Our Stories:
News and Notes from Calvary

Holding the hand of God

by The Rev. Audrey Gonzalez, Assisting Priest

It had been many moons since I walked through the bowels of 201 Poplar. I participated in the Hands Around 201 prayer effort outside a few months ago, and I often go in the upper part to the 12th floor, where the police director and chiefs and the 911 operators do their vital work. But the prison section is below the street level. And it is dreary.

My visit was after Noon, the time of a shift change, so county officers were going home after another tough day not seeing the light of day, and the next shift was coming in through the same security through which I had to pass. I was still waiting for the background check results (about my eighth check in a few years because every time one works with children or with law enforcement of any sort, you have to have one).  So I had to leave my purse in a locker, and have my photo snapped, then get an ID sticker with my photo which I needed to protect like crazy to get my driver's license identification back when I left.  

Meanwhile, I had brought a bag of books for the guys, whom I had not yet gotten to know. My bag of books also had to pass through the security check. The yellowish metal walls of 201 Poplar, many doors of thick iron bars, and the echoing sounds contrasted with the friendliness of the sheriff department guards and the amazing Debra Fessenben, who oversees the youth detention group. The gentlemen I was there to visit are between the ages of 18 and 25 with a few older prisoners acting as mentors to the group living in the same pod. The youth are locked up in what is called the juvenile pod, separated from the general adult population. We walked into a giant room with cells along both sides and a two-story ceiling. There were chairs in rows, and the young men were sitting with their backs to me as we entered. Mrs. Fessenben had photocopied my old blogs about climbing to the Everest base camp, and other things, to get them revved up about having another white lady come in and try to make sense of everything and tell them not to lose hope. 

A few days before this, I had been included in a group of staff members from Juvenile Court, Interim Police Director Rallings, and many sheriff department representatives for a presentation by four youth from 201 Poplar whose lives had been redirected through a program by BRIDGES. It was a new approach for BRIDGES. It was hope for these youth. And it was the most incredible two hours I have spent in years. Finally. Finally here was a solution. As Robert, Rodney, Demarcus, and Martavious told their stories, the horrific stories of their childhood, and their walk into the world of crime because there was nothing else for them in their lives, I was completely drawn in, as were we all, and knew I wanted to be a supporter of these young men. For their positive turn they gave credit to a number of women who loved and believed in them, but no men. As we all sat there (probably about 35 adults), we looked at the situation and asked what is wrong with this picture.

No male participants. No male mentors. This lack of male role models is prevalent in mostly parentless homes or dangerous hoods. Most of the youth don’t even know their fathers, and having a parent incarcerated is one of the most violent traumas (along with abuse) a child experiences—the ACE (Adverse Child Experiences) monster that traumatizes youth in a community of poverty and racism. I was also surprised because I had known three of the boys before, either through Foster Care Review Boards or when I interviewed kids in Juvenile Court detention for the Department of Justice and Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiatives, of which I am a committee chairperson.

Mrs. Fessenben invited me to talk to the guys at 201 Poplar because I would love them. And the following Thursday there I was entering the 201 Poplar basement. After a long walk, we entered the pod. The 40 inmates were welcoming and knew quite a bit about me, which was unnerving. I hated to disappoint them. But we started a chat—me standing by a big desk, and they asking questions about all sorts of things. And we laughed and got to know each other. Time flew. Those in the BRIDGES program had earned a few special privileges. They can check out books from the “library” in a special room off to the side of the pod, and they can study there. Many were working toward a GED. Also, they were allowed to color (the new fad everywhere) and draw and paint, and their artwork was unbelievable. Mrs. Fessenben fussed at them for not signing their work. So they did. They also wrote poetry, rap songs, and essays which they shared with the group and guests.

Time flies in these kinds of environments, and sadly it was time to go before they got restless. Mrs. Fessenben was thanking me, and suddenly Demarcus stood up and asked if I would pray for them. I don’t always remember I am a priest. So I was stunned, being a white woman, but I quickly said, “Yes! For sure!” and I asked without getting permission if everyone could form a circle and hold hands (this was quite a big circle). It was done quietly and with great respect.  And I just about burst into tears—it was like weeping without tears. I could so acutely feel the presence of Jesus, of God, of the Holy Spirit, in that place. I could feel the pain, the disappointment, the fears in that room like they were transferring to my own heart. It was amazing, and the words poured out of my soul without me even trying to do it. I truly was just a vehicle. Now God was using me to love these boys and men in such a cold and sad place. I must be his encourager.

And I thanked God over and over. When we were done, we all hugged each other. And I knew for certain that this is where I must be. Finally, after so many months waiting and wondering and trying to figure out what I was to do after Foster Care Review was handed over to juvenile court staff, I was home.  It was an extension of what I did for so many years in Uruguay and will be doing in my ministry when I go there three times a year. 

I am also going to Jail East, where Mrs. Anderson is the angel to seven youngsters, to talk to those youth, ages 15 to 17. All of these young boys are being tried in adult court for adult crimes. I don’t want to know their crimes—some are brutal. I want to know them, and their hearts and souls, and what happened early in life —their ACEs—that robbed them of ever being children or having a normal life. I remember in the movie The Blind Side when Mrs. Tuhoy asked Michael Oher if his mother had ever read him Ferdinand the Bull, and he said no one had ever read a book to him. She was speechless. This is the kind of hurt in so many of these guys’ lives.

Books (paperbacks), cookies, DVD movies, magazines (especially sports and men’s magazines), and drawing and coloring supplies are all needed here. Ideas for projects are welcome. We will make prayer flags soon, and the chief will allow us to hang up the flags all over the pod. I want to do a talk on financial literacy that I learned as a Grizzly mentor. But mostly, we need to find jobs for the ones who leave, transformed by the BRIDGES program. If these boys are met with rejection, a dark staircase that climbs to nowhere, then everything is lost. They must be able to find a job to support themselves, to finish their GEDs, and to find a home to live in far away from their former neighborhood. They need male mentors whom they can trust. They need to know the faith they have built up in themselves and us is not a waste of their time. It is the only way they will keep holding the hand of God.

Posted by Robyn Banks at 9:11 AM
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