While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers. I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season. I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate.
The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)
Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center. As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile. After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.
Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.
Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.