’t think I’m strong enough to say no to my mother.”
“What about your father?” I asked.
“My dad runs guns. If I go home to my dad, I don’t think I’ll live until the age of 21.”
My heart broke that day. And I made a decision to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
That evening, when I heard that young man’s story and the other stories of young people at the table, I faced an epic challenge. How do you maintain hope in a hopeless system. You see, my undergraduate degree is in Criminal Justice. I know the national and local statistics around incarceration and its intersection with poverty, race, education, and mental illness. And at every turn, all I could see for this young man was further incarceration. That is, if he is just a number.
That if you are a youth of color, you will be incarcerated.
That if you are under educated, you will be incarcerated.
And that if you have a mental illness, you will be incarcerated.
- By the numbers, black youth are suspended and expelled at higher rates than white students
- By the numbers, 16% of black students are suspended annually compared to 5% of white students
- By the numbers, students who are suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade
- By the numbers, dropping out of school triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life. 68% of inmates were school dropouts.
- By the numbers, black youth are 4 times more likely to be in juvenile detention
- By the numbers, 77% of juveniles sent to adult prison are African American
- By the numbers, about 20% of the population of Washington is people of color and yet 49% of incarcerated youth are youth of color.
- By the numbers, over 350,000 prisoners are diagnosed with “serious” mental illness.
But I do not believe in living life by the numbers. We are called to transcend numbers and to be hope for the hopeless. So it is a problem when we incarcerate those who are hungry. When we lock up the thirsty. And when we throw away the key for those we should be healing.
What do you do when statistics say there is no road to healing for this poor, hurting person but there is only prison? When the only safety net we have built is one that locks up and locks out the lost, the least, and the lonely?
And, what do you do when your soul confronts the difficult task of transforming just one life in the face of so many challenges?
That night, the night I heard the stories of lost youth and systemic failures, I wondered. Where is hope? My soul cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken them?
I sat down and worked it out with God. We wrestled and I walked away with a renewed sense of purpose. A sense of purpose grounded in the theology of resurrection! New creation! God can make anything new. And walking in that renewed hope with me that day were anger and courage as partners. Partners that enabled me to transform my ministry from one person to a state-wide para church organization. And partners that enabled me to advocate for young people and eventually be seated with the decision makers in the state.
I was angry that any young person has to face the incredible choices these young people face and that gave me courage to stand in the gap with them.
Now, for me, standing in the gap means more than just holding their hand and patting it and telling them that if they “just say no” they will be able to make a new way.
The vision I had of standing in the gap has led to creating a program that has a state-wide reach to youth affected by incarceration.
These youth are our most vulnerable people. As much as we look at them as tough kids, they are hurting inside. There is this test, the ACE test. It measures Adverse Childhood Experiences or childhood trauma. The score is zero to 100. Zero is no trauma and 100 would be so much trauma they are probably like a bowl of jelly. They administered the ACE test to incarcerated youth. Can you imagine what their score was?
It was 92.
These youth are not just tough kids, but they are seriously traumatized and they need people to stand in the gap with them. That is where I come in. I developed MAP which is a mentoring program that stands in the gap with incarcerated youth in the state of Washington. And together, we, the mentors, can interrupt the cycle of trauma that is so ingrained in their lives.
Standing in the gap has given me the courage to engage with advocacy work that has led to my placement on the state’s Sentencing Guideline Commission where I am sure that I will be a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way! Make the road straight, raise every valley, and make low the mountains. Make it easier for our kids. Because then we will see the glory of each youth reflected as resurrected lives and our world will be transformed.”
We are called to transform the world through creating disciples of Christ. That starts with the lifelines thrown when mentors stand in the gap with youth.
This picture illustrates what I mean by standing in the gap.
The gentleman crossing the crevasse is blind and he is climbing Mt. Everest. Talk about overcoming the odds! He has a guide before him and a guide behind him. You might say that he was being mentored up that mountain! And note that it took more than one fabulous person in his life to get this accomplished.
Mentors stand in the gap with youth and help them traverse the most difficult terrain of their lives.
Mentors help youth move from leading a conventional life to a committed life
Mentors help youth trust themselves and build a conscious community
Mentors see youth as the best person they can be while realistically holding onto who they currently are. They see the new creation before it is even formed.
Mentors have a view of the world and a view of the potential within each youth that will allow the youth to transcend the events that place them in detention.
Instead of a life of busyness, they can live a life of meaning.
Instead of a life of consumerism, they can live a life of worthy purpose.
Instead of a life of cynicism, they can live a life of complexity.
Instead of a life of addiction, they can live a life of reality.
Mentors do that. For every child released from detention to a place without a mentor, my soul knows that their life is going to be harder, simply because there is nobody there. They need trained, competent mentors in their home towns to help them continue the hard work they began while they were incarcerated.
This is a very special challenge but one that we are steeping into. Kids need mentors. Whether it is interrupting their lives so they can avoid the school to prison pipeline or whether it is holding hope with them after they are incarcerated, young people need us to show up.
And let’s face it, mentoring can be fun. Here are some things I have done with incarcerated youth.
We went and saw Dr. Cornell West, we have gone bowling, go-carting, built gardens for food-at-risk families, and climbed mountains together. So maybe, in some very real way, we have been in the gap together.
The time is now. The time for your participation is now. We have too many kids that are counting on each of us to be holders of hope and transformation. It is time to multiply our mentoring power. Time to multiply happiness in our most vulnerable youth. Love. Full Stop.
Together, we can make sure that every child feels loved, every child feels valued, and every child knows that they are, indeed, very, very, good.
If you would like to make a donation to this worthy endeavor, please send a donation to:
Youth Chaplaincy Coalition
PO Box 18467
Seattle, WA 98118
We are a 501(c)3 through the Church Council of Greater Seattle.
© 2015, Terri Stewart, All rights reserved