Living into Love, Truth, and Freedom

by Jen Owens

Tonight I expected things in juvenile hall to turn out much differently than they did. It was one of the boys’ birthdays, and I had brought with me some candy and a card to celebrate. Looking forward to to honoring the gift of Byron*, I was disappointed to learn that the staff had cancelled the Bible study scheduled on his unit for the evening. Volunteers rarely get the details of these things, but I understood that tension had mounted on the unit earlier in the day, and the results led the staff to decide that such a group activity would not take place.

Stashing candy in the closet for next week and passing along Byron’s card to another facilitator who was certified for a one-on-one visit on the unit (as I am not), I headed to another unit with Sheila*, my new partner for the night. As we walked by Byron’s unit, I heard a young man start to wail and scream from his room, and I started to cry. I struggle with the way our society treats these young men, on the inside and on the outside. Hearing the desperation in that young man’s voice pulled on my heart in a way that is difficult to describe. All that frustration, all that anger, all that powerlessness, all in one little body, no recourse left but to break free in the pops and crackles of his young voice.

As the minors on the unit to which Sheila and I were assigned filed in, I felt a peace and a calm settle over me, my tears having dried up a few minutes before. After we had read the readings and began to discuss them, I was struck by how harshly these young men judge themselves. Not only do they internalize the messages that society sends them, but they also add their own judgments and sometimes the harshness of their family’s judgments, as well. They struggle to see how God can forgive them for the wrongs they have inflicted on others, struggle to see how they can forgive themselves for the things they have done. When it comes down to it, they struggle, like many of us on the outside, to understand how God can love them.

But the thing is, God’s love is big enough to wrap itself around the gravest of sins, the darkest of nights, the most striking of screams. It crosses the boundaries that divide us—-of race and religion, of gender and sexuality, of age and ability, of education and social standing—-to envelop us in a way that only God can. Regardless of the things we’ve done, regardless of how far away from God we might feel, God is always there, with arms outstretched, ready to shower us with unconditional love.

That’s the thing about these young men. Because of the situation that they are in, they come to Wednesday night Bible study with their vulnerabilities exposed, stripped of the stuff that they pile on to distance themselves from one another. In their vulnerability and in their honesty, they teach me about love, about forgiveness, about freedom.

My former spiritual director was fond of reminding me that choices made out of love and truth lead us into deeper freedom. That is my prayer for the young men in Orange County’s Juvenile Hall tonight. That they may find rest and take delight in the love that God has for them. That they might glimpse the forgiveness God longs to share with them in the ways in which others respond to them when they come to them with contrite hearts. That they may gather the strength to make choices from a place of love and truth, leading them into deeper freedom.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Jen Owens is one of the co-editors of From the Pews in the Back. She is grateful for the gifts that Catholic detention ministry in the Diocese of Orange has shared with her this summer, and she looks forward to her last Bible study with them next week.

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