I’ve only been working as a chaplain with youth in detention for a month. I could have chosen a number of different seminarian internships; campus ministry, church administration, advocacy. But I chose chaplaincy on purpose because I felt a “call.” It is why I’m studying an MDiv; it’s why I stopped running away from ministry.
In this month I’ve heard stories of rape, assault, grand theft, vandalism and trafficking in narcotics. There is something fundamentally disturbing to hear the voice of a child talk about getting so drunk and high that carjacking an elderly woman sounded like a way to “have fun.” All this from the mouths of youths who should be worried about their SATs rather than their next court date. So I’ve been asked the question, “How do you do this?” My answer is, “Because my faith demands it of me.”
As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that salvation is IN my life. My faith as I choose it requires me to work towards the inherent worth and dignity of all people and all creation, not for heavenly reward but for humanity. Which means pushing myself to be in places and meet with people which make me uncomfortable. To speak truth to power. To give witness. To expand beloved community. To be where the Spirit of life needs me to be.
Yes, it is hard to sit in active listening, asking questions, attempting to sift through the psychic refuse to find the innocent child underneath. But let me be clear; there is an innocent child underneath! Because I have also heard these same children’s voices ask for mercy, beg for forgiveness and plead for a fifth, sixth or seventh chance to turn away from the paths well worn by their incarcerated fathers and addicted mothers and economically and educationally depressed neighborhoods. These children’s eyes reflect back at me; “Help me! Heal me! Love me! Save me!” And my faith and my humanity will not let me say “no!”
Even though a minister’s trade is in miracles, I expect none here. My ministry is to listen. To be present. To plant seeds of hope. To challenge my world to change for the sake of it’s children. And to push and pull with all my might to bend that arc of history just a little bit further toward justice. It is in this hard work that I find the Spirit of life seeking reconciliation and my own salvation.
In this way, working with youth who are incarcerated is life giving! It reminds me of who I should be. It wakes me up from the soma of my off-white middle class American social location. The work allows me to be so filled with gratitude for my family and baby boy that I have to respond in thanksgiving. And because I did very little to deserve my blessings and privilege, I must pay it forward. Which is where I am confronted by mystery and miracle! The more I give, the more I find that I am being transformed by these youth into a better human being.
– Justin Almeida
© 2015, essay, Justin Almeida, All rights reserved; public domain illustration, an early version of the “flaming chalice,” the symbol of Unitarian Universalism