Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Graceful Timeout

Sorry for the long hiatus. I am in the midst of a mysterious interruption in my journey and am in Miami, Fl. The reason I am here is ironically tied to the most challenging ministry I started about 3 weeks ago.

About 10 years ago, I had my first wave of wanting to do prison ministry. They discouraged me from getting involved. Even writing letters was dangerous they said, since the prisoners could track my address and open me up to unwanted attention. I could use a PO Box I thought. So It didn't deter me, but in the end I was refused.

This time the inspiration came again during my confirmation classes last October. We were reflecting on a passage with the word "free" in it. Of course I fixated on that word. For me my freedom has been my most cherished gift. It has no doubt prevented me from committing to people and things my heart wasn't 100% in. It also is something I have sought to obtain through finances.

As I reflected on how much I LOVE my freedom, I thought of the antithesis, prison. Sure most of have prisons in our heads, some of which we are aware of and some which we are not. But I thought about those in physical prisons and their lack of freedom. I thought of Matthew 25 13-40 "and you visited me in prison." The desire to reach out came back again.

I inquired at my parish and was told about the restorative justice ministry through St. Vincent De Paul. After they told me of the various programs, I was specifically drawn to the youth ministry. I also liked the aspect of ministering to and of restitution for the victims as part of the ministry cycle. I decided to pursue it upon my return of my trip to Peru in December.

After three months going through the application process, my first visit and training session was finally scheduled. As March 27, 2011 approached, I began to get very nervous and requested the prayers of various friends. I ended up accompanying Chaplain Martin Schurr to perform a communion service. And much to my my dismay, instead of visiting teenage girls we were escorted to the "roughest" teenage boys facility.

As we waited for the door to open, Chaplain Marty told me that we had no control over where we went and sometimes are even sent away. Wow..what a journey of faith! He told me there was a school, a court house, exercise area, and social workers all in this enclosed facility. There was no where to travel, you were in all purpose prison.

When we finally came in, I saw about 20-25 young men sitting in their fold out chairs. I didn't know what to expect, and I was uncharacteristically timid. Chaplain Marty did most of the talking and only had to call out once to stop some giggling.

Chaplain Marty began by telling his story. He came from a dysfunctional family. His father was an alcoholic who spent all his money on booze and never had enough money left over even to buy his son a new pair of shoes. His father's nickname for him was sh**head. His mother was very depressed and eccentric and would often be in pajamas all day. He was embarrassed and never brought any friends over and was angry for having to wear shoes with holes in them.

His pain and anger led him to choices that landed him in a juvenile detention center (JTC) like the one they were in. This ironically is where grace stepped in. Here he met Joe an older man who volunteered at the JTC. Joe was a very peaceful man, and Marty liked talking with him. With time Marty and Joe became friends, and Joe got him a job when Marty was released.

Then one day while working the "boss" yelled at Joe. Marty became very upset as his friend did not merit this treatment. He wanted to defend Joe and was going to show the boss a thing or two. Joe quickly asked Marty, do you really want to help me? Of course said Marty, and I am going to. No said Joe, if you really want to help me, lets pray for the "boss". Joe said the boss is probably stressed in trying to keep the business going, to be able to pay his employees etc.

Marty was shocked. He didn't agree or understand but followed Joe's request. Then Marty asked Joe why are you doing this? Joe told him he was Catholic and this was his faith. Slowly Chaplain Marty came to regard this man as a father and with time Marty made other choices that led him to enter religious life.

Marty said that if we choose to carry around anger and pain, then this will lead us to choices that will create more anger and pain. He cautioned them to really think about why they are here and to make other choices so that they don't end up in a real adult prison. Marty also told them just because you have an uncle or other family member there does not mean you are destined to go there. Your fate is in your hands.

I was riveted there listening and thinking why am I here? Chaplain Marty then introduced me and invited to share a little about myself. I told the boys I was from Chicago and had lost my mother at 16 and soon after was on my own. I told them that although I may not share their background, one thing I did share with them was feeling very angry as a youth and that I carried this anger for a long time. I shared with them that the only thing that melted that anger was love, and you can't love if you have never been loved. And even if they had not experienced love yet, that it was my hope that today was the beginning of their encounter with love. As I looked around, I was amazed to see that these simple words had opened some of their eyes and that they were looking at me and nodding in agreement.

In the service, Chaplain Marty ended up having me read most of the readings. I was amazed at how the holy spirit guided me through hick ups that invited the boys to "help" me. After the service, in this authentic and trusting moment, a couple of boys asked me questions about God's love. One in particular, Hector, shared some deeper personal struggles. I was moved. A lot seemed to stem around forgiveness; forgiving those who have hurt you and forgiving yourself.

The last thing I said to Hector, who was haunted by violent memories of his parents and voodoo practices of his family, was to pray because God's power overcomes anything. I added, God will put people in your path that will help you. He smiled and said like you and Chaplain Marty, and I nodded.

Injustice, hurt and evil are realities we all encounter one way or another. We can look at how we participate in creating these realities, and how we respond after we notice what has happened by our collective blind choices.

Those unexpected interruptions in life that come up may be God's call. That interruption may be a stint in juvenile hall, the loss of a job, an unexpected illness, a timeout with a friend or family member, or a call for justice. And as we approach holy week, let us reflect on those interruptions. They very well may be a graceful timeout.


Tanya said...
April 17, 2011 at 2:35 PM  

This is a beautiful posting. I'm glad your path is leading you to this work. I think you're going to find it incredibly rewarding. May God's Grace be with you in every step you take, Angela.

Unknown said...
April 18, 2011 at 1:11 PM  

Angela-you are pulled toward grace filled work--God bless you! Continue to follow your path...

Especially liked the paragraphs on Marty overcoming anger & pain & your own personal story I was unaware of though we've known each other for many years. You've done well thru the grace of God & have much more to give!

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