Those Three Words…
We hear these three words in many different contexts, between many different people and in many different languages. At times, this expression can seem overused. Yet one place it is not often spoken or heard is in the juvenile detention center. I have heard it a few times during chapel messages. It is also expressed among youth and family members during visitations or phone calls. Yet I have never heard it spoken from a youth in juvy… until this week.
Andre* is a talented, smart, athletic, and at times, emotional young man from our neighborhood in South Seattle. He had been in the Center for over five months… way too long for a youth to be in juvy. It is not uncommon for behavior to deteriorate after a few months—the Center’s programming and infrastructure is just not designed for long-term stays. Yet Andre, with the help of God, had been able to stay out of trouble and attain a sustained honor level, the highest of the Center’s tiered system. This is no small task given his past patterns of misconduct. Andre’s life was very ingrained in the streets and gang life. He has shared with me many stories that have ended with “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Although Andre had some church experience in his childhood, he lost his connection with God as he got deeper into the streets. However, in the last five months, he has truly transformed… or more accurately, God has continued to transform Andre. A few months ago, he wrote in a poem called “Change”:
Now I know what I gotta do.
I gotta change the things I do
to live a better life with you
God I’m comin’ home to you.
Andre became very diligent in prayer and studying scripture. He even started a Bible study in his hall. Yet like many of us, Andre often feels like returning to his old ways. With a scowl on his face, holding up his fists like a boxer, he frequently shared with me his frustration with the other youth and staff and his temptation to handle things “the way I used to.” Yet in spite of nearly daily trials, he has chosen to avoid violence and wrongdoing and has progressed far in self-control.
In our many interactions, we discussed his past life, his current struggles, victories, and his future.We also spoke of the upcoming three years of his life in a permanent facility. While he feels it will be extremely difficult, he also sees it as a chance to prepare for his adulthood and his future with God.
Last Monday was his last day at juvy. Andre will be transferred to a permanent facility. As always, I knew it could be an emotional time for him and for me as well. I focused our conversation mostly on practical matters, like being sure to let me know how to reach him, making a strong effort to surround himself with positive people, and details about the permanent facility. I also told him I would stop by his hall to say goodbye before I left that night.
Later, I made my way to Andre’s hall and said goodbye to him and his hall mates. Then, as I was heading for the door, and right in front of the other guys, he said those three words: “I love you, bro” (well, four words). I was not prepared for them. As the emotions hit me, I managed to blurt out, “Be sure to call me.” “Alright,” he replied, and we both put our fists in the air as I walked out the door. I was able to withhold the tears. The unwritten rules of juvy dictate that crying is not allowed.
In hindsight, I should not have been too surprised to hear Andre say those words. We had spent many hours over the past five months discussing very deep matters of life and had built a strong trust and connection. But more importantly, God has filled Andre’s heart with much love and a verbal expression of that love was only natural.
Andre has many challenges ahead, especially in the next three years. Yet I am very confident that he will continue his growth in Christ and his future is very bright. Join me in praying for Andre.
* Names changed to protect privacy
Jon Abe is a chaplain and program director of the King County Youth Chaplaincy at the King County Detention Center, an initiative of Urban Impact, encouraging youth in discipleship post-incarceration.