Community Bible Church’s Senior Pastor Ruett Foster shared his own story to help the teenagers he sat with at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall open up and talk about their own lives.

And Imam Abuishaq Abdulhafiz, from the Islamic Shura Council, was awestruck by the maturity of the teenage girls housed in the only female unit at the Sylmar detention center.

The religious leaders were part of an interfaith group visiting the facility for the first time on March 19, as part of a series of activities held during March, Juvenile Justice Month of Faith and Healing, an expansion from the week dedicated to raise awareness on juvenile justice in prior years, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice.

Other activities included an “alternative spring break trip” from a group of Loyola Marymount University sophomores to different detention facilities in California, and testimonies shared by formerly incarcerated youth at LMU and Crespi High School in Encino.

“Expanding JJMFH to a month-long event allows us more opportunities to provide cross-over experiences, such as faith leader visits to juvenile hall, or formerly incarcerated young people sharing their stories at places of worship and schools,” Javier Stauring, co-director of the Office of Restorative Justice, told The Tidings.

“It is a transformative experience when people have an opportunity to get to know the youth inside juvenile hall, or listen to the stories of formerly incarcerated youth. What I hear from them over and over again is ‘they remind me of my own kids,’ or ‘he's not that different than me.’” 

Lent is the perfect time “to recognize brokenness and work on healing,” said Cheryl Bonacci, the office’s juvenile ministry program director.

“There are people out there who care about you and help raise awareness of what’s it like walking in your shoes,” Bonacci told a group of incarcerated youth at the Sylmar facility, as she introduced the interfaith clergy.

The facility is the largest of three such institutions in Los Angeles County. It houses more than 700 youth in different units, including one for young women, and three units for youth tried as adults.

“What would you like to share with me that you think I can take and share with other people so they can understand what you are living today?” asked Pastor Foster to two young Latino and one African American men sitting across from him at a steel table in the “day room.”

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said two of the boys, while a third teenager added that he would advise his peers to “be careful who you hang out with.”

One of the teenagers confided that although at the time he committed the crime he was basically solving his needs, during the months of incarceration he has come to the realization that he made a mistake and “I am learning from it.”

But it was not until the pastor shared his own story that the boys started opening up about their own lives and struggles.

“I have two sons,” said the pastor, “but one is 23 and already in heaven.”

More than 10 years ago the pastor lost his oldest son in a gang-rivalry shooting at a park where his wife had taken her two infant boys. The younger survived, but had to go through intensive care, including a cornea transplant that still today affects his vision.

At the next table, a young incarcerated man shared how he always felt like the “norm for kids like me, a typical black kid from Watts, was to end in a juvenile hall.”

“Law doesn’t look at the inside, only God looks inside,” Father Ken Deasy told the teenager, who is being tried as adult.

Then the conversation veered towards how to take advantage of the time spent while incarcerated and preparing for the next step, which could be going home or staying in prison for the rest of their lives.

David Veerman once was in similar situation as the youth, facing life in prison, but he ended up spending just a little more than three years in the Sylmar facility due to good conduct. A year ago he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English from the Jesuit-run Santa Clara University.

“It all depends on the choices you make,” he told a group of LMU sophomores attending a March 25 Punishment and Mercy class. He wanted to belong, he said, and although raised in a healthy family, in high school he befriended with other young men involved in gang activities. One thing led to the other and he ended up in juvenile hall.

He shared how while incarcerated he “tried to be a good person, but the system didn’t allow it,” yet, he was finally released “due to a support group that included my parents, who never missed a visit, Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy (co-chaplain), and a great lawyer,” he said.

At Crespi High School, Rafael Cabrera — in prison for nearly 29 years after committing a murder — told students that when initially sentenced he carried a lot of anger and fell into the prison’s “politics.” But it was the forgiveness granted to him by his victim’s mother that helped him review his life and seek God.

He started remembering his childhood when he attended Church with his mother, he said, and as soon as he could he started corresponding with some priests and Carmelite nuns through a program he found about in prison.

The presentations were eye-openers for the students, most of whom had never been in touch with anyone in the prison system.

“People in prison are demonized, people don’t want to deal with them and so we forget about them, but we don’t realize this has an impact in society, these detention facilities are in our back yard,” said LMU sociology sophomore Anna Engstrom.

“In these places is where we find the new monks and the new ministries,” said Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, Sylmar’s juvenile hall’s co-chaplain. “It’s really not said very much, but it’s in prison where I’ve found the best spiritual writing.”

The religious leaders concurred that what they found inside those walls is a dire need of more faith-based programs and assistance to the underserved neighborhoods.

“As people of faith we are called to help youth find their identities,” said Deacon Grigor Avagian, from the Armenian Church. “These kids are victims of society, and we need to empower them through love. Love conquers.”

A longer version of this story is online: For more information about restorative justice, call (213) 438-4820, (877) 712-1597, or email [email protected].