When talk about my time in Ecuador--as I often do having lived there for some time--I inevitably end up talking about the boys’ juvenile detention center.
I first went to juvenile detention center over three years ago. Before our first visit, I remember our leader prepping us a bit, letting us know that while these young boys had been through a lot, but that this was a time to just be there for them--to listen and encourage. Not so hard, I hoped, and in that way it wasn't.
When we arrived the kids turned out to be just that—kids: goofy, soccer-loving and occasionally immature teenagers. They cracked jokes with one another, and liked rap and dancing salsa and, probably 95% of them wanted to be famous fútbolistas (soccer players).
We began going every Thursday. Most days we would play a game and then have a short message pertaining to God’s love and forgiveness as well as our purpose and the importance of vision. Afterwards, we would break into small groups and talk more about the message. We would talk about dreams and hopes for the future. Although initially quiet during group time, the boys began opening up a bit more as we saw them week after week. While we never ask the boys, “So why are you here?” it became clear that these boys weren't just carefree teenagers. They were young men with incredibly heavy burdens and life stories that we could not fully imagine.
Some had been abused. Some were heavily dependent on drugs. Others had sold drugs or stolen out of perceived necessity. Some had killed at an inconceivably young age. Some had people out looking for them. Almost all had difficult family situations and some, at only 16 or 17 years old, had families and children of their own that they could not take care of on the outside.
But they also had dreams.
Some wanted to be pilots or travel the world. Others wanted to be writers or architects or (as I said) famous soccer players.
One time, a boy told us he had wanted to be a goalie when he was younger. He showed us his hand, which had been broken and hadn’t healed correctly. He said there was no way he would be able to be a goalie due to the injury, and he would probably have to resort to the “family business” as a hit man.
It was hard to hear the stories and feel that what we were doing was actually helping. I one day wondered out loud if there was anything more we could do. I wanted to go more often to the prison or to do more--anything that produced evidence that we were helping to change lives. A friend gave me some great advice:
He said, frankly, it didn’t necessarily matter what we said; these kids were already adults in their own minds, and they didn’t think they need to listen to anything we say. After all, what did we know? We hadn’t lived what they had. We didn’t know what it meant to feel what they felt. Even the everyday hardship of living apart from family and friends was a foreign reality. What did matter, my friend said, was that we continued to go. That we showed consistency. That was what would speak louder than anything else.
And he was right. I remember one day in particular when one of the guys told our group that--although it was nice of us to come--a lot of the boys in the center would return on repeat offenses because at the center they had food, a place to sleep, and safety from anyone outside who might be looking for them.
Initially, we were a little taken aback. But should we have been? I think we still wanted to be the people to swoop in and make everyone's lives better or maybe bring the gospel and BOOM! Make everything just hunky-dorey. But regardless of how often we would go, the boys we visit in the center were not going to get out the day after we shared with them a moving message. Some of them had years to wait before they are free again, but even when they were, a whole new series of questions would arise, like how will they get jobs when all they know is a life inside prison? How will they return to a family after years of being away? And to tell them everything is going to be okay was not necessarily the answer they need.
My friend was right. What we said didn’t matter: we couldn’t fix them.
But he was also right that even with the lack of answers and the “unfixable-ness”, there remained a deep value in going to the center. In reality, if we are unable to see the people right in front of us as a complex human, as more than a problem, then we were missing the point anyway. We were helping them for our sake, not for theirs. However, to be consistently present for someone--even if we never see expected “results”--means we will not have failed. Sometimes that’s all we can--and maybe should--do.
To refuse to be deterred by someone else’s mess--to be able to see them through the midst of it--allows for a real relationship instead of controlling and fixing-focused one. And it gives us the opportunity to trust that God’s plan is always good and oriented towards an eventual and total restoration. And while I don’t know if the boys in the prison will remember what we said, I hope that they will carry at least some recollection that we saw them as people, not as their past.
After all, the more we accept the imperfectness of our human relationships, the more we can see what our Father, in his patient love, has done to reach the messy group of humans that is all of us.
And so I guess I’ll say, if life has become more complex than you thought it would be, don’t be discouraged. Press on. And if you’ve come to the point that I did, where you want to live this in a new way, in a risky way, check out Submerge. I’d love to tell you more about it! Just fill out the form below.