Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

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.

Open Mic

The following poem tells the story of a special night on a retreat that I helped lead for middle school and high school students.  Each student approached a solitary mic stand without pretense but with maturity and courage and spoke vulnerably of past hurts, like gang violence, suicide, divorce, and illness.

A single mic stand
accompanied only by a single candle steadily burning
A sea of young faces staring at this lonely mic stand.
waiting for magic.

A boy steps forward.
Silence like that of a funeral procession
Death was present but its close relative dread was no where to be found.
Death was sought.
Not physical but emotional.
Stripping one’s soul, dying to others’ judgments.

A word.
A joke.
All palpable.

Stories never told flowed like a treacherous river.
With each confession a new stream birthed from young kids’ eyes.
Then the magic.
Stepping away the boy was now a man.
The, no longer lonely, mic stand had a new companion.

With each child a new burden lay next to the mic.
As each stepped away, heart still racing but the weight gone.
United as the burdens looked similar heaped next to such a lonely mic stand.
Yet no burden the same.

House Arrest

Ma, look at my bracelet!
It’s shiny and if you look hard enough I’m sure
you could see gold.
Ma, how long can I keep this?
Will I always wear this chain on my leg?
Ma, why do most kids get to wear chains on their necks or wrists?
Why is mine only on my ankle?
Ma, I’m sick of my gold bracelet, how do I take it off?

Chains around my ankles tell the story of my sin.
But is it a sin to attempt escape from this god forsaken prison?
Excuses abound as I list my absent father, absent brother, absent education.
The only thing present was darkness, my two fists and my bracelet.

Yah, my sin for all to see, I even show it to some so they may envy me.
Envy me, instead of fear me.
Fear me with those looks of justice, of righteousness.
Self righteousness.

How about we put you in prison, with your sin for all to see.
Maybe then your eyes would not try and avoid me.
Maybe then I would be given the privilege to avoid your glance.
Maybe in your prison you would be able to see mine.

He’ll always be a criminal they yell with their eyes.
Yah, don’t waste your time on me.
I’m still messed up, still in gangs, still a druggie.
Still a human.
Don’t waste your time on me.

Give me your sons and daughters to corrupt and pollute
for maybe that would give me a purpose.
Yeah, even a purpose for others.
Give me a prison cell to think about what I’ve done.
But don’t worry you’ve thought about it enough
even for me.

Am I sorry? Yes. Will it happen again?
Will I injure another?
I do it every day when I hope the next fucking judgmental eye
will never again be able to look my way.

Blind. Blind to the accusations etched in my skin.
The same skin chaffed by my bracelet of pure gold.
Ma, bracelets are worth more than me right?