Picture above entitled "Fallen Youth" depicts just a hand lain palm-up on the ground, alluding to the youth having been mortally wounded or killed.
"Blessed to Be a Blessing"
Rev. Terri Stewart
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
September 30, 2018
Acts 20:7-12; Matthew 5:1-11; 6:10-20
Hello! I’m Terri Stewart. I’m a pastor in the United Methodist tradition and am appointed to extension ministry with the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition which is umbrella’d by the Church Council of Greater Seattle. I work with youth affected by incarceration. I have about 150 volunteers across the state of Washington that work with youth. In my organization, we basically have six programs: traditional chaplaincy, mentoring, retreats, internships, advocacy, and peacemaking. Today, I want to give you a bit of a window into peacemaking.
Peacemaking Circles are a tradition passed to us by the Tagish and Tlingit First Nation people and by Saroeum Phoung of Kampuchea. It is a restorative justice diversion program that takes felony level youth crime transgressors and invites them into a process that restores their relationships with the crime survivor, the community, and their family. It is often described by outsiders as something like, “So, they all come together and talk and have a kumbayah moment?” At a very simple level, that is true. But it takes months and months of kumbayah moments and hard work for a transgressor to arrive at a moment where they are accountable for their actions and wish to repair their relationships. It is simple in the same way therapy that heals traumatized people is simple. The simple part is that we talk. The hard part is that we heal. And if we compare that to the traditional justice system, we know that we are doing something they are not.
One of the young men that we worked with, we’ll call him John, came to Peacemaking after committing a criminal transgression at the age of 16. He is a legal immigrant from Mexico. He came here when he was 12 years old. His mother has diabetes and finds it hard to work because of her pain. His father works in a restaurant. As soon as he could, John got a job working at the same restaurant. John’s life became one of school, work, sleep, repeat. There was little joy and a lot of pressure to contribute financially.
In John’s own words,
“The night of this incident, I felt a little pressure because I knew that soon I had to start contributing more to my family financially. I love my family. I love them so much and I respect them. My parents have cared for me my whole life. My dad is a dish washer at a restaurant and my mom almost never works because she is sick with diabetes. We struggle to pay the rent.”
On the night of the incident, another young man invited him to join him in a robbery. This would be a way for John to get more money to help his family. They robbed someone using a deadly weapon – a machete. That is felony robbery – or in the vernacular – Rob 1.
This is when John, like Eutychus, fell to his near-death experience.
Our scripture reminds us of the hazards of lengthy and boring preaching. Paul was talking on and on and the young man perched in a window, falls asleep and then falls to his death. Paul checks on him and says, “It’s okay, he’s alive.” And goes back to preaching. Eutychus is taken away and the people were greatly comforted.
Is this really our standard for life-giving preaching? That nobody died? I hope not! Maybe we should have disclaimers in our sermons, “No human subjects were harmed in the making of this sermon.”
I wonder how many times we read this scripture today and point at the young man for sitting in the window, saying, “That’s not where kids belong?” Expecting him to change his behavior and prevent his own harm rather than asking the question, “Why is Eutychus sitting in the window?”
Why would Eutychus be in the window? It could be hot in the room and he wants a breeze. It could be crowded and he can’t get to the center. He may feel unwelcome or that he doesn’t deserve to there.
Whatever the reasons are that Eutychus is at the margins, we know he falls to his near-death and is taken away in an ancient equivalent to an ambulance. And church goes on. As if the important part isn’t that this young man has probably shattered some bones. It is more important, judging by Paul’s behavior, that the gathered community continue listening to Paul talk on and on.
This is a little bit what it is like in the traditional justice system. Its wheels keep on turning regardless of a young person’s particular situation. John fell out of the window and crashed to the streets in desperation. He wanted more. More money for rent, shoes, food. John heard what society was preaching, the acquisition of stuff, and it wasn’t available to him. He was put near the window by a society that did not open to his family to create a place of safety and security. And when he fell, when he let go of traditional society, the justice system caught him. And even as a first-time crime transgressor, because he was guilty of Rob 1, an A-level felony, he would have served up to two years in a maximum security juvenile detention center. This is exactly like Eutychus being carted away with broken bones. John would be still alive, but he certainly would not be healed and whole.
It was at this point that the prosecutor, Jimmy Hung, a heroic man in my book, decided to ask Saroeum Phoung and the gathered Peacemaking Circle Team to intervene both on John’s behalf. Jimmy did not want to see a first-time crime transgressor with a fragile family structure go to jail in Chehalis for two-years. Jimmy asked us to help and we answered, “Yes!”
Because of Jimmy’s courage, the story changes dramatically. Rather than having a young man cut off from the center of society, the center of the room, barely able to see what is happening, we moved him to the center of a process designed for healing. This is the only hope young people such as John have. When they fall to their death, people like Jimmy, Saroeum, and the members of the PCT are there to perform a near miraculous healing. Or rather, to encourage young people to begin their own healing journey.
The work of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition cuts across counties. I engage youth in a variety of settings including state-level facilities in Snoqualmie, Chehalis, and Naselle. I spend about two-days at King County detention and the rest of my week is roaming through state Juvenile Rehabilitation facilities across the state. What I have found is great difference between counties on how they treat youth. The most egregious example I have encountered was a 12-year old from Clallam County who was incarcerated for two-years for plotting to harm his abusive parents. Now, in my mind, it is the parents who should have been incarcerated. What this raises up for me is that we need to work together, across principalities, to learn about what helps bring healing and transformation.
In scripture and in life, the youth that we work with have fallen to their near-death from a window. And as in scripture and in life, the young person survives, but not without scars. What I know at a heart level from working with incarcerated youth is that these are not youth with crime problems, they are youth with trauma problems. Richard Rohr says, “Pain not transformed is pain transmitted.” These young folks become expert at transmitting their pain to others. The pain of not being accepted, the pain of their own crime victimization, the pain of being a non-traditional learner, the pain of being the victim of xenophobia and racism. But it is even more concrete that generalized pain. There is a study of incarcerated juveniles using the Adverse Childhood Experiences measurement tool. Now, you might say that we all have adverse childhood experiences. But these experiences are specific childhood traumas.
The ACES score measure 10 types of specific childhood trauma: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three.
There are, of course, many other types of childhood trauma — racism, bullying, losing a caregiver, homelessness, and so on. The ACE Study included only those 10 childhood traumas because those were found to be the most common traumas across large populations of people. Those traumas are also well studied individually in the research literature.
As a side-note, I think it is important to note that the large populations that was studied that we compare everything to averaged 56.1 years of age, 52.1% were women; and 79.4% were white.
Comparing this to youth who are incarcerated in Washington, we find 70% young men and 50% are youth of color. That is a far cry from the college-educated, white women that were studied. I would propose that if we asked African Americans or Native Americans what their most frequent traumas, we would find a different list. Or we might be find that we need to expand the list to include traumas that white people do not typically have to face.
Even without including the specific traumas that people of color have likely have experienced, studies show that 50% of incarcerated youth report four or more ACEs, compared with 13% of those in the original ACE Study. This is significant because, compared with people with zero ACEs, those with four ACEs are twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, seven times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to inject street drugs. They’re more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, and more work absences.
This is one reason that it is so important to deconstruct racism in our context. We have to know that this ACEs study that all of our institutions uses for our youth who are incarcerated is based on a white experience and a white definition of trauma. To help deconstruct racism in our context, I would like to invite you to come and explore race with us starting on October 11. It is vital for the future of our youth that we examine the unseen premises that impact our social conditions.
So, these studies have shown direct links between higher than average ACE scores and incarcerated youth.
Metaphorically, our youth fall out of a window and rather than stopping to heal them, we send them on their way, but not in an ambulance, we send them to juvenile detention facilities. I wonder what it would be like if we paused long enough to heal youth as they experienced trauma rather than pushing it off onto the justice system which is not especially known for its ability to heal.
With John, because of the courage of Jimmy Hung, we were able to begin Peacemaking Circles. In this process, the crime transgressor has to start out knowing their own guilt. You cannot lead people to healing if one person denies they have done wrong. As we worked with John for his own healing, it became apparent to me that John had difficulty with language and learning. If you met his family, you would meet his articulate older brother who had been in the US just as long as John but whose English was much more expansive. John, even after four years of school, was still barely able to speak in conversations with us, needing a translator. I will never forget it. Our first circle we were together and a colleague and I listened to him and we just looked at each other, stunned. Our unspoken question was, “How has this kid gotten into 10th grade without an educational intervention?” After our circle, we went to the school and inquired into his schooling. He was in an alternative school that plopped him in front of a computer expecting him to be self-motivated and able to read and learn in this manner. He had no IEP, no 504 plan, or there was no translator to help him. It is no wonder he didn’t like school.
Because of the peacemaking circle process, we were able to see a problem that no one had cared to address. I wonder how many people in the room with Paul saw the young man in the window and wondered if he would fall.
And then they did nothing.
Through peacemaking, we were able to begin the healing journey for John. He has worked on his relationships with his family and the community. Most importantly, he is committed to going to school and the school, and John, knows that we have a community of watchers with our eyes open.
John’s journey wasn’t easy and it took about a year and half to go through all the circles. In the end, a goal is to have the crime transgressor write a letter to the crime survivor. This is very difficult. For John, it was his own shame that stopped him from being able to write the letter for the longest time. In his own words,
“That day, when I decided to rob you, I remember that I told you, “Give me all your stuff.” You told me to please not do anything to you because you had family. Then, I looked into your eyes and I saw that you were afraid and I realized that this was something in my life that I was never going to forget. You probably thought that you would never see your family again and that your family would have to pay for my mistake. Maybe you wondered if you were going to live or not. In that moment, I thought about my family too and I put myself in your place. In that moment, I realized that I was just like you and that you have a family who loves you just like me. I am very ashamed.”
When John read his letter to the gathered community in circle, nearly everyone was crying. Today, John is 18 and is still on his healing journey. This year, a cousin and his girlfriend were shot and killed. He struggles but has a community around him which was not present before. His ACES score is high in addition to the social ills of xenophobia and racism and his personal challenges with learning. But, he is earnestly striving. The restorative justice process of peacemaking circles allowed John to move out of the window into the center of the room and to be surrounded by people who love him.
I wonder what would happen if we all found ways to transform our communities so that those who are on the margins, perched on the windows, were in the center of our lives and had access to resources and power? Or at least had people who would love them enough to help them access resources! Somehow, this seems to me exactly what Jesus would ask us to do.
When Jesus tells us, in part:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The beatitudes speak to blessings on youth such as John, for they are surely the poor in spirit. They also speak to blessings that the beloved community participates in…the church that recognizes and honors the image of God in every human being. For that is surely God’s righteousness. A righteousness centered in love of God and all our neighbors. A righteousness that leads to the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we courageous enough to claim the blessing and to become an invitational presence to others perched on the margins so that they, like John, can begin a healing journey grounded in love.
Shalom and Amen.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies be upon you and all you love and pray for this day and forever more. Amen.