[Episcopal News Service] At 16, Antonio hadn’t envisioned much of a future, except to join the Southwest Cholos street gang in his Houston neighborhood “or else become their enemy.”
Now, two years later, he is preparing to take the GED exam this month and to enroll in community college courses in January. The difference, he said, was that he joined reVision instead.
“It’s pretty hard growing up like that: the environment, the gangs, you have to join,” said Antonio, whose last name was withheld to protect his identity. “I just opened my eyes one day; it came to me that it wasn’t going to be the right thing.”
His nephew, who was on probation in the juvenile-justice system, invited Antonio to come along to “the Island” youth activities center at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Houston. St. Martin’s, through reVision, partners with other churches and the Harris County juvenile-justice system to mentor gang-affected and at-risk youth.
“At first I was afraid,” Antonio recalled during a Dec. 2 telephone interview with ENS. “I couldn’t believe they were trying to help me. But they opened my eyes … to realize that faith is real, it’s not a joke. Without reVision I would still be thinking with a criminal mind; they talk to me all the time, they keep me in the right mind.”
Eric Moen, St. Martin’s lay director for youth and young adult ministries and missions, said reVision “is giving community to gang-affected kids, and it’s putting kids in relationship with mentors.”
From Houston to New York, Episcopal churches are seeking partnerships and creative ways to mentor at-risk youth, to help avert the “school-to-prison pipeline” that disproportionately affects young people of color and those with special needs.
That pipeline is created by lack of educational and economic opportunity, as well as unjust social structures such as racism and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, which treat minor school infractions as law-enforcement issues, said Diocese of Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe.
Per capita, Iowa has one of the highest incarceration rates of African-American young men in the nation, said Scarfe, who proposed Resolution B024 at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis in July. Convention approved the resolution, which promotes creation of an alternative “Pipeline to the Kingdom” through community and church involvement and grassroots organizing, said Scarfe.
“We don’t have many African Americans percentage-wise in the state, but per capita for that demographic, we’re one of the highest, and that’s striking,” he said. He also wanted to address the issue because “my wife is African-American, and so are my two sons, so there’s a personal identification with my family and this issue.”
The resolution “requests development and implementation of educational pieces that help young people through the lens of the gospel and the community of the church to see themselves as Christ sees them and as people full of hope and full of potential,” said Scarfe.
The Rev. Angela Ifill, Episcopal Church missioner for Black Ministries, recently announced the Rising Stars Experience, or RISE, a collaborative partnership with her office, the Diocese of New York and St. Andrew’s Church in Bronx, New York, to mentor students in high-risk environments.
RISE slated to begin Jan. 30, will involve weekly meetings for about 15 students aged 7 to 14 to discuss skills that lead to successful and productive lives. A parallel program for parents and guardians will examine their roles and responsibilities.
“We listened to youth from high-risk environments and created a program to connect them with the church, positive aspects of education, and [to] develop an appreciation for one another,” Ifill said in a Nov. 15 press statement. “This program will give youth the tools to cope with challenges in school as they prepare for adulthood.”
Research indicates some youth are particularly vulnerable.
Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal team for Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy agency, cited a 2011 study by the Council of State Governments concluding that the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects children of color and students with special needs.
“Millions of U.S. public school students in grades K-12 are suspended or expelled in an academic school year, particularly students in middle and high school,” the report said. “Research demonstrates that when students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile-justice system.”
It added: “Policymakers and practitioners have a growing need to identify strategies for effectively managing students’ behavior and aligning schools’ policies in order to support student engagement and learning, and reduce poor academic outcomes and juvenile-justice contact.”
The study prompted a joint initiative among federal and state governments and other agencies to develop creative solutions.
“It is clear from the study’s findings that efforts in individual schools can make a difference,” the CSG report concluded. “It is also evident that schools alone cannot make widespread and lasting advancements without a commitment from law enforcement, courts, probation, treatment professionals and the many other disciplines that affect students’ success.”
The church’s role
That’s where mentoring and the church have a role to play, said Allen Kight, 44, a parishioner at St. Martin’s, Houston. Kight admitted he needed to muster up a bit of courage to accept reVision’s invitation to mentor “Edward,” a 16-year-old youth awaiting trial in Houston’s juvenile detention center for multiple robberies.
“This is not a group I’ve ever engaged in my life,” said Kight during a recent telephone interview. “The very first time I met Edward I was kind of scared. I met him in jail. I’d never been to a jail before.”
But he quickly realized that “the kid I was so afraid to go meet is just a kid who needs love, just like my kids need love,” said Kight, the father of two and the owner of a residential construction firm. “He was very easy to talk to. He wanted to talk. He wanted a friend.”
When Edward was sentenced to three years in a juvenile-justice school, “I followed him there and became a mentor at that school so that I could continue to meet with him,” Kight said.
“We just talk,” he added. “Our conversations are about life, about how God fits into our lives. How our family and friends fit into our lives and how important friends are. He’s having a very difficult time trying to find out who his friends are, true friends. But, he’s also decided he wants to move away from gang mentality, the gang life, all that.”
Edward has already implemented a growing desire to help other gang members “to talk to them about loving each other and caring for each other the way that God cares for us.”
While in detention in Houston, his cell was located between the cells of two rival gang members.
“They talked through the air vent, and he mentored these kids,” Kight said proudly. “One was in there for killing somebody, but Edward tried to calm him, to say you’re going to be in jail for a long time, but you still have a life to live, your mom still loves you, to talk about all the positives in his life when things seem so bleak. He’s a true mentor.”
Engaging congregations to help mentor youth is crucial, Kight said. “It helps for [the youth] to understand there’s a God that loves you, no matter what your past and where you’re going to be,” he said.
Youth typically are referred to reVision by the juvenile-justice probation department and are paired with mentors, said Moen. “The work of a mentor is to absolutely stand with that kid, no matter what. Mentors visit them each when they’re detained. When they’re released, they go with the young man when he meets his probation officer for the first time. Daily activities are offered, including Spanish-English bilingual parenting and other classes for family members, Moen said.
A Nov. 29 Thursday night gathering at St. Martin’s drew more than 200 current and prospective volunteers and supporters along with reVision youth participants like Antonio.
“Thursday nights are a big deal for reVision kids,” said Charles Rotramel, reVision’s executive director and a long-time youth advocate, speaking with the sounds of hip hop music in the background. “They have break-dance and skateboard competitions. They’re around other kids who are positive and happy and from all over town having a great time and feeling affection for each other.
“It’s all about relationships,” he added. “Everyone self-segregates, right? Everyone then vilifies the other, so no one talks to each other. But as soon as we talk to each other, we do have something in common.”
Rotramel traces reVision’s history to ministries begun through two United Methodist Churches in Houston – Gethsemane and St. Luke’s – which merged several years ago. Eventually, St. Martin’s became involved; the program recently launched efforts to renovate a building into classrooms, a project Kight is spearheading. He said he hoped eventually to offer construction and trade-industry internships to reVision youth.
Church involvement is crucial, Rotramel said. “I believe that, if we are followers of Christ, then we are called into the most difficult places and we are called to embrace the people that no one else will embrace. That’s these kids.”
“Gang members, juvenile gang members, are the lepers of 21st century America. No one wants to touch them. No one wants to be around them. No one wants them in their neighborhoods, schools, shopping malls, anywhere. The question I ask is: If not us, who will do it?
“Bringing these kids into community is transformational,” he added. “They begin to see that a lot of the assumptions they’ve made about how the world works are false. And that all those lines about who are the good guys and the bad guys aren’t true. The beautiful thing about bringing church members into this is, they start having the same experience. They realize some of the assumptions they’ve made aren’t correct, and they fall in love with these kids. That tells me that Christ is present in this work.”
For Antonio, reVision has meant new life, new hope, the promise of a future.
“It’s not just problems outside the home. Sometimes there are problems inside the home that you want to get away from,” he said.
“At first I was afraid. How was I going to be the first one changing, leaving all this negative stuff behind? Until I met them,” he said referring to the reVision outreach workers, mentors and volunteers. “They’re brothers. They’re cool. They’ve been in trouble before, but they’ve changed their life. They’re doing good. I want to be like them.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.