The words pierced the thick fog surrounding me, wiggled into my ears and reverberated like an echo in my dusty, cavernous soul. They vibrated in me and through me, shook free the cobwebs from every inch of me and perched themselves on my own heart.
The speaker soldiered on, as if he hadn't just said the most beautiful, important thing anyone has ever said or heard. He went on to talk about suicide protocol or liability or something. But he had me at "hungry hearts."
"He" was the resident psychologist at the juvenile detention facility (colloquially termed juvy or kid jail) where I work. I've been there for four months now but this incident took place on orientation day. Somehow, from the mass of information lobbed at me that day (all vital, very little retained) I managed to glom onto a few nuggets of truth to anchor me and God-willing keep the job from swallowing me whole. One such nugget was the psychologist's observation that the youths in our custody have hungry hearts, that they ache for attention, for approval, for affirmation of identity. They desire what all children deserve and most receive: guidance, love, and support. They are desperate for good relationships with stable, caring adults, which so many of them have been denied through no fault of their own. And our job is to, in some small way, provide that for them.
At that moment, in that meeting I heard a small voice of confirmation, the whisper from God telling me this is where I belonged. I would come to doubt the fact from time to time, feel inadequate or ineffectual, but I can never shake the memory of when my heart vibrated in tune with the idea that kids are hungry for deep, authentic relationship, even and especially kids in jail.
|The rooms look nothing like this. But I'll bet they feel like it to those on the inside.|
Now I'm four months in and it would be awfully pretentious of me to speak from any place of authority on the ins and outs of working at juvy. The thing is, I'm a millennial, so I come with this built-in generational excuse to compulsively share my ideas and experiences before I've given them time to gestate. I GOTS TA BE HEARD!
Plus, I'm the type who by virtue of personality needs to bleed his excess feelings from time to time. Verbally processing with friends is my preferred mode of catharsis, but writing does the trick just fine. And BOY does this job make me feel the feels. All the different feels.
This actually brings me to an observation which hit me hard my first real day on the job: I'm too soft. Sure, it all seemed like such a dream during the interview stage. What better way to serve young people than to work directly with troubled teens? I figured. On paper it was the best a twenty-one year old with a youth ministry degree could ever hope for. And it was, until my nasty habit of feeling too much reared its ugly head, which happened right out of the gate.
Day 1: I'm nervous. I've been briefed on the gravity of my task: to keep tabs on all youths at all times, to ensure they stay out of trouble or harm, stay on task, behave appropriately, speak appropriately, and stay positive lest someone spontaneously erupt and strike out against peer or staff. I've been cautioned with all the worst-case-scenarios and horror stories, not to frighten but to prepare me. They achieved both purposes.
In the first few hours I've had to put the hammer down once or twice, and I am hating it. I HATE being rule guy. In Young Life, in church or class I'd much rather be "chill," be the buddy, the one who bends over backwards to accommodate, win approval and preserve relationship. That's just how I roll. But in here I'm not doing these kids any favors by letting them get away with stuff. If I let things slide I could actually be damaging their progress. I have to be rule guy, for their sake, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
As the minutes tick on toward ten (the shift started at 6 am, so add a little sleep deprivation to the mix) I'm starting to feel the weight of the protocols and responsibilities slowly crushing me. The kids have spent much of the morning in class, which ought to have relieved the pressure some but really it's just keeping me in my head for too long at a time. So I resolve, minutes before they come out for a school break, to default to what comes naturally to me: relationships. I'm just gonna hang out with these kids. They are still kids after all.
Once I lower my guard I have no trouble at all making connections. One young man even offers to teach me how to juggle. He's kind about it, lighthearted, patient as he watches me fumble with the hacky sacks. "Just keep at it!" he encourages with an amused smirk. He's actually a really sweet kid as far as I can tell. This interaction, this moment of grace lifts my spirits more than I can say. I can do this job! I assure myself. They go back to class and I whisper a small "thanks" to God.
Then I overhear the two regular staff discussing his case. He's about to get some bad news, some out-of-anybody's-control not-his-fault bad news, and they're nervous he won't take it well.
But, he's such a sweet kid, I think, they must be overreacting. He'll be fine.
They're right. He isn't fine. His counselor delivers the news and he goes postal, swearing, screaming, throwing chairs and threats. And I stand in the corner, horrified and dumbfounded at the loss of this sweet kid who was in a moment replaced by a wounded animal, striking out against everyone in reach. One staff murmurs some code into her radio. Later I find out it's the worst-case-scenario code, the "WE NEED BACKUP NOW" code. The room fills almost immediately with staff prepared to restrain this kind, gentle young man. Praise God one of them is able to talk him down without further incident and he spends the rest of the shift in his room.
And I spend my fifteen minute break in my car, crying into my hands, blasting Phil Wickham's How Long Must I Wait? And I wonder. How long must these kids wait to see the Lord? Where is He? Where is God for them? The deepest part of me radiates confusion and sadness.
I'm too soft. It's too much. This good kid, wracked with grief and pain and brokenness so potent you can here it rattle around inside him when he walks by. This kid. A child. A child who responds to conflict with violence because it's what he was taught. A young man so desperate for positive attention he'll seek it from his prison guards.
He has a hungry heart.
And so do I, really.
This kid and I aren't so different, after all. I'd wager we fall into the same statistical brackets and slices of pie chart, and more than likely share some unpleasant experiences in common. We are the underprivileged, the marginalized, the ones who shouldn't succeed if the system works according to its design. He and I are but a few small choices away from being in the same boat.
There but for the grace of God go I, I think. But for the grace of God I could so easily have wound up in one of these cells.
But where is the grace of God for him?
So I weep for this sweet kid who deserves better than his abusive parents and lousy friends and apathetic world. I weep for his hungry heart, unsatisfied.
It goes beyond him and me. We all have hungry hearts. We are all fashioned to long for the One who makes whole, our hearts naturally and insatiably hungry for Him. This was Plan A: intimate relationship with the One we need. A closer walk.
And then came the Fall. Then came the divide, the great divorce, the deep dysfunction. We are not healthy, or whole. We are good by design, bearing the image and likeness of our Creator, but this image, this light, is only visible in reflection, as in a mirror. Obscured by dirt and blood and sin.
Hungry hearts. Not hard to prove. Harder to satisfy.
But not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God.
So I say a prayer, many prayers. constant prayers for the unlucky ones, the ones wrapped up in and turned out by evil. Drugs. Gang activity. Abusive relationships. Sexual unhealth. Enough to wreck full grown men and women. And these are kids.
So I pray. What else can I do? I pray and do my job. I petition God on behalf of these kids and then do my best to, in the fleeting moments I have with them, model health, communicate value. They're worth the world and more, and I wish they knew it.
My final hope is in the God who stoops, the God who does not just reach down but incarnates (on earth and in jail cells), who puts on skin to remind the fallen ones of their worth. Christ, God bruised, God beaten, God dressed in dirt to remind the outcasts they are included, the lost they are found, the rejected they are loved. Christ. Christ. Jesus Christ.
He satisfies the hungry heart.
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." - John 1:5
For liability reasons names have been intentionally omitted and situations have been altered to prevent unintentional disclosure of privileged information.