I was 19 years old when I first stepped foot into a Juvenile Detention Center. It was my freshman year of college. It was only months before that God had trashed my life and turned me inside out. I had come face to face with the crushing kindness of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and graciously reigning. Confronted by my rebellion and indifference toward God I was overcome with genuine sorrow for my life. I was truly grieved for how I was living.
My life had been driven by selfish ambition. I was curved in on myself and could barely see anything or anyone else. The grace of God—his willingness to come low and meet me with forgiveness—was nothing short of overwhelming. I tore open the gift of repentance like a child on Christmas morning. Things would never be the same for me.
Months later I was still surprised by the growing concern I had for other people. God was slowly bending my inward curve outward. This desire to serve others was very specific. I needed to get into a detention center to sit with broken, hurting kids. I felt compelled to share my similar journey with these young men and women. I desired to speak the same gospel that was wonderfully wrecking my life.
So, I prayed and asked that God would somehow get me into one of those places. Not long after I started asking for this opportunity a man came to my college recruiting volunteers to work with kids in the St. Paul (MN) detention center. I signed up.
Fourteen years later I am still working with youth in the Juvenile Justice System. I have spent endless hours with “at risk” youth in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas. I have never been able to walk away from it…even when I have tried. And believe me, I have tried!
The pain and trauma that weighs on this population is difficult to put into words. Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery has demonstrated that the symptoms and behavior of traumatized youth are akin to soldiers coming home from war. Day in and day out workers in this field encounter horrendous stories of abuse and victimization. They are constantly faced with complex mental health needs, pervasive substance abuse, stark economic realities, and delinquent behavior.
After years of working among this population, I have learned some amazing things about God. I am convinced that our experiences and contexts have a way of shaping our theology. There are certain divine attributes that tend to come to the forefront in our thinking based on our various vocational settings. In other words, there are specific theological truths that are especially helpful, relevant, and life-giving in the contexts where we are placed.
For me, I have been tremendously helped by God’s compassionate engagement with humanity in their time of greatest need. I love how God repeatedly comes low and enters into our mess. He is not afraid of our darkness and pain. This is the trademark of the Triune God, he steps into the fray. Martin Luther stated, “He is with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”
We see this at every turn in Scripture. God clothes naked Adam. God provides an ark in the flood. God journeys with frail Abraham. God sits with imprisoned Joseph. God walks his oppressed people out of Egypt. God feeds his rebellious people in the wilderness. God constantly rescues his disobedient people from their enemies. God experiences exile with his people. God becomes human. God serves humans. God weeps for humans. God suffers and dies for humans. What can we say! God does not just enter the fray, he lives there!
I love this about God. If these things were not true about God, I could not continue to see and hear the things I do. I could not bear it. But these things are wonderfully true and they give me hope, strength, and faith. At times, I sense his heartbeat for the youth and families with whom I work. I feel his compulsion to jump head first into the needs of those who are devastated and broken. I find myself praying that I would be a conduit of his compassion.
My experiences have pushed me to Scripture and I have been amazed to behold a humble God who weeps for the hurting and dies for the needy. I love to serve the God in the fray. I long to be like him and reflect him to the world, even if it is a small fractured reflection. Lord help me and help us to do so!