It was in May of 2019 that my heart was moved beyond expectation. A heart tattooed, marked indelibly by an experience in juvenile detention, an experience with Jesus. Now, roughly eighteen months later, I still wake in the middle of the night and think about K.B. I wonder. I ache. I pray.
I completely underestimated what would happen in 26 hours of incarceration. I invited this. At an important level, I wanted this. I just didn't know what would happen.
I was clothed in the same clothes, but I was decades apart from them. I was a lifetime apart. Perhaps that's why my heart was pounding like a college senior going to his first post-graduation job interview.
I walked into the "pod" with a group of complete strangers. I was there to immerse myself in the deep end of life for the 13- to 18-year-olds in juvenile detention. This wasn't about sleeping on the same slab of concrete, hearing the sound of prison doors locking shut or choking down the same dreadful food. This was about the 19 faces that occupied the cells on BPod.
My eyes raced immediately to a table of two young men—boys. If I grabbed a seat quickly, I could avoid awkwardly walking around the room. So I grabbed it quickly.
They were 13 years old, but I knew well that the experiential odometer on these two young men had progressed at an outrageous rate. They were growing up much too quickly.
To my complete surprise, they seemed to welcome me without hesitation. No fanfare, mind you, but no overt resistance either.
I tried to be stealthy. I tried to act like I belonged there. I was just hanging with these guys, right? After a short while, I pressed in with questions. Fortunately, they didn't push back. Talk about neighborhoods and families began to build a conversational bridge. It was K.B. who entered in most naturally. He spoke about his dad and his mom—two adults living disconnected lives but very intertwined inside K.B. His Dad had celebrated a birthday the week before, and his Mom would celebrate hers on Sunday. The transparency of K.B.'s angst over missing both celebrations was evident—painful.
Then, in the most natural of ways, KB looked at me and said, "I have a Grandpa. I call him Papa Leroy." Then a reflective moment— and the fruit of his thought emerged, "You remind me of my Papa Leroy." A smile oozed across his face as the words floated to my ears, "That's a good thing." K.B. reassured me. "A really good thing."
I wasn't sure how something this profound could have happened this quickly, but I whispered a prayer of gratitude. Why would I ever doubt what the Holy Spirit could do in a moment?
For the next day, K.B. opened his heart and life to me. Not in what he said to me, but in how he treated me. In the six times of group interaction, each lasting about an hour, KB had a vacant seat at his side—for me. I couldn't understand it, but I relished it deeply.
Picture it: a 13-year-old African American young man with a 64-year-old white guy at his side, among his peers, by choice. Like I said, only the Holy Spirit.
From time to time, K.B. would smile at me and whisper something about Papa Leroy. I loved it. I think he loved it too.
During a time of casual and candid interaction with a smaller group of young men, I noticed that K.B. had pulled his chair to the side, and more specifically, he had pointed it away from the group. On a quick glance in his direction, I watched as he used his thumbs like squeegees across his cheeks. It was invisible to his peers, but painfully clear to me. Real tears: remorse filled, resolve-inducing tears. I never asked, but I knew.
In one day, God knit K.B. to my heart. He tattooed him there. That bright and beautiful face, those thoughtful and winsome exchanges, that authentic and unvarnished pain were marked indelibly on my heart.
In the closing hour of our time together, we pressed into the words of Proverbs 3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding."
"Was God trustworthy?"
Without a moment of hesitation, K.B. responded, "He's trustworthy. I just read in the Bible I'm borrowing that He created everything."
Trustworthy. Powerful. Beautiful. God. Even in juvenile detention.
As my time in detention wound to a close, I looked back into the face of the young man who had captured my heart. "K.B., do I still remind you of your Papa Leroy?"
There was a thoughtful and appropriate delay in his response. And then with words that I will never forget, he said, "No, you are my Papa Leroy."
"I was in prison, and you came to me."
Dan Wolgemuth is president and CEO of Youth For Christ. Youth For Christ has been a pillar of missional ministry since 1944, when the Rev. Billy Graham served as its first full-time staff member. Since then, Youth For Christ has continued to be both a rural and urban ministry on mission, and always about the message of Jesus.
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