“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”— Frederick Buechner
Several years ago, still wary about my role as a youth leader and doubting my call into youth ministry, I remember hearing a staff member at the Cumberland Presbyterian Children’s Home in Denton, Texas, talk about the large teen population at the group home.
The home had few small children or babies, because those two groups were easier to find foster families for.
Looking at my youth there to volunteer on our mission trip — all of them teens — he said, “No one wants you.”
I looked around the room at their young faces, and sucked air through my teeth and into my tightened chest. I wanted them. I wanted them all. God broke my heart that day, and I’ve been satisfied and fulfilled and equipped ministering to and with youth — the ones no one else wants — for going on six years.
After taking the class “Jesus, Jails, and Justice” at Memphis Theological Seminary last week, I am having to come to terms with my role in the criminal justice system and ministering to those whom society locks away. I am having to come to terms with the next population of people whom God is showing me no one wants. I am having to discern what my call to future ministry is going to look like.
Personally, I do feel called to this ministry, particularly incarcerated individuals, and for many people around me, hearing this startles them. It seems to grip them with outright fear. While it’s certainly something non-traditional, it also makes sense once we peel back my onion layers.
A loved one close to me spent some time in jail (not prison), and so it’s personal by way of relation.
I am hard-wired with an innate sense of justice and what’s right and what’s wrong. Personality tests I’ve taken have even scored me high in these instances. I am not afraid of conflict, rather I embrace it as a way to work toward conversation, understanding, and reconciliation (or at least I try for those things when I’m not being a jerk, another personality tendency). I shy away from politics only because I FEEL policy and public interest SO DEEPLY.
My favorite seminary classes include those on ethics and social justice, as well as theology.
At the public library where I work part time, we serve the local halfway house population, as well as those in the local drug rehabilitation facility. I’ve seen firsthand some of the struggles the convicted felons have in regards to community building, communicating with family back home, getting a job, and even finding and paying for clothing and transportation before they land a job. I’ve seen their stubbornness, their charisma, their charm, and their manipulation, too.
One of the prison chaplains last week explained how hard it was to find volunteers for the men’s prison, yet the women’s prison we visited had nearly 500 volunteers on its roster.
“No one wants you.”
A year and a half ago, I was considering leaving seminary early without my Masters of Divinity, but settling for a Christian Ministry degree and heading to law school and perhaps a career in politics. A beautiful encounter at a young adult retreat cemented my call to ordination and pastoral ministry.
When signing up for this class, I was initially terrified that God was calling me to law school AFTER seminary — I simply couldn’t imagine acquiring an 84-hour masters, and then pursuing law. My bones are so weary, y’all.
I was worried that God was requiring a JD after my MDiv and planned-for ordination, and I felt like I better start working this out — I have only six classes left to take before I can graduate. While I will never rule anything out, I feel more settled in my pastoral ministry call. A week immersed in Jesus, Jails, and Justice showed me so many more ways that I can use what God has already equipped me with for ministry and advocacy on behalf of the incarcerated.
I am confident that God has awakened my heart to the plight of the incarcerated. God has equipped me to do good work for God inside the walls of a jail, a prison, or a halfway house, or outside in the free world, working to challenge injustice, change public perception, or create public policy.
This week has shown me where my prejudices show up. This week has shown me where I display my hypocrisy. This week has shown me where to grow my compassion. This week has shown me how God has already moved so many facets of my life to put me in a position to consider this work for the Kingdom.
As I approach the last leg of my seminary education, I can’t at this moment tell you how I foresee this call playing out.
(One time I thought journalism school was going to pave the way to writing about health care or government, leading the way to politics…and I wound up having a pizza-eating contest and writing about sports.)
All I know is that I want to preach. I want to teach. I want to love.
I want to change the world — even if it’s just the world for one person.
I want you.
Disclaimer: I have not been a victim of a violent crime, or an aggravated crime, and have only experienced victimhood on the peripheral and systemically. My lens for this course and these reflections are colored by this, much the same way yours might be if you have been a direct victim of a crime. Your voice matters to me as well, and my heart has no less compassion for a victim than for a perpetrator of violence. You are loved, and made whole by the One who created the world.