2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
We have just heard David’s out pouring of grief for Saul and for Jonathan. He refers to them as “Saul and Jonathan—beloved and lovely!” It could alternately be “Saul and Jonathan—dear friend and delightful companion!” David loved them both. But today, I want to focus on the love that David still has for Saul. Saul, a man that tried more than one time to kill David and to drive him away. What did David see in Saul that would still touch his heart after so many difficult and life threatening situations? David saw that Saul was a man of promise and compassion.
When Saul was chosen to be king, he was a terrified young man. Samuel anoints him and Saul goes back to his family and doesn’t tell anybody that he is the king. He has this crazy ecstatic prophetic frenzy fall upon him and it frightens him so much, all he has to say is, “we were looking for donkeys.”
Samuel then goes on a “search” for the king and lo and behold! It goes something like this…There are 12 tribes and I will cast lots to see which tribe holds the king! And it was Saul’s tribe. THEN, There are several families and I will cast lots to see which family holds the king! And it was Saul’s family. THEN, There were several people and Samuel says, “I will cast lots to see which person will be king!” And it is, of course, Saul. I am wondering if Samuel rigged his dice that day!
So Saul is chosen to be king. And he is like every hero in the Bible…an imperfect, apparently weak, younger son. He just is not the testosterony leader that everybody was expecting. And then, right away, the Ammonite king is on the heals of the Israelites. The Ammonite king wants to pluck out the right eye of every Israelite in the town of Jabesh-gilead. When Saul hears this, the Spirit of God came upon Saul and he was furious. He quickly formed a battle plan, implemented it, and won the war. He then urged people to be compassionate with each other and especially those that didn’t believe he could be a leader. Then Samuel drew all the people together with Saul and they went to Gilgal to renew the kingship—they made sacrifices of well-being and rejoiced together. It was a time of promise. Saul’s kingship, the system of justice, was grounded in righteousness and compassion. Unfortunately, like so many of our systems, the promise of Saul’s reign of compassion soon turned to a reign of dread, especially for David, as Saul descended into madness and violence.
This story is all too common. Somethings starts with promise and is corrupted and becomes death dealing. That is what I encounter day after day in the juvenile detention system. It is a continuous process of not living into the Kingdom of God.
I work at two detention centers, the King County Youth Detention Center and Echo Glen Children’s Home. Both of these centers at one time were considered among the best in the nation. King County Youth Detention Center was a beautiful facility complete with a gymnasium, a pool, and state of the art monitoring system. Now, after a major flood, mildew, and the deterioration of about 35 years of wear and tear, the floors need replacing, the pool is a storage room, the monitoring system is an intercom system that requires raised voices and a special ear that can understand people speaking through static filled speakers. A place of promise has deteriorated to become a place of madness.
At Echo Glen, a state facility in Snoqualmie, the outward beauty of the surroundings that makes it seem more like Camp Indianola than a detention center, is belied by the reality that this facility, created for the most vulnerable and youngest children in the system is aging. And because of budget cutbacks, the staff to youth ratio is shrinking, the staff chaplains were fired, and recently, due to the closing of Maple Lane, a medium to max security center for violent, older youth and for youth that have serious mental illness, Echo Glen has now taken in the seriously mentally ill youth, altering the entire dynamic of a facility created to become a soft landing place for our more vulnerable youth. A place of promise has deteriorated to become a place of madness.
And that is just the facilities! I mentioned that Echo Glen fired its staff chaplains. Now, in the state of Washington, there are no paid chaplains in juvenile facilities. Everything is run by volunteers. There was a time when chaplains were supported by state and county government and when the Church Council of Greater Seattle ran the chaplain’s program at these two institutions with grants from county government and donations from churches and individuals. That institution, too, has fallen apart. Over time, as the government cut back on its costs, the Church Council cut back on its support. Within 10 years, a program that had an $80,000 budget became an entirely volunteer program. That is a shame. The Church Council could no longer financially support the organization and they gave the program to WorldVision. WorldVision then failed to appear. The chaplaincy fell into chaos as different theologies and churches struggled to gain control of a system run amuck. A place of hope deteriorated to become a place of madness!
All of these stories of systems gone crazy are mere reflections of the stories the youth have to tell.
One of my favorite ways to sit with the youth in detention is to gather them in for a game of cards. Over a card game, something happens to their mouths as their hands become busy and their spirits let go of tasks and schedules. They begin to share and trust.
I remember one particular card game. It was just after President Obama got elected. I was playing cards with a group of 3 young men. One of the youth was getting out of detention the next day. This is important because one of the youth was African-American. The election of Barack Obama gave the youth of color hope that their lives could be transformed. I asked him, “What do you want when you leave here?” His answer was heart breaking. He said, “I want to go home to a normal family.” This was not the answer that I expected. I stayed quiet, and he went on to fill me in on his life’s story. His mother was a crack addict and the courts were sending him back home to her. As a crack addict, she likes people to do drugs with her. And if he was at home, he told me, he would do drugs with her. He said, “I don’t have the strength to say no to my mom.”
Inside my head, I was furious at a system that sends this young man back to such danger. Especially after the detox work he had done inside detention. I was furious at many things that day.
I asked him about his father. He told me that his dad was a gang leader and his dad’s job was to run guns from Mexico to Kansas City. If he went to his dad, he didn’t think he would be alive for very long. He then turned to me in consternation and said, “when I was 3 years old, I wanted to be President of the United States.” My heart broke again at the ruined promise and at the choices this young man was forced to make. Addiction or death. What a horrific choice for a 16 year old young man to make! This was not even a choice of sanity or madness, but simply madness or greater madness.
I held all these revelations as they rolled into the conversation and we continued to play cards. Then another boy opened up and started talking.
This other young man was from Somalia and lived with his aunt and uncle. If you sat with him, you would notice that there was something seriously off. I know that he could not write or read and that he was prone to irrational, sudden, violent outbursts. This night, he started to tell us his story. As a young person of 8 or so, he was living in Somalia. There, during the never ending war that seems to be occurring, his parents were taken by the Somalian government. They were brutally beaten, his mother was raped, and then they were killed. In front of him. Finally, everything fell into place for me. The question is not why is this young man violent, but why not. How do we expect a young person to survive this with no support or intervention and be normal? His story was truly a decent into madness of epic proportions.
The third boy at the table that day chose to keep his stories to himself. He quietly heard the stories and played the game.
I left the detention center that night feeling hopeless and wondering if there was any chance for these children of poverty, addiction, and illiteracy. It weighed on my spirit like a heavy cloak. I imagine, too, that your spirit is saddened just by hearing these stories. I promise that there is good news.
I went home with this heavy cloak surrounding me and told my family they needed to stay away from me for a time while I processed some stories. They gave me the space I needed to lament a system that has turned into total madness. But I discovered something while I was lamenting. I discovered that there is hope. There is always hope. And that hope is in the promise of resurrection. We have the greatest story of all because we have Jesus who was transformed into something new at the resurrection. And each of these stories can also be transformed into something new. As difficult as it is to change systems or to change lives, resurrection and the promise that Jesus and God brings to us in abounding love and grace is the answer. We may start at a place of violence, but we end in the peace and beauty of the Easter lily.
It takes work, though, to go from the madness of Saul to the promise of David. And that work is beginning. To tackle the madness of the chaplaincy system, I created the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition. The Youth Chaplaincy Coalition is a group of like-minded individuals and churches that seek to provide services, in a faith-based context, to Youth Detention Centers.
The mission of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition is to provide quality, innovative, comprehensive services for the whole person, to youth and families affected by the justice system within a quality volunteer and work environment staffed by knowledgeable, ecumenical, and caring faith-based volunteers. Our vision is: While the justice system can treat the psychological and physical symptoms a youth in crisis has, chaplains have a unique opportunity to bring in the third leg of the stool, spirituality. By bringing a holistic vision of the child, the possibility of healing the body, mind, and spirit becomes a reality. Our work creates possibilities for transformation and integration. The mission is attained by adherence to the values of listening and loving.
Listening and loving. And a little bit of creativity provided by the Holy Spirit as she guides us to this new thing called the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition. As I started ruminating over what was needed to bring at least one of these systems into stability and resurrection, God planted the idea that gathering people from the geography of the detention centers—the Central District in Seattle—and approaching their churches and congregations, was the way to go. Now, the churches of the Central District are primarily traditional, independent African American churches. So I started attending church with them. I went to pentecostal, charismatic, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal, churches and more! I ended up at a Hispanic Roman Catholic Church on the day their bishop was there to visit and was splashed with the waters of baptism and participated in Eucharist. They welcomed me in even though I had no clue what they were saying since the mass was primarily in Spanish. This was the Holy Spirit moving.
Everywhere I went, people started gathering around and began to be excited about the detention center again. It took two things to get to this point. A call from God and the courage to walk through unfamiliar doors. Now, gathered from these churches, we have the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition. The members of the coalition are United Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Disciple of Christ, Independent Traditional African American, Church of God in Christ, and a Roman Catholic member. This is a new thing. A coming together for the resurrection of the chaplain’s office, the detention center, and for each youth that we encounter. I am amazed at the work that has begun. After the hopelessness of Friday, comes the resurrection. God is making a new creation.
Saul embodies the very promise that each of the institutions I named and each child I encounter has at the beginning of their lives. Then the world interferes. Budgets take priority. Children encounter death-dealing drugs and gangs. Ego takes over and it becomes about my version of God or their version of God. We forget about Saul and that first battle he was in when he was a young man confronting injustice for the first time. He steps into the fight because he is disturbed by the threat the Ammonites make. He is a man of compassion confronting issues of injustice. It is this man that David mourns.
We can all be that person. The person who is compassionate and confronts issues of injustice where we see it. John Wesley certainly was that person. For some of us, the call is to create something new like the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition. For others, it may be to feed the hungry, give drink to thirsty, clothe the naked, or heal the sick. For others still, it may be to support people who are doing the work by offering spiritual, financial, and administrative assistance and I have a handout that shows how you can offer these gifts to the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition if you’re interested. But there is one thing we can say with certitude, we are all called to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. This allows us, like David, to grieve a broken system and to step forward into a new creation.
Shalom and Amen.
If you want to help:
Will you make a commitment to pray for the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition? The Board Members? The Volunteer Chaplains? The Youth of the Detention Centers? The Staff at the Detention Centers? Would you want to volunteer at any of the detention centers? Once a year? Weekly? In a study? Life skills? Worship?
Could you make a commitment to making a donation to the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition? To being an ongoing donor? Buying Bibles? Purchasing study supplies?
Would you like to help out by providing administrative support? Finding grant opportunities? Mailing out fundraising letters? Finding speaking opportunities?
How to help:
Contact Terri Stewart at stewart6 @ seattleu.edu
Mail checks to (note Youth Chaplaincy on the memo line):
Bear Creek UMC
c/o Youth Chaplaincy Coalition
16530 Avondale Road NE
Woodinville, WA 98077