One of the most challenging situations I’ve ever been in as a youth leader was the time I went to visit an incarcerated student from our church’s youth ministry. This young man had shown up to youth group with his girlfriend about a half dozen times and I was starting to build a decent relationship with him. I really liked this kid and I could tell the Lord was working on him. However, the final time he attended our Sunday night gathering I suspected he was suffering through some substance abuse. I confirmed those suspicions and within the next few weeks, things took a turn for the worst.
Not much time passed before he found himself behind bars at the local county jail. He was struggling to see himself as a father after his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter and he was violating protection orders. He couldn’t find a decent paying job, he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. To really weigh him down, his father passed away unexpectedly. The substance abuse turned into a temporary fix for problems that were going to require long term solutions. It’s not always easy to see the consequences of our actions when we’re in the heat of the moment.
I decided to visit him. As I arrived at the justice center I was taken back by the dreary grayness of the structure. The attendant was seated behind a thick glass partition with a circular metal grid and a stainless steel counter. I passed my ID through the sliding tray housed within the counter and a quick confirmation of my identity scored me a ride up to the fourth floor. I wasn’t the only person there to visit with inmates that day. I remember being sad at the number of children and elderly present to visit with family.
The elevator stopped and opened on the opposite side from which I entered. I saw him immediately. He was seated to the left behind another glass partition. I only knew what to do because I’d seen it in movies. Sit down on the stool; grab the phone next to the window. He gave me a half-smile. I hadn’t even thought of what to say to him. It was odd for both of us to be talking this way. I’m glad he spoke first. He thanked me for coming and shared some of his experience while in jail. It was clear things were tough.
I wanted to be better prepared for this situation. Reflecting on it now, I’m not sure that would’ve been possible. This student lived in circumstances that would be considered less than ideal. The pressure under which he was living would cause even the strongest, most well-rounded believer to crumble. I found myself impressed with the way he was talking about recommitting himself to the Lord and figuring out a plan to make things better. Something good was happening, so my job in this situation was to listen. I honestly don’t know what advice I could have given him that day. Should I have condemned him? Chastised him? No way. I told him his family was safe and they were being well taken care of. I passed along some encouragement from his friends. I told him his mom loved him. We prayed together and I left.
It’s one thing to read a story like the one in John 8 when Jesus refuses to condemn a woman caught in adultery. It’s another thing to see something similar play out in real life. This experience had a profound effect on the way I choose to think about those suffering as a result of their own bad choices. My humanness causes me to be quick to judge. However, the situation with this student cued me into the fact that there are different versions of what we perceive as “normal.” No matter how much I may want to I can’t project my religiosity onto others. What I can do is show a person the Lord’s mercy has no bounds. As a leader, I pray the Lord continues to give me opportunities to do for them what He has done for me.
SETH MILLHOAN is a family man from Cincinnati. His wife and three daughters keep him on his toes at all times (wife Michelle adds this more accurately describes how they feel about him). Seth is the Student Minister at a church called LifeSpring Christian Church. Catch up with him at Bloc Coffee Co. this November at NYWC while your exploring the Queen City. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as @QUEENCITYSETH.