All I wanted to do was give the boy a hug – and I couldn’t. Between us stood a large, heavy steel door. We could only gaze at each other through a thick pane of security glass, eight inches high and eight inches wide. There was no privacy. A guard and a case worker monitored our every word and movement. There was a microphone and a speaker on both sides of the door, so we could talk, but the kid needed a hug, a dad hug.
I’ve been a dad for more than 20 years, doling out hugs whenever my children have felt frightened, hurt, or sad. So it made my heart ache not to be able to hug Jonathan*, a 15-year-old boy with wary brown eyes who barely tops five feet. In spite of his small size, he has a problem with anger. Shortly before my visit, he’d tried to solve yet another conflict with his fists, and he was placed in a special isolation cell with just a mattress and some bedding. As we talked, he huddled against the wall with a blanket pulled over his head. Gradually, he let it settle around his shoulders. Though his eyes softened as I and two Prison Fellowship colleagues talked and prayed with him, I never saw Jonathan smile. Not once.
Jonathan has sent me several letters and poems, but he wasn’t expecting my visit. He doesn’t usually have any visitors. His mom lives several hours away and has five other children to take care of. His dad – who Jonathan hasn’t seen in nine years – is incarcerated in another part of the state. Jonathan’s dad writes to him every week and sends him stamps, Bible studies, and articles. He encourages him to use his words and control his anger. Unless Jonathan learns to do just that, unless his heart and his life are radically changed, he will remain in custody until his 19th birthday. Even then, like most of the other 140 boys held at the youth detention facility, he will return to an urban community rife with broken families, drugs, and violence. Even free, what hope will he have? What tools will he have to succeed?
My visit with Jonathan broke my heart, and the thought of that 15-year-old talking to me from his isolation cell will haunt me for a long time to come. In the field of prison ministry, we often talk about “bringing home good neighbors” through improved prison rehabilitation programs based on the Gospel of Jesus. That’s good and right, but we also need to catch kids like Jonathan before they ever enter “the system.” The Church must learn to feel greater sorrow and outrage for children like Jonathan, and then it must do more to make the invisible Kingdom invisible in every sphere of life. As Martin Luther King said, “We must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” Christ’s Body must address the stifling poverty, inadequate education, and family disintegration that help keep successive generations in spiritual and physical chains. It’s not the abundant life God intends for Jonathan, his father, his mother, or his siblings.
Whatever the future holds for Jonathan, whether he lets his guard down and lets God in, I know that, through Angel Tree and programs like it, I must continue to pray and work for him and the countless others he represents. I just can’t leave him there alone.
*Because “Jonathan” is a minor, a pseudonym has been used to protect his privacy.