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Sometimes just playing bingo makes the point


There we were, five white churchfolk trying to stand casually on one side of the cafeteria and not to stare at the red-shirted teenage delinquents sitting against the opposite wall. It was Birthday Party Evening at the juvenile correctional center, and we’d come at the chaplain’s request to help serve cake and call bingo. My stomach churned at the thought.

Bingo, for kids who’ve killed? Four corners or cover-the-card, for young men who cut their teeth on drug deals and gang wars?

We stood there another five minutes, shifting our weight from one foot to the other. “Can’t we do something?” I asked, but the ritual was preordained: The middle group of boys helped in the kitchen, rewarded with a special snack, while the oldest group set up the chairs. Hearing one mention the movie “Fargo,” I blurted that I’d just seen it, but my voice got lost in the general confusion. I felt as shy as high school myself, wanting to talk to the new kids at the mixer but not sure how to begin.

So there we stood. If it lasted too much longer, I was afraid I’d start yelling, “We’ve got spirit, how ’bout YOU?” across the room. Nobody else seemed bothered by the physical, emotional and circumstantial gulf between churchfolk and children. But all I could think of was a woman I’d once met, Sondra, and the dry irony in her voice when she described “this old white woman who came to read the Bible to me in prison.” How patronizing we must seem. How evangelically clueless. How clueless, period.

Foolishly, I whispered this upwelling of anxiety and criticism to a fellow parishioner, my objections an urgent crescendo until finally I demanded to know why we were just standing there like the enemy, not interacting, talking or sharing the work. He stared at me blankly for a minute, then gently explained how the party usually started with the bingo, then the presentation of T-shirts to the kids with birthdays, then the cake. “Maybe you could be the caller,” he offered helpfully.

At this, I scurried back into my customary shell, protesting that I hadn’t a clue how to be the caller and barely remembered how to play bingo. I’m only an extrovert when somebody else takes the lead. And just because I see so clearly how things ought to be doesn’t mean I want the responsibility of changing things.

Docile now, I stood with the others against the wall. Finally we were ready, and I was given a bag of candy to pass out to the winners. Miss Psychologist, I resolved to let them choose what kind they wanted, figuring they’d probably never gotten much structured freedom, granted desires or safe self- expression.

They were blasé about the big choice, most of them already sure they wanted Snickers. What they really got into was the bingo. They called out those timeworn B-19s and O-47s in eager voices, double-checking the diagonals, suggesting the next form of play. I waited for a surly remark or a sarcastic undercurrent, but everybody stayed interested and -- well, sweet. No restlessness, not a single rolled eye. It was as wholesome as the Waltons.

After cake, we waved and departed, and I drove home thoughtfully. Those boys hadn’t needed us to come in and pretend like we were in the same boat, setting chairs up side by side in a show of hearty egalitarianism before we turned on our heels and left for our happy homes. They knew the drill and figured we did too. Nobody was going to make a permanent friend tonight or plumb the depths of someone’s soul. The monthly Birthday Party simply relieved the monotony, eased the loneliness, provided a brief stir of excitement.

Most of all, the bingo offered a chance to think and laugh and win, or at least be part of a group game in which no one would end up bloody. It was precisely because bingo was so far removed from their experience that it worked. How often had they sat around, family-style, with a board game, the highest stake a bite-size Snickers? This was indeed simple, and it was real in a way movies and MTV couldn’t be.

We like to think of young lawbreakers as jaded, cynical, hard-core and bitter. But these kids were still young enough, soft enough or in sufficiently stripped-down circumstances to enjoy the chaplain’s group bingo without skepticism. I was the hard-core cynic, so anxious to be cool and do the visit right that I’d missed the obvious.

Suddenly I remembered the rest of that conversation with Sondra. “That lady, she just kept coming and praying with me, no matter how mean I was to her,” she’d said. “Finally, you know, I think I started to believe she really did care.”

Which was, after all, the only point that had needed to be made.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998