Written By: Ryan Walters
“We are deathly afraid of what we were created for: relationship.”
A gut-wrenching statement of certainty within my faith that I have been taught recently that I can’t seem to shake.
I thought, “I’m an extrovert. I shouldn’t ever have a problem being open to relationships with anybody- despite their economic status, social status, emotional status, criminal status and so on.”
Or so I thought quite naively to myself.
Initially when I began probing and reflecting on my past of interpersonal experiences, I had no choice but to bite the bullet. It may be harder for me to digest the thought that I incorporate preference in relational-based decisions than it is for me to digest cream cheese. Take my word for it- I can’t consume cream cheese by itself without gagging. The majority of people involved in my daily interactions immensely envelop those who I consider to be within my ‘comfortable haven’.
I’ve spent seven months now serving the needs of the Emerald City, otherwise known as Seattle. This coffee-obsessed hipster state sits cozily in the upper left-hand corner of the grand United States. I volunteer my time at the King County Juvenile Detention Center downtown and a residential rehabilitation program, almost an hour north of the city. I visit these correctional facilities three to four times a week. I spend an intense one-on-one hour with inmates (specifically young males) who request to escape their white-walled jail cells just to feel like normalized citizens again.
I can’t offer them a Frappuccino with the home-like décor that fills the atmosphere of a Starbucks. I can’t offer them a pleasant walk outside where they can feel the abrasive surface of a long-lived oak tree or the peach-fuzz gentleness of a leaf it produces. Heck, I can’t even offer them a familiar face. How in the world could I ever envision these boys, not even old enough to purchase a pack of Camels, allowing me into their comfortable haven?
Me. A white, privileged male. A college graduate. Never one to cause a ruckus with the law. A mid-twenties kid with all the love and support from family and friends that a man could ask for. Plus, I’d faced the inevitable selfish truth that I gravitate to persons I have a preference for. Some judgmental Christian I am. What teenager would want to spend any time with that sort of chump?
It’s the reasons in that last paragraph that I would presume are a major factor for why incarcerated youth would not warm up to me right off the bat, or at all for that matter. I’m left stumped and curious as to how I can create a friendly open space for dialogue. A way to resolve the stereotypical label I may be categorized with. A label that denies me the initial permission to speak up and defend my stance with. Why, the answer is precisely how this blog got jump started: relationship.
By now you may have picked up on the fact that common hang-up number one working with incarcerated youth is privilege. With a heart of gratitude, I thank author Andy Crouch for his words in Playing God. He acknowledges the gift of power; a gift passed on from Creator to creation the moment we received dominion over the earth. For thousands of years, power has been distorted and abused by leaders in government and other institutions. I don’t know if it is possible to fathom an accurate estimate of the souls who have been brought under fierce oppression via tyrants and their mishandling of power. Crouch, who sees privilege as one aspect of power, deconstructs the notion that we have to be liable to being guilt-tripped from what we inherit. He’s pried my eyes open to the fact that God is good, and God invented power, so it is also good. Therefore privilege, being inevitably an element of power, is good.
Common hang-up number two is religion. You didn’t misread me. Religion. You might be thinking,“But Ryan, I thought your ministry in the jails is founded upon religion.”
My ministry is founded by, inherited by, and divinely interceded by Jesus Christ; entirely God and entirely man. So when I say I face the barrier of religion, I’m simply stating that I’m given sixty minutes (less if the boy is trying to kick it with his boys in gym class) to break down religious propaganda. Don’t forget now- that’s 3,600 seconds to fit in discussion comprising of how the young man got himself in involved with such misfortune, what his support system (if any) consists of, and any pressing topics or questions to speak with me about. It also often involves quality prayer time (99.9% of the gentleman seek prayer as a priority from chaplains) and yes- you guessed it, religious propaganda.
And amongst all that, I have to put on my armor and head into war with “unseen evil forces and cosmic powers over the present darkness?” (Ephesians 6:12) Well now, doesn’t sound like a walk in the park to me. Here’s where you begin to logically seize what I mean by religion as a relational hang-up.
Despite general assumptions, these boys, for the most part, acknowledge the existence of a God. But you can trust me when I say they have trouble understanding it’s conceivable for that same God to forgive all sins. They struggle to believe that the offenses they wear on their sleeve (quite literally with a risk-level wristband) could be paid for, vanquished, and erased. Incarcerated youth share a similarity amongst themselves that puts them (at least in their minds) at a distance from God: a yearning for attention and affection that they mistakenly consider as unattainable.
What realities play a part in those misbeliefs? As any man could speculate, juvenile offenders by nature aren’t exactly highly favored by their community. Because they are identified by a crime and not as a child, they know the feeling of being left for dead. They’ve been made to feel useless for the greater good of society. They’re familiar with being thoughtlessly lobbed into the foster care system like meat being tossed around at a deli. And if that is the feeling they inherit from God’s image bearers, how do you think it will impact how they look at God?
If there was ever a word of hope that locked-up adolescents could begin to place some form of their identity in, it would be the infinite stretch of how much their Father in heaven loves them. It’s one thing if I’m elaborating on a higher being; discussing the possibility that He loves a misfit more than a gang leader is another. Discussing an unconditional love may be the trickiest message to convey to a misguided and mistreated soul.
Please forgive my French in wanting to be blunt but how do you begin to undo thirteen to seventeen years of hearing, “You’re nothing more than a piece of shit”? How would you ever initiate the process of restoration? How would you go about restoring inherent dignity and worth back to an adolescent who has had it repeatedly ripped away during a crucial stage in the development of entering young adulthood?
I’m grateful I do not know the answers to these complicated uneasy questions. It is my incompetence that grants me the invitation to the Lord’s throne. My weakness and feebleness are made strong in Him (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is an inability to answer, that grants me dependence upon God and His overarching wisdom. I praise Him and say hallelujah that I am not the King; I’m just a messenger. But it is a role I’m more than willing to accept and be entirely grateful for. How could I offer anything less to a God who offered His Son as a sacrifice in my place?
At the end of the day, I’m grateful to know that I represented Christ in a venue of darkness and gloom. We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned to us by the One who sent us…I am the Light of the World. (John 9:4).
I’m a courier with the message of salvation.
One broken human being sharing love, hope, peace and the true definition of abundant life to another broken soul.
I have but this to say on relationship-building with incarcerated youth:
By experiential knowledge, hang-ups are to be expected; but by faith, seed-planting reaps gratitude.