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Commentaries and observations about the conflicting moral beliefs and psychological issues facing our culture.
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"AWAY WITH WORDS"
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2 December 2021
Christmas With The Young and Arrested
Many decades ago, I taught and counseled teenage felons at a Federal prison in Washington, D. C. The official title of the place was the National Training School for Boys. Unofficially it was called “The Hill.” The Hill was operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Among its inmates in the 1950s was Charles Manson, whose dreadful celebrity needs no comment.
The upper age of prisoners was eighteen; most were much younger. I recall inmates who were barely twelve years old. One of these pre-teens, a deceptively cherubic lad, had murdered his entire family - parents, grandparents and sister - with a shotgun.
Among these youthful prisoners was a youngster I shall call Jimmie Joe, JJ for short. JJ had been arrested several times back in Georgia. His first offense was petty theft when he was nine. Thereafter, JJ had been arrested for other crimes. Inevitably, JJ stole a car. A police pursuit followed. JJ drove wildly from Georgia to Florida, police close behind. By crossing a state line in a stolen vehicle, JJ violated a long-standing Federal law, the Dyer Act. He was sent to “The Hill,” where I first met him.
JJ was fifteen - a hard, unsmiling, bitter fifteen-year-old. Half his life was spent in defiant recklessness. To JJ, trust was unknown.
The Dreadful Fathers
One afternoon, I was speaking to a small group of young prisoners about God the Father. JJ listened for a while, then suddenly turned his chair sideways, muttering a commonly-used four-letter word which indicated (shall we say) his distaste for the subject. I challenged JJ and asked, “What’s the problem?”
In every prison, civility and good manners give way to blunt, often punitive confrontations. Verbal niceties are shelved for more immediate, more pressing concerns. So, JJ was blunt:
“You talk about this loving Father God as if he was something special. My father used to beat hell out of me when he was drunk, and then he beat hell out of me when he was sober. He beat my mom, too, and my sister ….. so don’t talk to me about no loving father. That’s all crap to me. It’s all a bunch of crap…”
A Dark JJ Christmas
Later that year – on Christmas Eve – I visited the prison, bearing gifts of candy and cigarettes. We did not then know about smoking’s harmful effects, and cigarettes were among the few negotiable treasures which inmates coveted - sometimes for barter or, sometimes, for forgetfulness.
As I mingled among the inmates in one of the prison’s assembly halls, I noticed JJ on the floor in a darkened corner, huddled in a drab khaki blanket, his forehead pressed forlornly against the cold wall. Like many prisoners, he had no family writing to him, no visitors to cheer him, no Christmas gifts from the outside to give him hope, nothing to remind him of a distant someone’s care that he was even alive.
I had not before seen such incarnate loneliness in my life. So, with the permission of the guards, I took JJ out into the high-walled yard, into the evening darkness. We walked slowly for a long while, in silence. Finally, I asked JJ if I could do anything for him, perhaps even pray with him. It was Christmas, after all.
“I’ll be paroled soon,” he said, after a long moment.
“Where will you go? What will you do?” I asked.
“What will I do?” he repeated. “What will I do?” He drew the drab blanket tightly over his shoulders, hunching against the Christmas cold. But then he straightened his back and took a deep breath of the chilly air. And then he answered my question. “I’m gonna hurt people,” he said. “I’m gonna hurt a lot of people when I get out. I wanna burn down stuff and steal what I can. I wanna hurt a lot of people. That’s what I’m gonna do…. and I’m gonna kill my father….. that’s what I’m gonna do….”
The Unanswered Question
A few weeks later, JJ was paroled to a distant aunt in Georgia. I knew he would soon be amongst his old contacts – and I worried for him and about him … and I spent some sleepless nights wondering what he might do when he was gone.
I never saw JJ after his release. But we had one last conversation the day before he left The Hill. He told me that over the months during which we had our many talks, he had indeed come to trust me, but he also felt sorry because he felt he disappointed me. He knew I wanted him to be better, to be stronger than he was; to be a better youngster than he was, to forgive and to pray and to trust God, the Father, Who was still, to him, a stranger, still a Person he could not tolerate, a distant reality he hated. And JJ told me that he knew I hoped for more for him ... and he was sorry he had not done better. He was, he said, really sorry.
Then we parted. But JJ’s last words to me still linger, six decades later:
“Thanks; thanks for trying…”
Finding Meaning and Seeking God
I do not know what happened to JJ -- or to so many of those teenage inmates whom I knew so many lifetimes ago. I do know some of them went on to adult prisons; several were killed along the years. Happily, some met the right person and never crossed the line again ….. and some became fathers, and kept in touch with me for a long time.
But that cold Christmas Eve with JJ has always reminded me that those of us who have known a loving family in our early years are so very blessed, so truly blessed.
Even as adults, when conflict and estrangement intrude upon our hopes and our needs and our yearning to openly express our affection (which should unite all families) we are still blessed. Despite the hurt we may bear in our hearts, despite the coldness we may encounter, we are still blessed with those moments of being known and seen and accepted just as we are; those moments of innocence when we are cared about and revered by a loving few, by those precious few, by our loyal family members … and by the Father Whom, I pray, JJ came to know.
I still pray for JJ – and for those who had hurt him so profoundly, so early in his young life. I pray that JJ came one day to know Our Father Who is in Heaven. I pray that JJ may even have become a good and caring father to his own beloved few.
But I do know that, despite the uncertainties of JJ’s years and his estranged affection and his overarching need to be loved … he is surely beloved by Our Father.
I hope JJ came one day to know and to believe in his own ability to love - however buried and bruised it was when I knew him.
I hope he learned one day to trust and to love and to be loved well and deeply ….. as the Presence of The Child attests.
And, I still hope, so may we all.