Hope from 'Juvenile Hall'

A writing class for teen inmates reveals the quest for redemption.

"I once did something that at first made me happy. It felt like I was doing something good for myself. But three weeks later I couldn't even sleep at night.... [W]hy did I do it? Why did I have to cause other people pain?

"Now I pray for the people I hurt. I thank God for helping me realize that all that stuff we do on the outs ain't even worth it. Well, I know from now on that I'm going to do better."

This was written by Jose, from Central Juvenile Hall, a lockup for Los Angeles's most violent teenage offenders. It's included in "True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall" by Mark Salzman, which tells of the author's experience teaching writing at that facility. Most of the writers in the program were classified by the number 187, indicating they'd been involved in murder, usually through gang activity.

In their writing, the boys reflect on their lives with anger and self-justification, glorifying their actions and the gang experience.

But they also write about God and express sorrow for past actions and hope for the future. They reveal love for family and often reject the forces that got them into trouble. Writing allows them to share their thinking and to reveal the redemption they were experiencing. Jose's text is just one example. To me, these accounts affirm God's universal love – God coming to us all, wherever we are in our thinking and experience, to show us who we really are as His children. The boys' texts show that in their own way they have heard the voice of God.

God is always speaking to us. In her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," Mary Baker Eddy identified this voice as the Christ. She wrote, "Christ is the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness" (p. 332).

This Christ message speaks of God's love for us and shows us our innate spiritual goodness as His creation. Even a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us begins to wipe us clean from the grime of hatred, self-loathing, despair – whatever would negate our value as a child of God. We see ourselves differently and then think and act differently. In biblical terms, we're made new.

Responding to such messages from God destroys sin in our lives and leads to redemption and healing. I've seen this in my own life.

Years back, I was "attacked" professionally by a few of my peers. I was hurt. And despite efforts by many others on my behalf, I ultimately lost my job.

Over time, I moved on to other employment and was certain I'd forgiven those people. Nevertheless, the whole experience would periodically replay in my thought. Despite my prayers, there must have been some lingering animosity or self-justification.

Then one day while listening to a discussion about spiritual ideas, I saw so clearly how much God loved those people. I was in awe of that wonderful fact, and I gloried in it for some time. I knew then that I'd been "wiped clean" – freed of whatever lingering feelings needed to be removed.

The events that led to losing my job are no longer important, but the lesson I gained from it is. Because I found release from the resentment, I've learned that I can trust that the Christ will come to anyone whom I'm concerned about – a teen who needs correcting, politicians facing critical decisions, or co-workers at odds. Whenever we're tempted to be fearful, we can trust that the Christ is speaking to everyone. That guidance, correction, and redemption are ongoing even if it isn't always obvious.

Nothing stops the Christ from coming to rescue us and others who need its healing touch – not prison walls, past misdeeds, or a hardened heart. Nothing stops God's embracing, cleansing love. It's a comfort to know that Jose and the others, most of whom face many years in prison, can never be separated from that love of God.

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