There never seems to be any sanctuary in the jail. Barren walls, bright lights, noise, no privacy.
We sit and talk about the hardest things, the most heart breaking things, while guards watch us and other chaplains and youth sit together, not more than twenty feet away. There is no holy place to be quiet, no candles to light, no flame of warmth to wrap around us.
So I hold his brown-eyed gaze, I embrace him with my silence. I speak the words that come from my heart, because I know he needs to hear that he is good, that he is held in God’s embrace—whomever, whatever is God to him.
The room closes in, the noises recede, the people are forgotten.
Our sanctuary is a tiny one, just we two, safe and held in enormous love, the unconditional kind. I see you. You are worthy. You are not the actions you have done or the actions that have been done to you. Here you are safe, for 45 minutes.
And when I cannot bear to close you down, when I sense your huge need to talk and talk, pouring out your sorrows, your anger, your fear and pain, well, then I break the rule and I hold the sanctuary open longer, stretching our time to 90 minutes until your staff comes to take you back to your cell. The supervisor, who knows me well, must reprimand me to follow the rules. We eye each other. She nods. She knows.
What is 45 minutes, 90, when an entire life of 16 years needs sanctuary? When this life has never known it?
In the holding of his gaze, in our jokes, in my questions to clarify his story, in his questions, in his stories, in our closing prayer together, sanctuary surrounds and holds us, taking us into a time out of time, a place of freedom for a short while, a place of rest, a place of truth and respect, a place of love.
I light the candle in my mind. He lifts his eyes to mine and the shield is lowered a bit more. Each week his words are more truthful than the last as he tells me the story of his violent, chaos-ridden life. Each week I marvel at his resilience, his courage, his love for his mother and brother. Each week he shares a tiny bit more of the nightmares that have been with him for many years and are with him even now in the safety of the jail. As door locks are popped open for free time, he flinches from the gunshots his mind and body heard. I long to give him peace, I long to give him rest. Each week I light the candle in my mind. Each week I listen.
Lisa Ashley, MDiv, is a Spiritual Director serving youth in juvenile detention for nearly seven years as a volunteer chaplain under the guidance and supervision of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition (YCC), a 501C3 nonprofit operating under the umbrella of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. The King County Youth Services Center houses court rooms and the detention center for youth, ages 10-17. King County offers the mandatory basic safety and PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) training for all volunteers who meet with youth. King County supports the YCC chaplaincy program by providing an office and phone for the YCC Executive Director, space for worship and retreats, and space for a free, donated clothing closet for youth.
Lisa shares stories and poems about the lives of the youth she encounters on her website, www.lisaashleyspiritualdirector.com to create a safe and stimulating environment where others can learn about the complexity of the issues and the cultural differences of the lives of those youth accused of committing crimes that she comes to know.
While the youth often come from families that are not thriving, the opportunity to meet with a chaplain, take a poetry class, do yoga, and participate in spiritual and art retreats helps support the youth and their families, as they move through the process of incarceration, hearings, plea bargains, trials, sentencing and release. The programs that are offered at the King County Youth Services Center are offered by several different nonprofits, including Pongo Poetry and others. These nonprofits are given access to the youth because they are partnering with King County. Lisa’s years as a chaplain have been richly rewarding as she continues to learn from the youth in the course of her service.