Mondays at “Juvie”
Monday afternoons at juvenile hall are laundry folding days. A staff person and three or four of the kids are buried in the week’s laundry of institutional gray shorts and shirts. Each inmate gets his weekly supply which he takes to his own cell, his uniform du jour.
While the laundry is being sorted, I have my time with any of the kids who want to talk to a spiritual advisor. On Mondays that’s me. Being a spiritual advisor to teenage kids is not brand new to me. I’ve been a foster dad and mentored kids in group homes. Having been at one time in my life, a priest , on the one hand, makes me a natural for this kind of volunteer work.
On the other hand, my own spiritual journey has been a roller coaster ride. How does a spiritual advisor advise when at times he’s still trying to figure out his own relationship with God. God is a mystery to me., way too big for me to get my mind around. Now I see him; now I don’t. I do want to believe in God. At least I have that going for me.
And, deep down, I am convinced there is a God of love and that he loves these kids.
Still, It would be easier if I were a more traditional Catholic or, better yet, a Christian fundamentalist. That way, I could be rock solid in my mentoring. “Read the bible, go to church, say grace before meals.” That’s all there is to it, except it’s not.
Life is more complicated. It”s not enough to tell 16 year-old “Juan” to say his prayers when he is already a child dad, grappling with how to take care of his infant daughter. It may be simple to tell Alonzo that he needs to forgive his mom but forgiveness doesn’t come easily when that mom walked out on him when he was only five years-old.
The kids have stories to tell so I do a lot of listening. Despite our differences in background and age, we do after all share a common humanity. We all need love and respect and to forgive and be forgiven. Just listening is a good starting point.
Teenage males, especially those who have experienced a lot of rejection in their lives, are not that ready to confide in a stranger. It helps that I am not paid to be there and am not in authority over them. It takes time to earn their trust but that is one gift I can give.
Besides just listening, I try to pass on to the kids the things I do know about God, that His other name is love, that they are created in His image and likeness. I tell them, too, that just . because they have done some stupid things in their young life doesn’t make them stupid or bad. I share with them the mantra we chanted in the 60’s. “God don’t make no junk.”
I always finish our conversations by looking into the eyes of the lad and promising that I will pray for him. Then I ask him to pray for me. They seem surprised at this. I suspect that many of them had never had someone ask for their prayers. As for me, I’ll take all the prayers I can get.