Perhaps not surprisingly, my last night in juvenile hall was nothing like what I had expected. I found out when arrived on my regular unit that Byron*, the young man whose birthday had passed last week, had been moved to another unit and consequently would not be joining us. The floor of the unit was almost completely empty, and none of the young men whom I had grown accustomed to seeing each week since our retreat had signed up for the Bible study. Not sure what to expect, I passed out the birthday Kit-Kats anyway, left what remained at the front desk for the other boys and the staff on the unit, and walked into the small room that houses our weekly conversations.
Sean*, Randy*, Ryan*, and Charles* were all new faces to me, and it was unusual for there to be so few of them gathered for our weekly conversations. However, the conversation that we shared over the readings was life-giving, and I continue to be grateful for the honesty in the probing questions these young men choose to share with us. We talked about how Catholicism relates to the rest of Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths, the reasons behind the Sacrament of Reconciliation, how God relates to us in times of trouble. And in between, we read the readings that will be proclaimed at Sunday Mass aloud, reflecting on how God is active throughout history and in our lives today.
As always, we closed in prayer, with my Bible study partner praying over the needs that each of the young men had raised and each of us offering our own prayers, as well. When it was Ryan’s turn, he offered his thanks for us, the two leaders, saying, “You can take them, Lord; they’re ready to be with you.” And I was struck by the poignancy of his prayer. On the outside, death is such a regular part of Ryan’s life that he was offering us up as ones who literally were ready to die, in the hopes that we would be more closely united with God in heaven.
Walking through the doors that led me from the unit to the world outside it, one of the coordinators for Catholic Detention Ministry noticed that my eyes looked red and asked if I had been crying. I hadn’t been, but I realized how much I needed to do so in that moment. Spending time with these young men this summer has changed my heart, and I am so grateful for what they have shared with me in the short time that I have volunteered there.
In womanist theologies, as well as other types of Black liberation theologies, death and the afterlife were used as a code of sorts, signifying liberation from the slavery that bound them to this world in terrifying ways. Spirituals like “Steal Away” and “I’ll Fly Away” take on a whole new meaning in this light. As I remember Ryan, I make my own prayer for the next steps that await us. God, make us ready to be freed from what binds us, to live into the kind of love and freedom that You will for us. Send your Spirit among us to guide us on the path that leads us closer to You. Amen.
*These names are pseudonyms.
Jen Owens is thankful for the people she met through juvenile detention ministry this summer, both on the inside and on the outside.