Finding Life in Detention

(Finding Life in Detention was originally written for the BeZine, an online “e-zine” produced by the Bardo Group. Please check out the other amazing writing found in this and other issues of the BeZine!)

SEC Logo copyI’ve only been working as a chaplain with youth in detention for a month. I could have chosen a number of different seminarian internships; campus ministry, church administration, advocacy. But I chose chaplaincy on purpose because I felt a “call.” It is why I’m studying an MDiv; it’s why I stopped running away from ministry.

In this month I’ve heard stories of rape, assault, grand theft, vandalism and trafficking in narcotics. There is something fundamentally disturbing to hear the voice of a child talk about getting so drunk and high that carjacking an elderly woman sounded like a way to “have fun.” All this from the mouths of youths who should be worried about their SATs rather than their next court date. So I’ve been asked the question, “How do you do this?” My answer is, “Because my faith demands it of me.”

fhouseAs a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that salvation is IN my life. My faith as I choose it requires me to work towards the inherent worth and dignity of all people and all creation, not for heavenly reward but for humanity. Which means pushing myself to be in places and meet with people which make me uncomfortable. To speak truth to power. To give witness. To expand beloved community. To be where the Spirit of life needs me to be.

Yes, it is hard to sit in active listening, asking questions, attempting to sift through the psychic refuse to find the innocent child underneath. But let me be clear; there is an innocent child underneath! Because I have also heard these same children’s voices ask for mercy, beg for forgiveness and plead for a fifth, sixth or seventh chance to turn away from the paths well worn by their incarcerated fathers and addicted mothers and economically and educationally depressed neighborhoods. These children’s eyes reflect back at me; “Help me! Heal me! Love me! Save me!” And my faith and my humanity will not let me say “no!”

seedEven though a minister’s trade is in miracles, I expect none here. My ministry is to listen. To be present. To plant seeds of hope. To challenge my world to change for the sake of it’s children. And to push and pull with all my might to bend that arc of history just a little bit further toward justice. It is in this hard work that I find the Spirit of life seeking reconciliation and my own salvation.

In this way, working with youth who are incarcerated is life giving! It reminds me of who I should be. It wakes me up from the soma of my off-white middle class American social location. The work allows me to be so filled with gratitude for my family and baby boy that I have to respond in thanksgiving. And because I did very little to deserve my blessings and privilege, I must pay it forward. Which is where I am confronted by mystery and miracle! The more I give, the more I find that I am being transformed by these youth into a better human being.

Back to school.

854990I’ve successfully completed my first class at Seattle University! Huzzah! Take that all you people who… well… actually were quite supportive of this crazy idea. The class was STMM 5530: Pastoral Care Skills, which is usually ten weeks long but because it was a summer session, was compressed into five days. Ten women and one man (me!), from six different faith backgrounds and three different degree tracks, came together to help each other learn how to listen. It felt more like a retreat than a grad school class.

9398Learning how to listen may sound easy, but we tread into some deep emotional, spiritual and psychological waters. There were five required texts for the course and all needed to be read before the first day of class. Armed with theory, in class we discussed how family history, genetics, society, ethnicity, culture and religion all came together to fashion our behavior, specifically how we react in anger, fear, guilt and depression. In order to bring healing, we needed to understand brokenness; specifically, our own.

tumblr_lqeip8nsdz1qcn6k7o4_250We formed triads, and twice a day each of us had a turn at being an observer, listener and speaker. All sessions were video recorded. We were to review our listening sessions and critique our own behavior: How am I sitting? What kinds of questions am I asking? Am I looking at the speaker? How are our chairs positioned? What does my voice sound like? How am I using my facial expressions? We also had constructive feedback from peers and instructors.

105909-Black-Dynamite-now-this-is-som-gQ4KNone of the class was role play. As the speaker, we needed to respond from the heart. Some topics of discussion were: “Who are you and why are you here?” “What are your limitations and strengths?” “What aspects of your family were most difficult?” “What excuses do you use to avoid self-care?” “Where does your anger come from?” “How do you react to conflict, and why?” “How do issues of power and vulnerability affect your life?” It may seem crazy to be able to honestly speak this kind of personal truth to complete strangers.  Thankfully, I had two amazing women in my triad who made self-disclosure incredibly easy.

gif-8The goal of all this is to begin fashioning a sense of pastoral presence; a way of being fully attentive to a care-seeker in a way that affirms their worth and dignity as a human being and provides a safe environment from which to begin healing. I learned this requires an enormous amount of self-examination and self-knowledge. It demands that I be the servant-leader. I also learned there is a scary amount of power that comes with ministry. I’m thankful that I’ve chosen a school which teaches the responsibility, compassion and humility necessary to use that power in a way that respects and honors each individual person I meet.

I can’t wait for the fall semester.

Why would you do that?!

Image“Why would you do that!?”

This was the reaction a friend had when I told him I was going to grad school to study divinity.

First, I had to explain what “that” meant. I would be studying theology and ministry in the hopes of becoming a chaplain. Then I had to explain what a chaplain was; a person of a specific faith/denomination who is assigned to/works with institutions like hospitals, a military unit, police departments or non-profits in order to provide spiritual guidance and support to the people in/accessing the institution. It’s a minister who walks with people through (extra)ordinary circumstances; who is there when life fails to make sense, or is too hard to handle.

giphyIt’s a vocation that places a person into the position of a rock in the rapids.

His reaction makes a good point. It’s not a lucrative career; I’ll not be making a six figure salary. It’s not something you hear little kids talk about when you ask them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a lot of studying, writing papers, interning and discerning. Chaplains have told me that it’s long hours into the night and questioning every step of the way. On the surface, it seems to be work that has a lot of cost and not very much reward.

watchingsadlyBecause, why would I decide on a career with only mediocre earning potential? Why would I want to listen to other people’s problems? Why would I want to potentially surround myself with death, disease, homelessness, addiction, mental illness, violence and broken humanity?

This is why I struggle with explaining my decision to friends and family. On paper, it seems insane. Heck, typing it out into a blog it sounds insane. But I see a problem in weighing the worth of work solely based on material reward. I try not to buy into the cookie cutter American consumer mold; work so I can buy stuff that will eventually break so I need to work more in order to buy better stuff to replace the stuff I already have. How do you explain a feeling of “being called,” or for the less spiritually inclined, feeling like what you are doing “fits” with what you want/need/require of life?

light-end-tunnelI feel like I can be the person who holds a dying person’s hand as they take their last breath. I want to be the person who can sit and weep with the mother who just lost her child. I need to be the person who can be present with the man who has lost his faith. I can be available to my fellow human being who is hurting, share that dark tunnel journey with them, and walk out out the other end with them into the light again.

It’s not about the 6-figure salary. It’s not about notoriety. It’s not about buying all the things. It’s about finding a way I can be of service to others. It’s about creating a meaning in the work I am doing. It about that strange feeling in the pit of my gut that tells me “this feels right; you are where you need to be.”

FlippantFreshEkaltadetaI’m terrified I could be wrong. I’ve gone down this path before; I’ve been in seminary and felt the call only to end up losing my faith and finding another. But, just like then, I have to give it a try. I have to walk down this path to see where it goes. I don’t want to be at the end of my life, regretting that I didn’t just give it a try.

I don’t expect people to understand; but at least I have family and friends who, even if they don’t agree with me, will take this journey with me. They’re my chaplains without even knowing it.

New Year, New(ish) Resolutions…

No turning back...
No turning back…

2014 really couldn’t have come sooner. While 2013 had a few high points (new job for wifey, family wedding, beer brewing) for the most part it was a difficult year (home invasions, car vandalism, cancer). My wife dropped a great saying on New Year’s Eve: “2013, on your way out don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you.” Now  it’s nothing but up and I’m looking to do some amazing things in 2014. Taking a cue from fellow peaceful warrior Chris, I’ve broken my resolutions down into some easy categories:

Cuidado
Cuidado

Creativity

I’m carving out time every week to do some serious writing. I can’t do it at home; I’m too comfortable and distracted.  My office The spare bedroom is almost always occupied. The dog needs petting and there’re 4 seasons of Lost Girl to watch on Netflix. In order to remove excuses NOT to write, every Thursday after work I’m going to walk down to Wayward Coffee House and write. Easy, accessible, creatively inspiring… most importantly, doable!

Gotta get back into the groove!
Gotta get back…

Health & Fitness

I’m currently looking to join a martial arts studio. I’ve been away from Kempo for a couple years and I really miss it. So, do I want to return to Kempo or do I want to mix things up? There are a lot of Aikido and Kung Fu schools around; I just need to try them out until I find one that feels like a good fit. USSD Green Valley Dojo can never be replaced; but until they bring a school up to Seattle I need to get training again. It improves my health, reduces my stress, and keeps my reflexes sharp. I trained hard to earn my black belt; I can’t let all that time, energy and money go to waste.

Grad school bound!
Grad school bound!

Education

The biggest item on my plate is going to be grad school. Seattle University just started a Masters of Divinity program with an emphasis on chaplaincy.  My goal is to start this fall. In December 2012 I listened to an episode of On Bring with Krista Tippett where she interviewed Unitarian Universalist chaplain Kate Braestrup. That interview inspired me to discern whether chaplaincy was my call back to Vocation. Even though I left seminary years ago, there has always been a drive/desire to serve and minister in some capacity. My fingers are crossed that this will be my next big spiritual step in the right direction.

Pointing toward the future...
Pointing toward the future…

None of these resolutions are impossible. If I fail any of them, it’s because I didn’t work hard enough. I feel I made a lot of excuses in 2013. Looking back, I realize I gave into laziness. I kept on saying “oh, I’ll brew beer next week” or “I’ll write that blog tomorrow.” Tomorrow easily became weeks and months. I can’t let that happen this year; I’m way too old and time is too short for that kind of nonsense. So it’s Thursday, I’m sitting in Wayward and I’m getting shizzle done.

Happy New Year!