Helping incarcerated youth to choose to live in the light of God’s Word

January 13, 2015

HOUSTON — Imagine not having a chance as a child or youth to hear God's word and his message of love, mercy and forgiveness, let alone ever experiencing them. For some, this may be the result of an unstable home life without proper physical and mental health care, food and nutrition, educational opportunities or religious or spiritual guidance. This can make living productive and faithful citizenship a challenge. Approximately 3,000 youth, ages 10 to 17, are currently serving time for various crimes at juvenile detention centers in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties. 

The ministry in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston responsible for reaching out to these young people is Special Youth Services (SYS), which is supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF). 

The 60 volunteers currently serving in this ministry are sometimes the only visitors these youth will ever have while behind bars.

"The SYS vision for 2015 is continuing to live and share the grace of God with His most vulnerable," said Franchelle Lee Stewart, Director of SYS. "When youth are in crisis, all become poor in spirit; when families are in crisis, it is only a matter of time before the community is affected. Visiting our youth allows volunteers to plant seeds, and God will nourish, water and cultivate them."

Stewart said the hope of SYS is that the seeds they plant will help the youth to answer God's calling for their lives. By the grace of God, these youth will be able to experience God's love through SYS staff and volunteers.

One teen positively impacted by SYS has been incarcerated over the last year for a serious offense. 

In a recent interview, the teen said she believes the volunteers helped her get past her depression and discover how to have a closer relationship with God.

"I've learned more about God in here than when I was free," said the teen. "I affirm that the Word of God is true and I choose to live today in the light of God's word. They (SYS volunteers) really helped me and the other girls to have faith and patience, and I thank God for putting them in my path."

SYS believes that even though these young people may have made a mistake, from shoplifting to aggravated assault to even murder, they are children of God who deserve the love and forgiveness given through Christ. 

According to Stewart, SYS tries to make that connection with them to Christ through Bible studies, music, games, prayer and one-on-one pastoral ministry. 

In addition, ministers visit youth at juvenile probation departments, counsel at-risk youth, and hold Saturday workshops for children who previously lived at juvenile facilities, as well as their families.

For volunteer Soojin Cha this past year, she prayed for her life's calling and felt drawn into the works of serving the children and youth facing difficult challenges. 

She wanted to share that the addictive pleasures preached in this world are nothing when compared to the abundant happiness God bestows upon us. She found her way into SYS to serve as a Bible teacher to the incarcerated youth at the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center.

"My short work with the Special Youth Services during the last two months was the most fulfilling work that I have done in my life," Cha said. "The boys that I have met have shown great respect to the volunteers, and also the childish goodness that even the harsh circumstances could not take away. After a long work day (studying pre-law), I get to experience the peace from working with these children, and I see there is much work to be done to bring justice so that every child in our society can grow in a safe and nurturing community."

Stewart said SYS is following the advice of Pope Francis who said the faithful should "smell like sheep."

"In this ministry, we have the unique opportunity to smell like the sheep while being sheep," she said. "The ministry allows the human person to live the beatitudes in every day experiences, and any time people believe they are going to help the youth, unbeknownst to the volunteer and the child, God is ministering to both. Through forgiveness, acts of kindness, and the sharing of life experience, youth and volunteers become changed and we all become better servants of God."

Another incarcerated youth was asked about his experience with SYS volunteers, and after reflecting upon it, he realized how much of an impact they had on his life.

"When I first came here, I wasn't really that close to God, but the more they started coming, the more I opened my eyes and understood the Word and meaning of God and how much He loves and cares for His children," said the teen. "During the time I've been incarcerated, I had a lot of time to get my head straight and focus on my priorities, and although I've made mistakes in my past, I know there is at least one person will forgive me. When I'm in doubt, I know God won't give me nothing I can't handle."