Mondays at Juvenile Hall

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.
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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.

Hey God, It’s Me, Tony

Hey God, It’s Me, Tony

I was volunteering as a sort of surrogate grandpa for abused and neglected kids in California. We “grandparents” lived in our own separate quarters on the village grounds. It was heartbreaking working with kids who had seen much tragedy in their young lives but there were times when it all seemed worthwhile.
Ten-year-old “Tony” dropped in on me just after I had received news that my older brother from back East was at death’s door. I’m sure the anxiety showed on my face when Tony paid his visit. “Grandpa Hank, what’s the matter? he asked me.
“Tony,” I explained. “I just got very sad news about my older brother. My sister called me and said he is very sick and may not live through the night.
The little boy sat down; his eyes showing his empathy. “What can I do to help? “he asked. “Nothing much anyone can do,” I replied. “I guess if you wanted to say a prayer for him that would help.” The boy sprang to his feet. “Do you mean NOW?”
I really wasn’t expecting such quick action but I answered, “Sure, You can talk to God anytime”. Tony was a man of action. He went outside on my front patio and lifting his eyes and arms heaven-wards, here are the words the little guy was sending up to heaven.
“Hey God, it’s me, Tony. Grandpa Hank’s brother is really sick; He might die.. Could you help him get better?” Then after a short pause, he continued. “I’d sure appreciate any help you can give him.”
Tony came back inside and he had a smile on his face. “Grandpa Hank, there were some construction guys working on your street and they probably thought I was a little weird praying out loud like that. But I didn’t care. Heck, I wasn’t talking to them anyway. I was talking to God.”
Well I thanked him, of course, and then, looking him straight in the eyes, I said to him. “Tony, I asked you to pray for my brother because you know what? God has a special place in his heart for children. That’s just the way he is. I think that when a kid prays to God, God will answer him.”
So the little guy left with his parting words “Don’t worry Grandpa Hank. Your brother will be OK.” I felt that I was in the presence of someone very special on that day. I can’t begin to claim I know the mind of God. Whether a miracle of curing took place on that day, I don’t know.
I do believe from the depths of my heart that the creator of the universe does listen to the prayers of children and that, in itself, is miracle enough for me.
PS. My brother did recover and now, five years later, is still doing well…

God’s Other Name

God’s Other Name

The God I believe in has another name. The name is both simple and profound. Everybody knows what it means, because like the air we breathe, it is everywhere. God’s other name is love.

God is love. He is the energy that gives life to our world, the spirit that warms us, and the fire that stirs our hearts. God is the magic of springtime, the miracle of birth, the power of the wind and waves.

God is the old man who comes to the nursing home every day without fail to visit his ailing wife, the kid who carries his little brother on his back, the cop who puts his own life at risk to save a person he does not even know.

God is the God of small things, too.

I dropped my foster grandson off at school today and said to him “Have a good one, sweetheart.” Whoops! I caught myself. Did I really just call my strapping 18 year old kid…SWEETHEART?” Hurriedly, I opened the window and yelled after him, “Hey, sorry I called you sweetheart. He just smiled back at me. “It’s okay. It’s all good.” And it was. That God, whose other name is love, makes you do sappy things and they turn out okay.

But love can go deep, too.

I heard a story recently about a young dad whose wife was killed in an auto accident. The man went into a deep depression. He wondered how he could possibly carry on being both dad and mom to his seven-year-old little boy. In despair, he locked himself in the bathroom and was holding a gun to his head when he heard his son’s voice. “Hey dad, where are you? I need help with my homework.”

Call it God or call it God’s other name. Something, Someone penetrated the young dad’s soul. He put the gun away. “No way, I can do this to my boy.” He said, “I’ll be right there, son.” And he was. That’s the kind of stuff we do when we love. Love is just another name for God.

A Young Boy, a Dying Old Woman and a Moment in Time

The Gift

A Young Boy, a Dying Old Woman and a Moment in Time

I wanted so badly to connect with my sister-in-law who was very close to death, but her once bright alert eyes were unresponsive. The nurse, who had seen the last days of many nursing home patients, told me that Phyllis had decided to let go. She had lived a full life but now, it was her time.

I tried again to rouse her as she sat, slumped in the wheel chair. . “Phyllis! Phyllis.” Her head remained down. No contact. Nothing. Then, I had an idea. If I could bring Mac to see her, I had a hunch that she would respond.

Mac is a twelve year-old boy who I know from my years at the Children’s Village. I had taken him along to see my sister-in-law in happier times. The two of them always hit it off famously. Maybe a visit from Mac might help.

A bright extroverted kid, Mac is irrepressibly chatty. No doubt about it. This kid likes to talk. Fortunately, he speaks with a volume that would make any hearing aid superfluous. There is something about his child-like chatter that strikes a chord in my sister-in-law. Beyond that, the kid has a compassion for people that way beyond his chronological age. I call him an “old soul.”

So, the very next day, I took Mac with me on my visit to the convalescent hospital. I was a little concerned that it would be too hard for the kid to see how Phyllis had slipped, both physically and mentally. Before I took him to her room, I asked the nurse how Phyllis was doing. “About the same,” she said. Then in a sad voice, “I wish you luck; she hasn’t been talking to anyone.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t luck we needed. We had an angel in the form of a 12 year-old kid. Her head was still down when we entered the room. I said, “Look who I brought you, your friend Mac.” The boy immediately chirps up. “Hi Phyllis, it’s me, Mac.” Magically, her head came up and a smile of recognition suffused her face. Phyl’s little friend had arrived and boy, did she know it. .

Their conversation was mostly one-sided: Phyl still could not speak very
well but she followed the boy with her eyes, almost as though she was trying to memorize the bright youthful face of the boy. The two of them connected seamlessly, as though the age difference of almost seven decades was completely irrelevant.

The visit was short because Phyl no longer has the stamina for a long conversation but something beautiful, even sacred, had happened in their
time together. The innocence of a child had connected with dying old age and left his gift at her feet.

The Not So Hidden God

The Not So Hidden God

Remember when you were a little kid and your mom or maybe a nun at school told you that God is EVERYWHERE. I recall being sort of freaked out. You know what I mean? It made me nervous to know that God could see me, even when I was trying to light up one of my dad’s cigs in the bathroom.

In my grown-up way of envisioning God, I still see God as everywhere but it’s not the stern overseer of all my shortcomings that I see but a God of love. He (She) is not up in the clouds somewhere counting our failings. God is not “up there” at all but in me and in all of creation.

God is not a hidden God at all. He is easy to discover anywhere we look.
Want to see God? Look for Him in a young couple saying their “I do’s” to one another on their wedding day, or a soldier putting his life on the line for the country he loves, or parents working two jobs for their family, or entertainers volunteering their talents for starving children they will never see.

The God who is everywhere is in us. He is our better nature, the part of us that yearns for peace in the world and hope for our children. God lives in our longing for a just world where every kid has parents, who tuck him in at night, put away money for his education and show up for every school play.

The presence of God is not limited to our species. Who among us cannot see the hand of God in the way elephants will mourn the death of one of their own, or in the loyalty of dogs to their owners or the fierce protectiveness of a mother lioness towards her cubs? Call it “instinct” if you must but I see in that instinct an expression of love.

Ah! But you say, if God is everywhere, where is he when children in Somalia starve to death or when warlords recruit children to kill or when politicians act out of greed instead of following the conscience? How do we explain the seeming absence of God in the killing fields of Cambodia or the Holocaust? The French philosopher, Camus, put it powerfully. “Explain to me how God allows the suffering of children in our world and I will believe in Him.”

I don’t pretend to have an answer for Camus. Much greater intellects than mine have grappled with the mystery of evil in our midst. What helps me to reach even a glimmer of understanding of something so beyond me, is to acknowledge the awesome power in each of us to choose evil over good. It is not that God is absent but that we have the freedom to blind ourselves to His presence.

The yearning for power or greed has shut our eyes to that better nature for which we were created. God is still here but we look past Him. And, in doing so, we render Him, who is the source of love, invisible for us. The hidden God is not in hiding at all if we have eyes to see.

What if there is No God?

What If There is No God?

Leaving my apartment this morning to spend my half-hour of prayer and meditation at St.Eugene’s chapel, the thought struck me, “Could I be wasting my time? What if my prayers are no more useful than the wishes we make before blowing out the candles on a birthday cake? What if my prayers are addressed to a delusion, a made-up God who exists only in our minds?

Years ago, I would not have put my own doubts out there so bluntly. I would have been afraid to do so. I dared not express my doubts, even to myself. To doubt the very existence of God was unthinkable.

Through the years I have learned that I can’t make doubts go away by stuffing them. I like Thoreau’s perspective; He said ““Faith keeps many doubts in her pay. If I could not doubt, I should not believe.”

Besides, Christianity has had a long tradition of doubters starting soon after the Resurrection of Jesus with one of Jesus’s chosen disciples, that old skeptic Thomas. He wasn’t about to take the words of the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Oh yea? Prove it,” was Thomas’s response. I suspect many of us, even those of us who fill the pews at Sunday services, have at times shared Thomas’s reservations.

Dostoyevsky, one of a long line of Christians who had his own struggles with faith, once said, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born in the furnace of doubt.” There was a man who took his religion seriously.

Like the iconic Russian writer, many of us continue to struggle with our faith. Others, perhaps unaware, or in denial of the commitment that the Christian faith implies, are more inclined to shrug their shoulders, saying in so many words, “Whatever.”

They get on with our lives as though it doesn’t make any difference whether they believe or not. After all, they rationalize, God’s existence can hardly be proven or, for that matter, disproved so, why bother our heads over something we can’t know?

William Sloane Coffin, a man who grasped the implications of what it means to be a Christian, said that for him, faith is much more than believing in a slew of dogmas. According to Coffin, “Faith isn’t believing without proof. It’s trusting without reservation.”

Faith in God, in that sense, is more like you say to your son or daughter, “Honey, I believe in you. I know you can do it.” That kind of belief is based more on trust than on logic. That kind of faith can energize us and cast out doubts.

If I believe in God in that way, any hesitation vanishes. God is as real as life and love and the air we breathe and the trust we have in our best friend. Far from wondering if I am wasting a half-hour of my time in prayer, I should be on my knees 24/7 for I tread on sacred ground. If God is truly the source of all that is good and holy and beautiful, being in his presence is exactly where I should be.

Welcoming “Monsters” into Your Life

Coping With our Monsters

Not all monsters are the furry, scary kind that inhabits the nightmares of little children. According to Peter Skaife, a Northern California spiritual counselor, who has written a fascinating book on the subject, monsters are a part of all of our lives. Skaife defines a monster as “anything, that at this moment, bothers me, irritates me or interferes with my life.”

I have to admit that it took me some time for my mind to get around this definition of a monster. Wait a minute. Say that again. A monster is what?

As I understand it, monsters are sort of like the “good angels” that the nuns told us about in religion class, the spirits that perch on our shoulders counseling us to do the right thing. We don’t always welcome their presence because, frankly, monsters are so damn honest. Most of us don’t appreciate being reminded of the dumb things we have done or the good things we didn’t do. That’s why they irritate us.

On the other hand, monsters are loyal friends because they won’t let us down. They represent our better selves to ourselves. They are our healers, our spiritual directors, and our conscience.

In his book, Skaife reveals his own personal monsters who “notice when I crowd my life and fill my schedule with activities, to avoid paying attention to the things that bother me,” and the monsters who “teach me that every day of my life is a lifetime and who “want me to live each day as fully as I can.” His monsters also “see when I do things to impress myself and other people. They want me to know they are not impressed.”

Monsters see through us and won’t take our b.s. “Hey,” they prod us, “You’re better than that. You know that you were created in the image and likeness of God. You can change the world if you believe in yourself; let’s get cracking.”

The deal is, our monsters are right (damn them); we do yearn to be that person, making our world a better place. When we follow that voice within, we know we are tooling down the freeway clicking on all our cylinders. Doing the right thing is its own reward, baby.

But, being human, sometimes we screw up. We cheat on our spouse, or goof off at work, or copy a term paper that someone did for us on the internet, or pretend to be knowledgeable about something we know nothing about, “faking it” in a thousand different ways so that we can impress people.

Our monsters remind us of our foibles. That’s why they bother us. We don’t like to be nagged by monsters that know that we are capable of doing, way better, who know our dignity and potential..

Like our very best of friends, the monsters continue to call us to be the best we can be. They remind us when we slough off our responsibilities to our kids or to our spouse or to our community. Loving us dearly, they forgive us but want us to know, they are not going away. They will continue to bother us and interfere with our life. That’s what monsters do.

Are monsters real? You betcha! They are as real as Santa and the man on the moon and the play of children. But, like so many of our myths, they express profound truths about ourselves. We all need to be reminded of our uniqueness as human beings, of our potential for good, of our connectedness with the universe.

If letting monsters into our lives help us to realize all that we are and all that we can be, I say, “Monsters, Welcome aboard!”