I once heard a talk by a priest who was also a clinical psychologist, in which he said: “If you are a Christian, you have to believe that people can change. If you don’t believe people can change, you have no right to call yourself a believer in Jesus Christ and in his Gospel message. It’s as simple as that.” I have remembered these words many times in my career working with at-risk teenagers. I’ve done this work for 20 years, counseling homeless kids, runaways, drug addicts, kids in jail and young people in rehab. It is imperative that those who do this work have a deep conviction that change is possible. We must believe that, because the fact that a person has acted one way for most of his life does not mean he is destined to act the same way forever. We must believe in the power of God to intervene dramatically and forcefully to change people’s lives for the better.
I met Jeremy (not his real name) when he was only 15, but he had seen a lot and done a lot in his short life. A heavy-set African-American male, he had been born and raised in a very poor section of Brooklyn. Like many of the young people I work with and counsel, Jeremy never knew his father. His mother had raised him on her own. That’s a difficult thing for a single parent to do in a neighborhood rife with drugs, guns and overall poverty. At age 13 he stopped going to school. At 14 he stopped coming home at night, only occasionally popping into the apartment to refuel on food. From the clothing he wore, the kids he hung out with and his general attitude, his mother knew he was dealing drugs. At 15 she went to family court and made out a PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) petition. Her argument to the judge was that she had lost control of her son. The streets now owned him. “He is either going to get killed or kill someone. Please get him out of my home and this neighborhood,” she begged.
The judge agreed and sent Jeremy to the residential treatment center I ran for 90 teenage boys and girls in Westchester County, New York. We had a lot of kids like Jeremy; he was no exception. Most of our kids had been sucked into street life, headed for an early death or a long prison term somewhere upstate. Our mission was to offer them a safe and caring environment where they could earn a high school diploma, move on to college or a trade school, and develop the confidence and skills to lead a fulfilling life.
Most kids take at least six months to adjust to a program like ours. They are used to doing what they want to do when they want to do it; they have a hard time following structure and taking directions from adult authority figures. Jeremy was the same way. He tried to use his physical size to intimidate his peers and even the staff. He had a quick mouth and resisted even the basic routines of making his bed, cleaning his room and doing chores. At one point he tried to get other kids to form a gang right in our program. But we could see another Jeremy underneath the veneer of this one. We continued to bombard him with one consistent message: “You don’t have to live the life you’ve been leading. You are a good person. You have many gifts and skills that you can put to good use for yourself and others.” Eventually the message sank in. He stopped hassling the staff and other kids, attended school every day and studied when he got back to his cottage. His grades improved. We put him in charge of our on-grounds store, and there he successfully applied the business skills that had once made him an accomplished drug dealer. He joined our varsity track team and threw the shot put.
No one was supposed to stay in our program forever. The average length of time was 18 months, at which point a youth would return home, if that was possible, or move on to a community-based group home. After almost a year with us, Jeremy made it clear that he was not transferring to a group home; he wanted to go home home, to be with his mother. We called her in for a series of meetings, some with her and our staff, while others included Jeremy. He was very clear on his end of things: “Mom, I want to go home.” She wavered, sometimes telling him, “Just a few more months and you can return,” while telling us privately, “I don’t think he’s really changed. I’ll lose him to the streets and the gangs again.”
Eventually Jeremy caught on to his mother’s shifting point of view. Frustrated to the point of despair, he sent her the following letter, with a carbon copy to me.
I’m writing you to express my feelings. I feel very sad, hurt and also a little rejected because it seems to me that you are saying one thing to me and telling the staff here something different. You led me to believe that if I stayed out of trouble, promised to go to school, and behaved myself, I could come back home. In August when we had the meeting I was on Level 3.0 and now I’m on Level 4.3 and still moving up. [We had a behavior management level system at the program; Level 4 was the top level.] I haven’t gotten into any trouble and I’m really trying to do good. I have been controlling my temper and working hard to make sure our home visits together have been good. I want you to try to meet me half-way. I am willing to continue my good behavior, and if I don’t keep up my end of the bargain I will go back into the program without any arguments. I am saying this because I know we will be okay. All I want to do is get back the wonderful, loving, thoughtful and caring mother I now realize I lost. And give you back the son you lost to the streets. I want to be home with you to show you that you did not mess up. I am saying this because I know I will be able to stay home with you. Please talk to the staff and work out an agreement that will allow me to come home. I give you my word, I will not disappoint you.
His letter convinced her. She agreed to take him back home. She took a leap of faith and believed that Jeremy had changed and would not return to his old ways.
That priest I heard years ago was right. If you believe in Jesus Christ, you have to believe that people are not locked into their past behavior. In this case, because we, the staff, believed Jeremy could change, that he was a better person than his activities on the street demonstrated, he began to believe he could change. And once he believed it, he did change.