The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 28, 2004
A ministry of presence
Young people in detention need someone to care
By ARTHUR JONES
The 12-year-old boy stood at the altar in the prison chapel during the Mass. Sorrowfully, though steadily, he talked about how he had screwed up and what it had done to his mom. He had been incarcerated for two weeks. This was Sunday. His mom would come to visit him.
Not everyone gives this sort of testimony so evenly. A few weeks earlier 14-year-old Dion broke down and cried as he talked. Because his mother never comes.
Week in, week out, Jesuit Frs. Mike Kennedy and Greg Boyle generally alternate as celebrants at the 10 a.m. Mass at downtown Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Kennedy is pastor of Dolores Mission, a beacon of hope and refuge in tough Boyle Heights. Boyle is founder of Homeboy Industries, a jobs for the future program for gang members, at-risk youths and those recently released from detention.
In the chapel, this Sunday was little different. Kennedy was saying Mass.
In the center bank of pews in this prison chapel were three dozen or more young men -- boys often with mens street-hardened experiences behind them. To the left side, pews of young women, girls whose experiences -- with broken families, sexual abuse or violence, lousy schools, poverty and overcrowding -- could match those of the boys.
There were also visitors. In the right bank of pews were some two dozen parishioners from Holy Family, an upper middle-class parish twinned with Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese.
The Mass and the readings all whirled around the concept of liberating prisoners. Kennedy wove his words to illustrate to the young people how being in prison also makes captives of their families, especially their moms and dads.
In all, four young men stood at the foot of the altar. Two of the four spoke of absent moms. Moms who left. One mom came back after seven years -- appearing suddenly in Juvenile Hall to see her son. He said, I didnt know what to say to her. Mother and son talked. She told him how tough her life had been, and how she understood his. The young man said to the church, I have forgiven her.
Much in evidence before and after the Mass was Javier Stauring, who codirects the Los Angeles archdioceses detention ministry. Stauring gives testimony of a different sort. Hes suing the Los Angeles County sheriffs department for banning him from adult jails where juveniles were being held.
Weve got to get the juveniles out of Mens Central Jail, he told NCR. Because Stauring had publicly protested the conditions under which juveniles were held in Mens Central the sheriff pulled his adult jail ministry privileges.
The revocation of privileges is a serious issue for Stauring. He specializes in juvenile ministry; Fr. George Horan supervises the adult ministry. Stauring is committed to a radical transformation of the juvenile justice system.
However, the local Catholic churchs ministry itself is suffering. In a wave of continuing staff and ministry cuts instituted by Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2002, the detention ministry budget was halved. Where 24 chaplains once served 7,000 incarcerated adults and 3,000 youths, 12 had to carry the load. Gradually, working through parishes, the Catholic prison ministry has gained sufficient support to reinstate nine more chaplains.
Detention ministry, at its most basic, said Stauring, is not about turning peoples lives around. More than anything else its about accompanying them in difficult times, he said. Its a ministry of presence. We believe in being present and showing that there are folks interested in them, who care about them and are not judging them or looking at them as something thats broken that needs to be fixed. Were there because we want to be an example of a loving God, a God of unconditional love, a God that understands and forgives.
Its by creating that feeling, he said, youth can start feeling valued, feel that there is something good in them. Thats what will bring on transformation.
Stauring wants the system to transform. And while he may have trouble with the sheriff, the detention minister makes the outside world take notice. Last year he was one of three to receive Human Rights Watchs top award as a defender of human rights. (Also honored: Egypts Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla, for her work combating torture and promoting womens rights; and Taiwan Gongloe, for defending the rule of law and human rights during Liberias civil war.)
The downtown Los Angeles Juvenile Hall has about 500 juvenile inmates, most awaiting trial dates. They range in age from 8 to 17. Once they turn 18 theyre adults. About 125 are female. Usually 20 to 30 of those being held are under 14, including a cluster of 8- and 9-year-olds.
In chapel on Sundays, the juveniles enter and leave with arms behind their backs, their normal posture when moving in groups. The entire doorway is an arch of painted sheltering hands with the words Comfort, Hope and Amanacer, Spanish for an awakening, the possibility of a new dawn. The majority of the young people receive the Eucharist. They do the readings. The choir comes from Dolores Mission.
Not everyone in the chapel is Catholic. Stauring explained that attendance at Sunday church services is ethnicity based. Latinos, even those who are not Catholic but want to attend church, will go to the Catholic Mass because thats where the Latinos go. Black Catholics wont come. Theyll go to the Protestant service with the other black kids.
Prayer is one outlet for many of these kids who are all under great stress, said Stauring. Stress not only for their crimes, but for their futures. Theyre wondering, Whats going to happen to me? Theyre worried about their families back home. Some of them have kids of their own they are worrying about.
Stauring is part-time with the diocese, part-time with an interfaith coalition, Faith Communities for Families and Children, working on advocacy issues. He meets with the county board of supervisors staff, contacts state legislators, appears in court on behalf of minors who otherwise would be in court alone. Often minors families arent there for them. So they drift into the streets. Into gangs. Into trouble.
The education system isnt there for them. Nor is the nations government as it has shifted away from the housing, health and jobs programs essential to improving potential for Americas underclass.
These root causes leave millions of families and millions of young people facing a future where the only guaranteed sound is the prison door clanging shut.
For many like Holy Family parishioner Jane Argento and her husband, Phillip, a Superior Court judge, the establishment of a parish detention ministry group brings the story full circle. For the Argentos the process began the evening they attended a birthday dinner for fellow parishioner David Evans. Evans is a criminal defense attorney who has taught death penalty law at Loyola University Law School and is on the Death Penalty Focus board.
Guests that night included Jesuits Kennedy and Boyle; juvenile issues were a table topic. Within days, Presentation Sr. Janet Harris, a justice advocate, and Holy Family community service director Allis Druffel were part of the action. The phones started ringing to invite speakers for a four-part series, Juvenile Justice: Challenges for the Second Century. The California juvenile system had just celebrated its centenary.
Msgr. Clement Connolly, pastor, told the opening session the series was one more sign that we have grown a lot around Holy Family in recent years, grown in numbers and in spirit. For many years we were inward looking. But through the movement of the Holy Spirit in the emerging strengths of the lay leadership, Holy Family is looking more outward.
Later in the month, Druffel added, Its difficult to garner support for social concerns ministries but this one attracted parish-wide support. Juvenile justice issues permeate the concerns of the entire community, she said.
During an early NCR interview, juvenile justice advocate Harris commented, God gave me an opportunity.
The same appears to be true for the parish.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004
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