When we walked up to the front door, the family was waiting for us.
“Did you hear what happened?”
The tone of voice was deflated. Brother Jim and I braced ourselves for the news about one of our teenage friends.
This young man had just evaded a violation of parole for allegedly beating up a kid from a rival charter school. With the help of Brother Jim, he was found not guilty. He was also scheduled for community service for a traffic violation, which was supposed to take place with us at St. James food pantry. On day two of his service, however, Brother Jim went to his home to help transport him, but he refused to get out of bed.
The signs were all there: staying out until 4am on the streets, and not being able to get up in the morning for a routine day; getting smaller violations with increased frequency; showing a decrease in the desire and motivation to do right.
And then it happened as it usually does. The lesser violations for drugs, fighting and/or trespassing made way to a new class of criminal activity: Guns entered the scene.
The parents had learned that this young man was picked up by police in a nearby park with a gun on his person, and, because he has now turned 17, was placed in the adult jail. The mother was paradoxically unnerved and relieved that her son was in jail, if only because she knows it is both keeping him alive and preventing him from using the gun. She is concerned about retaliation against her family, and losing her housing rights due to her son’s criminal activity.
Often times, you can see the trajectory of kids growing up in the streets. You can see the change—in their eyes, their clothes, and their conversation. You know the moment when the streets claim and take power over them, and yet it doesn’t appear that you can do anything to change that path.
At least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Often times, we use our values as an excuse for not helping the poor. For example, most people would agree that shelter is a basic need, but feel no obligation to provide shelter to those who have committed a crime. Likewise, there is no need in our society to employ criminals. We’ve attached a stigma to unwed mothers receiving welfare to feed their family. The general population would support youth programming, but an “adult” criminal with a gun, such as our friend, is already a lost cause, danger to society, and no longer worthy of help. In fact, he was never valued by society. He was shunned in juvenile court, treated as a problem instead of child, disposed of by several schools, and without a community program or mentorship to guide his path.
What we fail to realize is that the values we hold that prevent us from criminal activity have been supported and developed by our communities. We can hold the value of nonviolence far easier when our own safety is not being threatened. We have seen the vision for peace and can thus believe in it during times of conflict. We can hold the value of not stealing because we have ways to provide for ourselves and our families the things we need. We can hold the value of life, because our own lives have been cherished and deemed as important. Our mentors and families had dreams for us, and spoke of our futures.
In order to extend our values to others, we also need to extend our community support. Otherwise, we place impossible burdens and restrictions rather than life-giving practices. If you make a demand on somebody, you better be able to support them in their ability to achieve that demand. For example, you cannot say that the right to life is a value, but do nothing to help scared and unwed mothers. That is why the Catholic Church, in addition to demanding the protection of life, sets up shelters for mothers and adoption agencies through Catholic charities.
In the same way, you cannot tell poor young boys to stay off the streets and away from crime and then fail to give them any alternative for their lives. We can lecture all we want to gang members about the value of life, but they cannot even feel their own life is valued—by their neighborhoods, community, and even country. They are seen as a danger, a stain in need of removal rather than a person with the potential for greatness. How do you expect for things to change?
In order to uphold any value we must first value our underserved communities. We must love our neighbor, giving those in need support to seek change for their lives. Until we care for the criminals, we are teaching them that they are not of value. If they are not of value, they will live their lives accordingly.
Not only must we ask ourselves if we are sinners before we cast the first stone. We must also ask: What need did we not meet for our community member?
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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