By Rachelle “Shelli” Rawson, Juvenile Justice Ministry and Advocacy Program
When Covid 19 first hit, we were in a panic. How could we continue our ministry and at the same time keep everyone safe? Along with much of the rest of the country, we felt stuck. We were unsure how to keep moving forward in such uncertain times. But now, looking back, we can see the bigger plan that had been put in place. We see the opportunity we had been given to make our comeback not just bigger, but vastly better. God had been on the move and was taking us with him.
We quickly realized that a “shutdown” in our community did not mean the needs of the children we serve were also “shutdown”. We found a way to go back into Juvenile Detention using Zoom sessions. For someone like myself who gains energy from a personal, up-close connection, and at first, this was uncomfortable. I felt like I had to put on a circus act to keep the kids engaged. So I did just that, but without the dog and pony. It forced me to get creative and use props to illustrate my message. I went to great effort to pull humor into my sessions and pushed myself to show my heart even more to hold their interest. We used Zoom to create “building times” with our kids. Building times are opportunities to build on relationships, establish trust, and strengthen personal connections. Often, this was done using games on Zoom and eventually, this led to more. Kids began to request individual meetings for true one-on-one time. Once these doors were opened, the relationships kept growing.
The pandemic has taken a terrible toll on people and communities. But what the devil meant to harm us, God has used for good. Through God’s grace, we are back to working with kids in person. Now we have deeper relationships with kids. We are meeting with them one on one while they open up about their trauma and we get to share the love of Christ. We are now also going into the Crittenton Center and reaching even more young people. The kids have been doing assignments I give them, such as making lists of the lies they believe. These are lies, that when left unchecked, will corrode their faith in themselves and their world. By bringing these lies into the open when we meet, it enables me to help them challenge the lie and take away the power it has had. They are reading their Bibles, doing memory work, and saying “Yes to Jesus!” In one month alone, fourteen kids said “Yes!”
Going into JD there was a boy named Doug who is Muslim. The staff warned me he was a very serious criminal and to be careful. Getting this kid to crack a smile or earn trust has been difficult especially since I was a Christian. Over time he began to watch and pay attention as to how the other kids responded to me, he began to get curious and slowly let me in. I frequently will bring treats for kids when they come to church or do assignments I get them, ditch refused to go to church because he was Muslim. One day he asked me if I was going to bring treats on Sunday and let me know that it was his birthday. Of course, I said yes. I brought in birthday cookies for him and threw a party the following Sunday then the doors began to fall down. Slowly after that, he began to go to church service on Sunday and ask questions, he asked for me to meet with him individually where we then talked about the difference between being a Muslim and a Christian. Doug has a big consequence awaiting him in the future and even though he has not yet excepted Christ into his heart he is beginning to ask more questions and trying to understand why he chooses to practice Islam over Christianity.
By meeting with the kids individually, I help them create a personal safety plan for when they get out. After having numerous conversations, I’ve realized that not many of these kids have a support network at home. When they leave the facility they all too frequently fall back into a criminal lifestyle or damaging habits. I have made it my mission to create an Advocacy Plan for these children. This plan includes connecting them to a loving adult before they even get out of Juvenile Detention or whichever long-term placement they have been placed. How is that accomplished? I find Christ-followers in the community who hold in their hearts a desire to make a difference in the lives of others. I train these volunteers in how to advocate for children and in trauma-informed care. I then match these advocates with kids in need of their skills. The advocate meets with their kid for at least two hours a week and walks alongside them as they meet daily challenges. The advocates show their children the freedom Christ can bring, teaching them life skills and the gift of creating relationships, just like Christ does for us! So far, we have 23 trained advocates and 8 matches. It has been an honor to be a part of this process with our advocates. I see the excitement on their faces as they tell the stories of “their” kids … and watch as these beautiful children begin to heal and realize they no longer have to do life alone.