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People often don’t understand why in the world Joel would want to work with kids labeled “juvenile delinquents” (we’re not going to lie, some days he comes home and wonders the same thing). And furthermore people don’t understand why we would want to spend our free time with these same young offenders.

We don’t see them as offenders. We see them as orphans. In the two-and-a-half years he’s been with this program, only one student has had a relationship with her father. Even if they know their mother, they are often wards of the state due to issues with the Dept. of Children & Families or else are raised by a collective group of single female relatives.

With the start up of a weekly Family Dinner and Bible study (completely optional and not part of the program curriculum) we’ve had the opportunity to glimpse into the hearts of these kids.

When you talk with them, you mostly hear them putting up a front. When they tell me their stories, it takes a lot of sifting to figure out what they really want me to hear. They make up things that aren’t true — they get with college girls all the time, have a car, are being recruited by BC or UMass to play ball — because they want everyone else to believe that they are living the dream. Sure. You’re 16 years old, you’ve never actually finished the 9th grade, you’ve got a criminal record, you’ve never met your dad or your mom because they’re addicts, you’re an addict, you get shipped up and down the East Coast by relatives who keep you until they don’t want you. You brag about waking up and going to sleep every night with a joint.

But we know the joint is to mask the pain. If you numb your mind, you can forget your heart, how it aches and longs to be loved.

The Wednesday night dinner and bible study is an attempt to penetrate those thick walls they’ve built around themselves. A home cooked meal, people asking how your week went — if you’ve been going to your summer school classes, if you feel safe in your living situation — and playing basketball and board games with you.

It has been so good to study the Bible with them. We love it when they start sharing about a situation, a wound, something that just seems so impossibly hard and terrible, and then we are able to read a similar story in the Bible. That’s in the Bible? What kinda Bible is that? Yo, that’s messed up! And then to go further and show how God’s redemption plays out. Man, God does some crazy-ass $&*%am I gonna get struck for saying that?

We just want them to see that, though so much of their life is out of their control, it’s not a waste. And it’s not meant to be lived passively. That they are meant to have real relationships (more on that later), to accomplish goals, to try new things, to have healing, to be made whole.

Once they realize that they are meant for more, well then the hard part will start. Convincing them that it’s possible. That we’re not setting them up just to fail at one more thing, but that we really believe they can experience a better story. Not to say that their living situation will get better, their record erased, or that they’ll suddenly have academic success. There is no Joel Osteen-esque power-of-positive-thinking-in-Jesus-Name here. We just want them to see that if they were to let God into their life, their story would change dramatically. Because now there is Someone who is narrating the whole thing. Someone who is present, and witnesses it all.

My mantra through the past few years has been to be a “voice for the voiceless.” Which comes from a deep desire to tell the stories of those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. But as I spend more time with these kids, I realize I want to go further, to start at the root. I hope that as God works in their hearts, the fact that they have a story and a voice will become a reality to them. That they will tell their own story — which is a testimony of mercy and grace — with their own voice.

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Joel and I are hoping to attend Don Miller’s “Living a Better Story” seminar in order to be better equipped to walk through life with these teens, to help them discover love and healing and the redemption that exists in every great tragedy. www.donmilleris.com/conference

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