New Creation

Stars in the Making

Into my 14th year volunteering at the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, I thought I had seen it all, but last week an 18 year old resident charged with first degree murder came after me with a pair of sharp scissors.  Not to worry, since Freddie is a student in the newly established STAR (Standing Tall Against Recidivism) Barber College at the Detention Center, and I volunteered to have him give me a haircut.

Admittedly, we were both a little nervous. This was only Freddie’s second week cutting hair, and his previous customers were African-Americans or Latinos who just needed their hairs lined up and trimmed. He didn’t know what to make of the full head of hair on this 63 year old white guy who had not changed his hairstyle in 40 years.  Well, it turned out great, and I could tell that Freddie was very proud of his work.  I was too.  Other than their hot towel massage, Sports Clips has nothing on the STAR Barber College.

In the past, lack of productive programming was one of the major criticisms I had with the Detention Center operations.  The facility served as a warehouse for the detained youth, with residents playing endless hands of the card game Spades, and watching daily episodes of Jerry Springer.  The prior administration often emphasized that the Detention Center was “Temporary,” so there was little need to implement programs because of the short term duration of the residents’ stay.  Tell that to the many juveniles charged as adults, since their stays often last one to two years as they await adjudication of their cases.

That lack of programming appears to be changing.  There are now programs in storytelling, where youth write and perform in plays; classes in music composition and performance; a commercial painting program; and an excellent writing and poetry program.  The recently established Barber College was a welcome addition, as evidenced by the fact that over 100 youth applied to participate, 20 were interviewed, and 8 were accepted into the first class, including 1 girl (there are only about a dozen females incarcerated at the Detention Center). The course is rigorous, with the students attending class 4 days a week, 5 hours a day.  Those who complete the course can earn their State license, and go on to a successful career as a Barber.

I don’t know what Freddie’s long term future holds, but he can count on me as a repeat customer next month.

(Mike Donovan is volunteer staff person with PBMR)

The Real Scream

My name is Magdalena.   I come from Poland.   I appreciate my country but I never feel that Poland is my place in the world. I hope to find this place someday, so I am open to learning about new cultures and about the world in general.

I grew up in a wonderful family.   My parents’ love is the most beautiful love I have seen in this world;    I always know I am wanted and that my brother and I are the fruits of this beautiful love.  I have had a very blessed life.

In Poland I study Psychology.   As part of my program, I was required to complete an internship. I did not know that my placement would combine everything I had been dreaming about, such as, practicing English, spending time in a beautiful place, and experiencing the spirituality of the Precious Blood on another continent.

As always, G

od has taken care of my desires and me.  He gave me the opportunity to come to the United States and Chicago’s Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation. I had no idea what my internship would be like or what I would do there, so my travel was full of fear. Fortunately, God is also in America, and put so many wonderful people in my path (especially the CPPS sisters with whom I live!) so that my fears disappeared in the blink of an eye.

So what do I do in the Center? I am present and I participate. My responsibility at PBMR was to walk with the people I met and get to know their way of living, their mentality, and their stories.  Therefore,   I was entrusted with the most beautiful duty in the world. Before my arrival, I thought that my psychology background would be helpful in some way and that I would be serving people more than receiving services from others. So when I found myself at PBMR, I felt lost because it was completely the opposite of what I imagined before I came here.

Exactly a month ago I flew to Chicago and now I am already experiencing what I had read and thought about in Poland – living the spiritual life deep in my heart.

Many times in my life I heard the answer to this question: “What is the spirituality of the Precious Blood for you?” The most beautiful answer I heard at PBMR this July: “This is the spirituality that gathers people. Those who are more open invite those who have less courage to come.” This remark refreshed my outlook, because I know it’s not just joining the community, but inviting everyone to join in this common path to the most beautiful place of peace and safety.

Who are the people who have more courage to invite others to this common path? A month ago I would have said they are very well-established Catholics.   Today’s words: they are all those who have experienced being invited, wanted, accepted.   I have personally experienced how the people who get hurt so badly can beautifully invite others.

I thought that as a well-established Catholic, coming from a wonderful family, having a psychology background, I would initiate a joint trip down this path. I guess I thought I would be a guide, someone important. I had made my best plan to spend time here and I had specific expectations, and it turned out very differently!

I found myself being a psychologist then a patient, student and teacher, sheep and shepherd helper, the one who listens and the one who shares, the one who gives hope and the one searching for hope.

I was a psychologist when I talked to people about their lives, problems, and successes, especially when I was just listening; a patient when the listening was too overwhelming and I needed support myself.

Student: all the time, when I had language problems, when I was asking about culture and customs, when I wanted to understand the stories of people I met, and when I did not know what to order in a restaurant.

Teacher, when people asked me: “How is it in Poland?”, “What is your story?”, “Does your nation still feel the effects of war?” and finally: “Where is your Poland?”  I was a sheep who knew she was in the right place and in the right flock, who felt good about other sheep, regardless of whether they were black or white, young or old….

I was a shepherd’s helper who was sitting at the back of the clearing and watching the sheep, thinking intensely about what exactly was missing and helping to see what at first sight I missed. I was also the one who listened when people shared their stories: stories of a brutally murdered beloved child, of a 17-year-old boy being sentenced to death in prison, of a newborn who died after not receiving proper care after birth because of his race and whose body was put in a peanut butter jar.

I heard the story of a black father who loved and cared for his son but whose rights to see his son were taken away by the white mother. I listened to the stories of many people who are constantly traumatized, boys who have been shot several times by the age of 15, who at the same age have become fathers bravely educating their children, boys who have seen so much blood shed that this image will never disappear from their eyes.

I heard the story of a woman whose husband was murdered and she asked the court for the smallest amount of punishment for the perpetrator and the story of a Puerto Rican man who had been shot 15 times, paralyzed, and today is walking once again on his own legs and working to make the area safer.

I listened to the story of a young man who participated in a brutal murder and today is considered a member of the murdered boy’s family. I listened to so many stories of people who have gone so far and have come back hopeful.

I was also the one who shared – with what I had, whether I considered it rich or poor. I was trying to be the one giving hope: hope that life can be beautiful, that not every man/woman/child need struggle with such pain and fear, that everyone deserves a good life because we were called to it, because God created all people to share the beautiful and the good and know happiness.

And finally, I was at PBMR center when two people who were shot in a nearby alley and lay bleeding on the ground. Their cry was not a metaphorical “blood scream”, which we try to hear in Poland. Their sound was the voice of true, untreated suffering, which resulted in surgery and prolonged paralysis.

I experienced all this at the age of 23 by participating in the life of PBMR. I experienced the strength of suffering and realized that it is an extraordinary wealth. I experienced joy, which has its roots in the pain, which makes it only more beautiful and true. I experienced love despite weakness. I experienced a life of reconciliation, which will not be forgotten until the end of my life.

Magdalena Stasiak

Being the Village it Takes

Rayshawn (nearest/left) and Shawn preparing a meal for the youth at Precious Blood Center. (photo by Sr. Donna Liette, CPPS)

We have all heard the phrase, “It takes a village…”.  It is usually in reference to community support for young people who do not have the structure or oversight that is needed.  The axiom has persisted because we know that the breakdown of family has been, and continues to be, a contributing factor to many of our societal problems – in particular among our youth.

Even after all these years of working and living in communities plagued by extreme poverty, I am amazed at the ability of our young people to maintain some sense of daily life.  There is, truly, a great deal of strain and struggle in the lives of so many youth.

Larry is a kid who participates in almost any program he’s invited to take part in.  Even as others might balk at an education program or a “community clean-up day”, Larry is always willing to join in.  He is so cooperative and easy-going, that often we overlook the depth of his loneliness.  Our attention seems to focus on those who obviously cry out for support and intervention.

A staff member recently called and asked if I could help Larry with some food.  It was a Saturday and she wasn’t in the office that day.  Of course, I agreed.

Within a few minutes of the call, Larry was at the Center.  One of the young men, Shawn, who is training to be a chef, was in the kitchen preparing a meal for our Mass and event the following day.  I asked Shawn if he would help me get some food out of the pantry for Larry.  We packed up a bag of soups, pasta, cans of ravioli, and other items that would be easy to heat up and cook.   As we were leaving, you could tell Larry wanted to take some cereal as well, but not much good with no milk.  I told him I would take him home and on the way, we would pick up some milk.

On the way to Larry’s house, Shawn, Larry and I stopped at “Food for Less” to up some milk and a few other things – peanut butter and jelly, etc.  During our “shopping spree” I asked Larry about his upcoming graduation from 8th grade.  He almost immediately asked Shawn and I if we would like to have a ticket to the ceremony.  Apparently, no one in his family was going.  Shawn immediately said, “Sure, Bro”!    I was not as quick, but said if I could, I would.

Shawn thought about his own graduation and, then, asked “What about those shoes?”  He said it in the way a big brother would watch over his younger sibling – with care and concern.  It was obvious that Larry didn’t have shoes or any of the clothes necessary for a graduation ceremony.  So, sure enough, from Food for Less, we are off to the local shoe store to get some shoes and a few other necessities.

While shopping is certainly not my thing, I was both grateful and proud of Shawn.  I was grateful that Shawn took Larry on as a “brother” and became the “village” that he so needed.  I was proud, too, that with all his own stress, Shawn took great care to ensure that Larry had the support and care he needed.

We might not be able to move mountains or change systems, but this was a day to rejoice.  It was an honor and privilege to be a part of the “village it takes”.

Disconnected

For the young men I visit in Illinois adult prisons, the struggle most often spoken about during my 90 trips in 2015 and 2016 was their disconnection, separation, and detachment from family.  I call it the loneliness of the long distance inmates of Chicagoland. That loneliness leads to stress, anxiety, worry, depression and anger.  Without that loving, supportive lifeline back home, their re-entry into society becomes that much harder.

The separation starts with distance.  17 of the 22 correctional centers in Illinois are over 3 hours from Chicago, with most being 4, 5, 6, and even 7 hours away.  For 22 year old Dez,  incarcerated at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro 4 hours from Chicago, he has had no family visits in the 4 years he’s been locked up.  His Mom has no car, can’t afford to open an inmate telephone account, and my attempts to call her after I’ve finished my quarterly visit with Dez go unanswered.  Dez is very frustrated, and does not understand the lack of contact from his family.

Jose, 18, is housed at Shawnee Correctional Center, near the Kentucky border, 7 hours from Chicago.  His Mom has a car, but it’s not reliable enough to make the long trip.  Even if the car could get her there, she couldn’t make the roundtrip in one day, and couldn’t afford a hotel room to stay over.  Like Dez, his Mom also can’t afford a phone account.   Although she has written Jose, he wants to hear her voice and hug her in person.  Jose views himself as the “man” of the family, so he is constantly worried about his younger siblings.  While he appreciates my quarterly visits, I’m no substitute for family.

To Juan, I am his family.  He lists my relationship to him as Uncle. He’s had only 2 family visits in his 7 years of incarceration.  He’s “only” 3.5 hours away in Danvile on the Indiana border, but his Mom is too sick to travel, and his sister moved to Florida.  He is really angry at her, because she promised that when she returned to Chicago to visit her Mom, she’d make time to visit Juan.  She’s been back twice, but did not visit.

Stressed out is how I’d describe Sammy, incarcerated at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.  No one in his family has visited, yet he recently heard that his Mom visited his brother in California.  What about him, he worries?

Everytime I bring the subject of family up with Allen, he gets angry.  For awhile, he completely wrote off his mother and brother as “dead to him.” His father was faithful about visiting him for years, but during my last two quarterly visits, Allen said that he hadn’t heard or seen from his father since Christmas. Allen tries to block the hurt out of his mind, with no success.

Lonny is only 19, and was sentenced last year to 38 years.  He’s serving his time at Menard, one of Illinois’ three maximum security prisons, 6.5 hours from Chicago. So far, his Mom hasn’t been able to visit, but she is looking forward to joining other families who will be making their annual bus trip to Menard, sponsored by Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIC), a partnering agency with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.  Larry can’t wait.  He misses his Mom so much.

There are many more stories I could tell, all with the same theme.  My purpose in relating them is not to  judge these families.  They’re not responsible for the location of these facilities.  Most are poor, and many lead very complicated lives of their own back home.  I might add that there are many families that do make the effort and have the resources to visit as often as possible.

Added to the many other hardships these young men endure daily while in prison,  you’ve got a recipe for many mental health issues, especially depression.  I thank God for the opportunity to visit these young men, listen to their stories, and work for healing and reconciliation in the midst of their loneliness and isolation.

An Awakening

Much of the world is celebrating the joys of Easter.  The earth is awakening with newness of spring: flowers, smell of cut grass, the appearance of the sun after a long and dark winter.  Easter is in the air.

For those who have traveled amidst the pain and the confusion and trauma of Good Friday, the hope-filled message of Easter is critical and welcomed.

We celebrate Easter with eyes wide open.  We do not gloss over or minimize the crucifixion; we remember and touch our wounds and the wounds of others.  As a society – and as a church – too often we are tempted to gloss over the wounds in order to quickly move to peace and tranquility.   The Paschal Mystery (suffering, death and resurrection of Christ) is central to a spirituality of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Just as we cannot reach the resurrection without the crucifixion, we cannot remain in the brokenness of Good Friday.  We cannot embrace a stance of the impossible.  We must willingly do what is uncomfortable and frightening while embracing a stance of hope.

Cardinal Blasé Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, joined others on Good Friday walking among the cries and tears of the violence on the south side of Chicago.  At each station, names of the 163 already killed in 2017 were read aloud.  Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who had lost a loved one gathered and walked alongside Cardinal Cupich and a community of people.  Young people, who, themselves, were victims of violence, joined their stories with the stories of others.  One child, only 10 years old, spoke of the violence and how it had caused him so much fear and pain.  The silence of the moment was only broken by a thunderous applause and words of support.  The message was clear, you are not alone.

Holy Saturday, brought together mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends who, like Mary,

had lost a loved one to violence.  Our community of men, ministers and children gathered with them, walking and praying at places of violence and bloodshed.  Our youth, shared stories of their friends and support persons gunned down right before their eyes.  Even after a year they still feel the loss, remembering the moments, the sounds, the weeping.  Every day they live over and over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, while hoping life will get better and they will come to their Easter!

As we walked through the community and shared our stories with one another, hope began to emerge and overwhelm the violence of Good Friday. Stories of triumph emerged amidst the tears.  One mother shared how she had been reborn; the death of her son opened a new beginning for her as she turned away from addiction and toward a God who was so very close.

In her telling of her Good Friday story standing by her son’s bloody body, covered in the white cloth, she never neglects to tell the ending of her story – her son’s death gave her new life.

Our final stop was at our “Healing Fountain’ in out Peace Garden.  There Father Denny blessed our new statue of the pieta and one of our local ministers closed with prayer for healing.

Easter Sunday mass here at PBMR was filled with friends and community members – young and old – celebrating the gift of new life.

We know that Good Friday moments will continue, but so, too, does the promise of the resurrection.  Violence will not have the final word.

Easter is among us. It may not come with the pageantry of alleluias and shouts of joy, but be seen in the simple, and yet profound, recognition that you are my brother or sister.

Sacred Encounter

I was invited to a cluster meeting of priests, religious and archdiocesan personnel in our area.  It was a gathering of the parish staffs of the Catholic churches on the south and southwest side of Chicago.  Unlike many other priest clusters, this was a younger crowd – many serving Hispanic communities.

I was invited to listen and reflect with them on the violence in and around Chicago’s south and southwest sides.

One by one, they shared their experiences with violence.  One related that he had buried over 30 young people due to violence in 2016 alone; another spoke of how as he was standing with some parishioners near the church, when someone came through shooting.

These were good men and women who knew they had to respond in some way – merely preaching and teaching no longer seemed enough.  The question they wrestled with and that “held them captive” was what to do?  What could they do to make a difference?

Later in the day, as I was sitting with some volunteers at the detention center, we spoke of Pope Francis’ call to give to those who ask for money on the street corners and at traffic stops.  We all admitted that often we drove by or failed to even acknowledge their presence. Our response was that we didn’t want to give them money for fear that they use the money for drink or drugs.  Pope Francis’ response was that we should give any way, adding that if that drink was the one thing all day that gave them a moment of joy or peace, then how could we say no?

Pope Francis teaches us that we not only give, but as we give we should touch the person – look them in the eye and touch them as a brother or sister.  Through our giving we lessen the distance between us.

The work of reconciliation is about breaching the barriers and dismantling the walls.  It calls to move beyond what is comfortable to the uncomfortable.   .

As I thought about the call of Pope Francis, a call we hear in a host of ways, I couldn’t help but to think that it was the answer to the priests in the cluster meeting.  They sought to make a difference, but they couldn’t see themselves “touching” the young men and women who were on the street corners and in the alleyways.

In his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson says that in order to make a difference – a real and lasting change – we have to be willing to be proximate.  We have to draw near and lessen the distance between us.

How many of the miracles of Jesus happened through his touch:  healing the blind man by touching his eyes.  He touches – so often physically – the blind man, the dead child, the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well.  He sees what so many can not see and he touches them.  It is in the touch that they experience healing.

It is not just giving, but it is in receiving as well.  How often are we brought to a new place or given a new perspective and new energy as we enter the life of another?  In scripture, we hear how Thomas, in touching the wounds of Jesus, finds his faith and courage.  The two disciples walking to Emmaus recognize Christ as they break bread together – touching one another through shared stories and a common table.

The sacred encounter of another person is a gift.  It is through the sacred touch of another that we recognize them as our brother and sister.

Homecoming

When Joey Rodriguez walked into our meeting alongside his sister Cathy, I could not help but smile as tears sprang to my eyes.  For the last 35 years Joey has been incarcerated, and for 10 of those years I have been meeting with his sister Cathy monthly at our CRIIC (Community and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children) meetings.   We have cried together, laughed together, hugged each other, and offered each other encouragement and hope where there was none.

Joey is one of three men recently released from prison who attended our meeting this month.  Larod Styles and Marshan Allan were also in attendance, both of these men were incarcerated for over 24 years.  Each of the three were under 18 years old when sentenced to Life Without Parole; they were told they would die in prison.  Yet here they were at our family meeting – enduring kisses, hugs, and well wishes from the entire CRIIC Family.

For years the CRIIC Family Group has met monthly, in our meetings we talked about our sons, nephews, brothers, and friends who were locked up.  Our hopes were that one day they might be released. We shared stories of when they were young, how they were surviving in prison and tales of their accomplishments and struggles.   These were dark years, where there was no hope, only years and years of visiting someone you love in prison, watching as they die a little more each time you visit. I remember Cathy telling us about her brother, how hard it was for him when their mom passed.  Cathy promised her mother she would always be there for Joey and she has been faithful to this day!   Larod had Michelle, a truly special friend, who attended the meetings on his behalf.  When I first met Marshan his attorneys shared with me how special Marshan was and how wrong it was for him to be in prison – a young man with so much he could offer the world.

I’m not sure if any of us every really believed we would see our guys released.  We all hoped that one day it would happen, but to see the Miracle of their release, to have these guys come to the meeting and actually talk to us, gave us the courage to never give up hope.  Larod stood during the meeting and told all of us, that he was there to give us hope, just as our group had given him and others hope during their long years in prison.

On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence anyone under 18 to mandatory life in prison.  On that day, we began to have hope, to think that maybe a few of our loved ones would be returned to us.  The last 4 years have been a long difficult journey for many of us; re-entering the court system, revisiting the worst time in your life, for many of us seeing the victims’ families and the pain that is still with them.  Not all of the stories have been as happy as Joey, Larod and Marshan.  Some have been told again, that they will die in prison, that they are not more than their worst decision in life. Still others have been given extremely long sentences. For many of us, we are still waiting for our loved ones to be resentenced; it is a limbo that eats away at you, the fear and worry is always there.

We had cake for Joey, Larod and Marshan, because we knew we needed and wanted to support and celebrate them.  We all needed to celebrate!  It’s was a small gesture, but the guys loved it – smiles abounded and for a little while all of us forgot our own worries and basked in the happiness and delight of these three men.    I just shake my head, smile, wipe away a tear and realize that I have witnessed a miracle.

 

CRIIC – Communities & Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children, is a group of family and friends dedicated to seeing Juvenile Life Without Parole ended in the United States.

Julie Anderson- Julie’s son Eric was sentenced to Life in Prison when he was 15 years old, he is now 37 years old and is awaiting his re-sentencing.  Julie directs our advocacy efforts through from the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Dayton Sisters of the Precious Blood. 

Marching and Remembering; Emotional Memorial

It was December 31st and nearly 1000 persons marched down Michigan Avenue in the cold to remember the 762 lives lost in Chicago in 2016.   Mothers/Fathers/brothers/sisters, grandmothers … crying as they searched for their loved ones cross – “my brother, that’s my baby, that’s my Mother…..”.

The 800 crosses were made by Greg Zanis, a man who said, “my heart is broken”. He wanted to do something and so he began making a cross for each victim of gun violence.   What love!  He marked each 3 ft. tall wooden cross with a name (mostly young black males!)  Besides the victim’s name, he marked the date of their murder and their age at the time of death.   He started with cross #1 – killed January 1 and then to #762

 

As the March began, Father Denny picked up Korry Roger’s cross (one of our very own Precious Blood Youth killed on Labor Day Sunday #485).   As the group walked silently down Michigan Avenue in silence, the name of each victim was read starting with January 1.   Each name was precious, they were not called gangbangers, as the media often names the victims; they were people with families, with talent, with a God-given future, but their flame was extinguished suddenly by violence!

It was the hope of the organizers that people out walking the “Magnificent Mile” of the City of Chicago would feel the pain and know this  horror is everybody’s problem, not just the South side or West side of Chicago.

762 homicides……3550 shooting incidents……4331 harmed shooting victims…..

The crosses were very heavy but you could see that the weight of the pain that these loved ones carry is even greater. Therefore they were willing to come out on the last day of the year in the cold and ask our city to see their tears and see the effects of poverty, of racism, of easy access to guns and of the failure of systems to offer resources to our youth and their families.

I will long remain in my heart and soul the day we carried a cross that now rests in the home of Korry’s mother, Tawanda to help heal her broken heart.  As the blood still cries out and pours out in our cities; as more lives are lost and some of the offenders are locked up, those left on the streets too often seek revenge. Reconciliation is still so much in need.

At PBMR we will continue to work with others to get at the root causes of these statistics.   No longer do we want to read or hear that “our city is awash in blood as homicides soar”.

On World Day of Peace, January 1, we at PBMR recommitted ourselves to bringing light into this darkness.  As Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We are bringing together our neighbors one street at a time in our Restorative Justice Café to talk, to pray and to plan ways to meet the needs of our youth, how to connect people, and stop the bloodshed in our neighborhood and beyond.

 

Life on the Pod

He stood there to hear the judge say that his trial will be held in February. He knew that meant another 64 days of incarceration after he had already been in the juvenile detention center for 6 months. The state is accusing Nigel of habitual crimes which, if found guilty, will result in his incarceration in prison until he is 21, another 3 years.

“Come in here and talk with us” was the greeting as I was walking into the pod in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. (A pod is one section, of about 30, in which 15 to 18 youth spend their day in individual cells or two common areas). They were in the TV area. Turning off the TV and circling their chairs, six kids felt like sharing their thoughts. The first kid began a heart-to-heart discourse confessing his determination to change – again! He’s “gonna do what my momma says, get back in school, stop smoking weed, go to church and not do stuff that will get me locked up.” He’s determined now but when he gets out he’s back doing what he can’t seem to stop doing. His story is a sad saga of recidivism. It isn’t his first stint being locked up, but hopes that he’ll be able to make it his last.

Immediately the others chimed in saying that that’s their story as well admitting the same challenges and the same results.  What happens to dreams and hopes and prayers to change lives? Does God not care? It raised doubts about God’s attention to their prayers and questions about their own sincerity. “Am I a phony for praying only when I’m locked up and forgetting about God when I’m free?”

Nigel came into the pod returning from playing chess elsewhere in the detention center. He and Antonio slid chairs into the circle joining in. “Father Denny, let’s do circle like we do at the center. Here’s the talking piece.” He places a small golf pencil in the center and explained to the others how it works. So what’s the question? “What’s your struggle these days?”

Tired of being locked up, worrying about court appearances and trials. Tired of staff telling you what to do like going to bed early: “I can’t sleep at 7:00 pm!”. Tired of limited phone calls, worrying about mom and siblings.

It’s heartbreaking to feel the pain of youthful hope and sincerity tangled in the web of street life. The streets are an addiction for youth who have such limited opportunities. They don’t even know what change looks like or where to begin to get out of the vortex of poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

An escape from the harsh reality of incarceration – separation from family and friends mostly – is joking around and laughing at what deep down hurts. This is where Tyshawn can shine when the talking piece comes to him. He is last to share so we abandon the circle guidelines allowing the others to question every bit of his captivating story. The questioning seemed essential to clarifying his account of events. The barrage of questions seeking detailed clarification – obvious evidence that these youth are used to court appearances – had everyone, even Tyshawn, in stitches. He later told me how tangled up he was trying to make his story sound more real than it really was. This he told me the night before he was about to be shipped out to yet another group home to see if or how long he might stay at his new placement.

I had previously spent many visits with Tyshawn in that pod, often while he was locked up in his cell for “acting out.” He is a DCFS kid – a ward of the state in the Department of Children and Family Services. He has no one in his life except group homes to care for him; and he’s not the only one in this situation in the juvenile detention center. The DCFS kids are like the throwest-aways of the throw-aways. As I listened to his telling of an outlandish adventure that had the other kids’ full attention, I was mindful of Mother St. Teresa of Calcutta who says that not being wanted is the greatest disease.

It’s not easy to walk out of the detention center at the end of the evening and breathe the fresh outside air mindful of the young ones you leave behind who can only leave their pod to stand before a judge. Then I remember what Tyshawn told me, “The circle helps us see that time in here is for all of us, who are in the same boat, to think about what we don’t think about out there.”

The First and Greatest Commandment

incarcerated_youthWe were driving home after giving a talk at Dominican University and Anthony was more quiet than normal.  Usually, that means he is deep into his phone – on Facebook or some other social media app.  But no phone….head toward the passenger window of the car.

“Hey, Anthony, anything the matter?” I asked. He shook his head no; he still was staring out the window.  “Anthony, look at me,” I said.  He turned toward me with tears in his eyes.

“What’s up?” I asked.  “What’s hurting you?”  And through the tears he spoke of how alone he felt….like everyone left him.

Anthony has his issues….been locked up a couple of times.  He accompanies me quite a bit when I am asked to give talks on the neighborhood and the violence.  He is an excellent speaker….talks from his heart…keeps it real.  Today was no different.  The college students were captivated by his story.  He spoke of his life and the struggles.  “I am still struggling”, he told the group.  “I just don’t want to end up like my father or my brothers.”

That was what was bothering him.  He spoke well.  He told the truth.  But on the ride home, it came tumbling down on him.  He felt the words he shared so openly.  His father, whom he barely knows, has been locked up most of his life.   His older brother is doing 55 years;  his little brother has been locked up for 6 months and will probably have to do a few years (he’s only 16); another brother, who is just a year and a half younger than he, got locked up a couple weeks ago.

Anthony feels like they all left him.

“You know we gotcha’, right Anthony?”  I said.  “Yea, Fr. Kelly, I know you got me.  It is just like, I don’t know, like nobody is thinking about me.   My ma’, she doin’ her thing.  I just feel alone.”

Luckily (I can say this now) the traffic was Chicago traffic – stopped.  We had time to talk.  And talk we did.

We offer many programs at PBMR; people want numbers, structure, success rates…but we know all the programs in the world can’t take that feeling of being alone away.  That takes having someone who is willing to be there for you.  It takes someone who is willing to listen; it takes someone there assuring you that they “Got your back”.

Maybe I listened because I had to – there was nowhere to go.  But I’d like to think I listened because I know that is what is needed.

I was listening to public radio the other day and two regular contributors, David Brooks of the New York Times and EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, were speaking of theology and the criminal justice system.  David Brooks told a story of an old friend who has worked with “at-risk” youth for 40 years.  Someone asked this veteran of youth work which program, out all the many programs, really worked.  His reply was that he didn’t know of any such program, but, in his experience, what really did work, what really did have a real impact, was the consistent presence that helps a kid feel that they are loved.

This is precisely why I do this work.  You see, all my life I have felt loved.  Whether it was my parents years ago, my sisters and brothers today, or my friends and colleagues, I have always felt loved.  And so when a kid tells me he’s got no one….feels all alone, well it breaks my heart.

As a society, we need to do better.  That any child in our world grows up feeling like he/she has no one is sinful.  I am not talking about the occasional feeling of loneliness, I am talking about the overall feeling that I am alone – that I have no value.

There is a lot of loneliness in this world and a lot of fear.   There are little children who are afraid to go to bed at night because they are not sure what will happen to them or to their parents.    There are children who wonder what will become of them, to whom can they go; who cares if they exist…..they wander our streets:  we judge them; we fear them; we ignore them.

Pope Francis, on a recent trip to Sweden stated that, “New situations require new energy and a new commitment,” and then he offered a new list of Beatitudes for modern Christians:   And I quote #2:

“Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.”

We can do better.  We need to do better.  It is living out the first and greatest commandment.