About six months ago, I “accidentally” got connected with a ministry to youth in a Malibu probation camp (while trying to get connected to a literacy program in Watts–life can be funny that way…). The ministry is sponsored by the local Catholic Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice; each Saturday morning, a team of volunteers joins incarcerated teens (many of whom are gang-affiliated and treading a very dangerous path) for mass and an hour of visiting/fellowship.
I was invited to participate in the program by some kind new friends who thought my poetry might encourage the youth–but of course, what I found as I began to interact with the young men at the camp was that God was using them to encourage, challenge and stretch me. I hope that my presence and my words have been some small blessing to the guys at Camp Miller; I know that their friendship and stories have been a huge blessing to me.
Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has been a hero of mine for some 15 years. In his 2010 book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg shares some of the stories he has collected over his two decades of working with current and former gang members in Los Angeles, and he asserts that “the day simply won’t come when I am more noble, have more courage, or am closer to God than the folks whose lives fill these pages.”
This is how I am coming to feel about the young men at Miller. I am inspired by their bravery, their resilience, and their willingness to welcome people they have no particular reason to trust into their lives and hearts. At the same time, I am grieved by their pasts (both by things they have done and by things they have endured), and I am absolutely terrified about their futures. This poem was written the day I learned that one of “my” kids was going home.
I believe in God. I believe He is good. I believe He is powerful. I believe He loves these young men far more than I ever will or could.
But trusting Him with their lives? I have to be honest. It’s really hard.
The sweet mustachioed boy
who calls me “Miss”
and thanks me for my visits
is all smiles as he informs me
that he goes home this week,
leaving behind the barracks and barbed wire
that have circumscribed the last few months
of his existence.
I smile, too,
offering a hug
and the heartfelt hope
that freedom will treat him well.
But later, when I sit alone,
recalling his eager anticipation
of once again kickin’ it with his homies,
I find that I can barely breathe,
and bitter tears flow—
even as a stabbing pain alerts me
that my innards are attempting
to twist themselves
into the kind of knot
that would fill any grizzled sailor
or gung-ho scout master
Lord, help my unbelief!
Forgive this fragile faith
that trembles and bows before the fear
that the odds facing my young friend
will prove to be too long—
that the hand he has been dealt
from a severely stacked deck
will play out in devastating fashion
because knowing when to fold ’em
is a skill neither much prized
nor often practiced
at this table.
Teach me to bear the growing dread
that my heart will be broken
many times over
and enable me to love
as though the specter of loss
did not have its bony hand
pressed hard against my throat.