Presence, Not Presents

The fluorescent pink parking ticket lay on the seat between us. My recently licensed son had forgotten to move the car off the street into our driveway and had now received notice of his first parking violation. As his mother left for work that morning, she pointed out to him: It was your responsibility, Ryan, to move the car. You will have to pay the $7 fee. Our shared ride to work and school later that morning was consequently more than mildly uncomfortable. You have to pay attention to the little things, son, I told him later in my best patient dad voice.

In truth, it was usually me doing the yelling at him for one perceived transgression or another. He really is a good kid. Not a straight A student (but you could be with a little more effort! is my standard mantra), but always hovering around a low B. To the best of my knowledge, he has never taken a drink, smoked anything, done drugs and will graduate with his virginity still intact. At that time, I will owe him $200, according to the honor system we agreed on when he was a freshman.


The full knowledge that his father never made it through high school with all four goals intact seems to have been sufficient motivation for him. Additionally, I knew the odds were stacked against him as a nonwhite young man. Later that morning, while I stood addressing 33 young people at the local county juvenile detention facility, I reminded myself that I owed my son a hug. I also reminded myself that I owed my church a nudge.

I had been invited to speak at the facility by one of the instructors, who mentioned she had heard I was a great speaker, with a great message for young people. Laughingly, I suggested to her that her comment was just the type of enjoinder that ego-suppressed church folks like me feed on, on a Friday morning. We agreed to start first thing that day, right after I dropped my sons at their Catholic schools.

In truth, my oldest son was the kind of teen I always went after as a parish youth minister, the teens out there in this or that school, Catholic as well as public, whom you keep trying to draw into your ministry circle. It was also parents like me that I found the most frustrating, those who neither encouraged nor enforced their teens’ participation in the parish-based program, but let them make their own decision as to whether to take part.

Such reflections were swirling in my head as I addressed the group of teens that morning. Clad in navy blue issued scrubs and white socks (no shoes permitted), their uniformity was at once both disarming and disturbing. The instructors had told me that their offenses ran the gamut of possibilitiesfrom felonious assault and prostitution to school truancy and shoplifting. For one reason or another, they all now found themselves in what one young man termed junior jail. As we began to talk about the importance of Choice-Change-Commitment, the theme I had chosen for the presentation, I recalled a recent conversation with a friend and colleague, Michael Carrota.

Mike had come to my diocese to conduct a set of workshops for religious educators and parents on youth. During his presentation he reminded the audience that when kids say or act like we were never their age, it really is true! We really were never their age, and they were never ours.

It is more than just a chronological perspective he was addressing. He was speaking in terms of eras, of time epochs, which are wholly contextual and time-specific and sensitive. I remembered that I had spoken to my hosts about that very subject just that morning. What you have to remember, I urged them, is that when we were 11 years old, we never came to our parents as my other son did a few years ago and asked the question, Daddy, what does fellatio mean?’ Flabbergasted, I asked him where had he heard such a term. He answered, with a matter-of-fact, easy manner, On the evening network news show.

I shared with the incarcerated teens my own history of drug recovery, conversion and ministry. How many of you have had a problem with drugs or alcohol in your life? Sadly, all those in the room raised their hands. How many of you would say that you had an unhappy home life? I quizzed further. Again, every child raised his hand.

Finally I asked them, How many of you had a positive relationship with an adult before you came here to this facility? Less to my surprise, and far more to my great regret, all their hands remained down. I bit my lip in an emotion that combined pain, anger, fear and frustration, and I stood silent, staring into their facesseeing my own son’s visage morphing in and out of focus.

That so few diocesan or regionally orchestrated efforts to minister to incarcerated youth exist, is not surprising. They were not on my radar scope either. Most dioceses have some type of program to address adult offenders, whether through the diaconate or some type of diocesan restorative justice ministry. But if we are sincere about doing what the Gospel commands us to do, we must venture out of the reasonably safe and shallow waters of youth ministry as presently practiced among predominantly middle class youth (of all ethnic types), into the much deeper end to help also the truly lost and forsaken.

Organized at a diocesan or regional level, using a different youth minister from the local area parishes, monthly workshops on topics like communication skills, spirituality and self-esteem could be provided to detention facilities across the country like the one Ivisited. A single youth minister would need to make such a commitment for only one workshop per year, if 11 others agreed to assist. Simply put, how much ministry effort do we put into reaching so-called good Catholic kids versus bad non-Catholic youth?

In the field of youth ministry, we have some of our best trained, most enthusiastic and capable professional ministers, most of whom (like me) have been content to settle for the so-called low-hanging fruit, easy to garner. In many respects, those are the youth who really want to be reached. How much personal, professional and spiritual satisfaction could one gain by practicing the ministry of presence in other settings with youthful offenders? A simple after-care program could be developed by inviting such teens to the local parish once they are released, to give themperhaps for the first time in their livesa spiritual home, with adult mentors who care and a peer group that is both encouraging and supportive, providing a positive setting rather than the dysfunctional ones they are used to. These are the lost sheep we need to be searching for. Perhaps it is true that the church will not be able to do everything, but it can do something. It is not enough simply to assuage our conscience by collecting sweatshirts or gift baskets for teens in their difficult situation. It is presence, not presents they require.

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