I spend time each week in a pod at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center – the JDC. Each pod is visible through thick panels of glass which, sadly, makes it feel like looking into an exhibit at the Lincoln Park zoo. But instead of animals, there are 14 to 18-year-old boys awaiting trial, sentencing, or transport to prison. Each pod has a bathroom area on one end and a TV room on the other. Roughly 15 cells line the back wall with heavy grey doors and a mesh-wired window. Usually when I arrive some of the boys are either playing cards or watching TV. Others are already locked up until morning.
One evening a young man named Kevin, about 18 years old, sat down to talk. He was a Chicago boy and grew up in a tough neighborhood. He had been a leader in a gang, but now wanted to leave that life behind after having seen the suffering it brought him.
Kevin was a talented writer, and in a later conversations he would share a poem he authored about his past life. It was filled with loving companions, painful losses, hope, anger, and fear. He had not graduated high school, but he wanted to earn his G.E.D. Beyond that I don’t remember specifics, but I do know that he had a strong desire to help other young people like himself.
After speaking for some time, I asked him how he was feeling. He paused for a moment, his eyes glancing away from mine. When he finally spoke, he slowly grasped his chest with his hand, as if trying to massage a chronic ache or feel an old wound that could possibly crack open again. He was trying to indicate something palpable within him that he couldn’t quite describe.
“Yeah, I just…I have this feeling in my chest like a weight or… like something in me that feels like even though I want to do this, I can’t.”
It was normal for me to speak to the boys about the difficulties they would face when leaving. But Kevin was expressing something much more profound than a lack of social or psychological resources. He recognized that there was a more fundamental mystery of weakness that resided deep within him. A weakness beyond external difficulties that he feared might keep him from being able to do what he truly hoped to do.
I am very different from Kevin. I am a 27-year-old white man from South Dakota who took vows in a Catholic religious order. I have the freedom open and close my bedroom door as I please, eat what I want, and freely talk to the people I love.
But, there are also things in my life that keep me locked down, chained, unable to move. A year ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I have struggled with for years. It’s not that I hoard things, or have to wash my hands every five minutes. Instead, I will obsessively ruminate for hours over whether I hurt someone, spoke poorly of them, or did something “wrong.” This rumination is accompanied by gnawing anxiety wherein I can’t focus, my stomach becomes a knot, and I feel like there’s a fire alarm going off, even though nothing is burning.
I know these fears are unreasonable, but I can’t let them go. And I cannot keep myself from getting anxious, no matter how badly I want to, or how much I can see that I don’t need to be. My mind is locked up, and I feel powerless against it.
As Kevin and I talked, I sensed that the fear and powerlessness he now felt – and that I felt with my OCD – though born from different places, were the same. A fundamentally human fear of being helpless against a force that pulls away from life and toward imprisonment, sin, pain, and despair. A weakness that is not artificially created by some abstract ideal he or I hold up for ourselves, but an undeniably real experience – a part of simply existing. In this way, whether held captive in the JDC or by OCD, I saw that Kevin and I both understood what it means to be truly weak.
Yet almost immediately in the midst of this recognition, I was moved to something else I’ve come to know: that it’s precisely in these places where my own power and self-sufficiency wear out that God meets me. And as I remembered this, I thought Kevin could meet God in the same way.
So I asked if he would like to pray, and he said yes. I didn’t plan what I spoke. All I could speak of was what I knew to be true in my own heart: that there is a gift of grace that transforms even the deepest despair and fear into life and hope. I prayed that Kevin would experience this in his own way.
As I prayed, I could feel this power with us – palpable, real, and liberating. I sensed light breaking through darkness and the birth of confidence born of faith in something larger than ourselves. I ended, and we both sat in the echo of a message I believe we both understood. It was us two with God, being reminded of this hope we can truly claim and hold on to.