On Holy Thursday, 12 incarcerated minors at Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall had their feet washed by 12 Jesuit novices and the Jesuit Master of Novices — just as Pope Francis washed the feet of detainees at Casal del Marmo, a juvenile detention center in Rome. The juveniles wrote letters to the pope, praising him for his action. May 4 was a regular day until I started opening my mail. I noticed an envelope with the Vatican insignia printed on its back. I opened it and there was the papal seal embossed and in small letters “Francis.”When I read the letter from the pope, many feelings flowed through me. The letter only made sense to me in terms of previous choices I had made in my life: someone who has worked with immigrants and refugees; someone who has done what many labeled as “civil disobedience” after the killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989.I thought of what Dorothy Day said when working at the margins: “To work with the poor is a harsh and dreadful love.” Most of the time it feels like you are losing. Being at the margins brings its own isolation.It really is a paradox in the sense that when one finds God in the darkest places, God reveals himself most deeply and personally. And yet, many times working with the poor and people in prison — i.e. like those whose feet the pope washed on Holy Thursday — it is hard not to question “Why?” Why did the pope wash the feet of criminals? Why, with all the ornate churches in Rome, would the pope choose to be with youth who are considered outcasts? Usually, this population is looked upon as worthless, “basura,” garbage. The pope’s kneeling down and washing a young criminal’s feet is a powerful gesture that this is a privileged place. This is where God is present, more than the churches where the best baroque art and golden carvings are stored.In his letter to us, Pope Francis spoke of how the washing of feet we did at Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall was connected to his foot-washing on Holy Thursday in Rome. Here the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, in a simple letter, affirmed that the choice to kneel down with a population that society has neglected is where we find God’s presence.With his gesture, he points to where we should serve. Rather than running away from those who are not healthy, we should run toward those who need healing.The paradox is that many times when I am in this place of those at the margins, there seldom seems to be such a strong positive hierarchical affirmation from the institutional Church. During the last 30 years in Los Angeles, when I think of the times some of us in the Sanctuary Movement found ourselves at odds with the INS and other government agencies, an affirmation like this from the pope would have done wonders. I wonder how Father Luis Olivares, who was pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church (La Placita) in downtown Los Angeles, would have reacted to a letter from the pope at a time when he was receiving death threats from the escuadrones de la muerte (death squads) in 1989.On the night I received the letter from the pope, I made copies that I handed to the juveniles in prison. When they read it, their first reaction was of silent disbelief. Then they started sharing how “it seems like this pope wants to give us a second chance just like those who love us. They know that we are not bad, but we have made bad decisions.”Another said, “I’m glad that you took the time out of your busy schedule to respond to us. It means a lot to know someone like you cares.”Luis, the only 18-year-old in the group, wrote how the pope’s letter “made my faith grow stronger and motivated me on doing my confirmation. I am ready to be a warrior of light and finding my way closer to God. We were spiritually connected on Holy Thursday, and through your prayers our Lord Jesus bonded us with his love and affection.”I realize a letter will not change the day-to-day workings of being in marginalized places, but it is a small sign of affirmation from the man at the head of our Church. It embodies the Gospel’s message of forgiveness and healing, and it affirms that this is where God truly is.I doubt if I will ever receive another letter from a pope, but for this moment in our work with incarcerated juveniles, this letter was a tremendous consolation not just for us at Sylmar, but to all those who bring God’s unconditional love to those on the margins. It was such a concrete positive sign that those in prison, those who are outcasts, those who are on the margins, are truly God’s beloved. Jesuit Father Mike Kennedy is the co-chaplain at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar and the founder of the Culver City-based Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes spiritual healing for victims, offenders and their families through Ignatian spirituality, and seeks changes of laws that affect juveniles in prison. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0517/letterpope/{/gallery}