A few weeks into my stay at Rehoboth, I was invited to participate in the weekly Sunday afternoon jail ministry. A group of men gathered at the church for a short prayer session before leaving the campus and again I was told not to get personal. We were only planting the seeds of Faith, and if they took hold, God would send others to nurture them to maturity.
It was my first time being inside of a jail and I must admit that it was a bit scary when the door was closed and locked behind us. The cells were filled with men of all ages, most of whom seemed to be in a hung-over condition. Some came up to the bars and the group I was with began talking with them. Tracts were handed out and prayers were said… I was quite impressed actually as I watched the interactions but didn’t feel I was ready yet to start up a conversation with any of the prisoners. The leader of our group came over to where I was standing… perhaps my inhibition was obvious because he pointed to a door down the hallway. “They keep the juveniles over there, maybe you would feel more comfortable talking with them.”
Thanks.” I responded, as I headed for the door… embarrassed a bit, but also relieved to be out of the main hall where I am sure I looked like a fool. I noticed as I walked through the door, that the cell was much smaller than the others in the adult section. Two men were talking to some of the 12 or more teenagers behind the bars so I stood over in a corner to listen. The cell appeared very uncomfortable… one open toilet, four metal beds without mattresses, and a metal table to eat their meals on. It was, however, much quieter than the adult section, which is about the only positive thing one could say about it.
As I looked around the room, my eyes connected with one of the younger prisoners, sitting in a corner opposite me. He must have been waiting for me to notice him because as soon as I did, he stood up and walked over to my corner. “Are you a Christian?” he asked, as he approached me.
“Yes, I am,” I responded, a bit surprised by his question.
“So am I.” he replied, with confidence I wished that I possessed.
“If you are a Christian, why are you here in this cell?” I inquired naively.
“ I go to church when I am at boarding school,” he explained. “My family lives on the reservation and my brother came to take me out because my mother is sick. When we got to Gallup he met one of his friends and they started drinking. I tried to get him to stop but he hit me and ran away with his friend. I tried to find him again but it was getting late and so I found a place in an alley where I could sleep. That is when the police found me and brought me here.”
“Did you explain your story to the police?”
“Yes, but they said someone responsible needs to get me out.”
“How many days have you been here?” I asked, beginning to feel sympathy for his predicament.
“Two days,” he answered, as his eyes began to tear. “Can you help me?”
“I would like to,” I responded, “ but I don’t know what I can do.”
One of the men evidently was listening in on our conversation, because he cleared his throat and when I looked over at him, he shook his head. “We need to go now,” he announced to everyone, “God bless you all!”
“Is there nothing we can do for him?” I asked as we returned to the car.
“No, that is not our responsibility,” he answered, “besides, most of what he was saying was probably a lie anyway… they are good at telling you exactly what you want to hear.”
“But what if he was telling the truth?” I continued. “He said he was only 14 years old and his only crime was being out on the street after dark. Jail is not the place for him.”
“You are getting too involved,” he cautioned, “Don’t worry about him, someone will most likely come by today to get him out. If we tried to help all of the people who ask us for help on Sundays, we would never get any other work done during the week.”
“So what is the purpose of going there,” I blurted out, somewhat sarcastically, “just to pray with them?”
“That’s right,” he responded sharply, “Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have against sin, and that is what he needs the most of at this time.”
I realized that I was putting him on the defensive and so decided not to pursue the matter any further… but already I could see a line being drawn, and I was very close to stepping over it.
The following Sunday we returned to the jail and I went straight into the juvenile section where I found the same young boy sitting alone on the table. There were two new boys lying on the cots, both appeared intoxicated, but all of the other boys, from the prior week, were gone. “Didn’t expect to see you here.” I greeted, as our eyes met.
“No one has come for me yet,” he said, disappointedly.
“I am sorry to hear that,” I responded, “ I wish there was something I could do for you.”
“Why can’t you take me out?” he asked, tears forming in his eyes.
“I wish I could but I don’t think they will let me.”
“But can you try?” he pleaded, “I don’t like being here and I don’t know how my mother is doing. I want to go home.”
“I can ask…”
“No he can’t!” came the answer, from the mouth of the same man I had talked to the Sunday before. I was not aware that he had come into the room. “They will only release you to family. If you know a telephone number of someone we can call them but that is all we can do.”
“I don’t know of anyone with a phone,” he answered.
“Then there is nothing we can do.” the man responded, coldly.
The boy’s eyes began tearing as he stood up and without saying anything, walked to the back of the cell and laid down on one of the cots, covering his face to hide the tears.
I too was speechless… but not because I didn’t have words to say, I just knew this wasn’t the time or place to say them. I walked out of the room with the words stuck in my throat. As the guard open the door that leads to the outside, I asked him if there was someone I could talk to about the boy and he suggested that I come in the next morning to meet with the Judge. I returned to the car and waited for the others to come out. No one said anything on the way back to Rehoboth, but it was obvious that in their minds I had come even closer to crossing the line.
I didn’t sleep at all that night and the following morning I asked Mr. Juke, the foreman of the construction unit at Rehoboth, for permission to have the morning off. I drove to the jail and asked at the front desk if I could see the Judge. They told me that he was in court at the time but would be out in about 15 minutes and would be able to see me then. As I took a seat in the empty hallway my mind began to question my actions. I had been court marshaled in the military, fired from a great job a Pine Rest, and now it looked like I was heading for trouble again. ‘Was there something wrong with me? Were the causes I choose to defend really that important… or was I really only interested in making waves? Was the boy sitting in the cell really worth losing my relationships with the very people at Rehoboth who could give me another chance to prove myself?’
“Mr. Matthysse, Judge Rinaldi will see you now.”
“Yes, Thank You,” I responded, a bit nervously.
He was hanging up his robe as I enter the office, “Good Morning, Sir.”
“Good Morning,” he responded, “Have a seat, I will be with you in a minute.”
I introduced myself and we talked briefly about my home state of Michigan, a place he had never been to but had heard a lot about. I tried to think of something in response but, as often happens to me in superficial conversation, nothing came to mind. There was a brief pause and then he looked straight at me and asked, “So what is it that you wanted to see me about?”
I told him that I was concerned about the young boy in the cell and asked if there was anything that could be done for him. He explained to me the problems they had with trying to track down relatives on the reservation. He admitted that it was not good to keep them in custody but added that once they picked them up they could only release them to an adult family member. That was the law. They were being held for their own protection and if something happened to them after being picked up, the court would be held responsible.
“Does it have to be a family member?” I inquired.
“Well not really, it could also be someone appointed by the court… but there are no funds to hire anyone.”
“Could I volunteer for that position, Sir?” I offered, without putting much thought into what that might entail. “I am really concerned for that boy and would be happy to take him home.”
“Hmmm… that would solve a lot of our problems,” he responded, “but how often could you do it?”
“Every day if need be, Sir.”
“Okay, let’s give it a try. I’ll have him released to you today but you must come back and give me a report on where you take him and who you give him to.”
“No problem, Sir. I will be happy to do that.”
We shook hands and I went back into the hallway to wait. Twenty minutes later the door opened and the boy walked out, unsure of what was happening. A smile came to his face as soon as he saw me and after I signed the release form, we walked to my car.
“Are you hungry?” I asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.
“Yes, I am,” he responded, “the food is not very good in jail.”
I took him to a small restaurant where we had an early lunch and then drove him on to the reservation to a small compound of hogans about twenty miles past Window Rock. There was much jubilation on the compound when he got out of the car and I realized, at that moment, that everything he had told me was the truth. The mother had recovered from her illness and the brother had returned home after two days of drinking but had no recollection of what had happened to his brother. Their gratitude was obvious even though they were speaking to me in Navajo, and although I would never run into the boy again, in the twelve years I lived in New Mexico, the satisfaction I got out of bringing him home was exactly what I needed, for it answered my questions and gave me the assurance that I was doing the right thing.