If I suddenly became a billionaire one of the first things I would do is set up community and residential programs for youth who are cycling in and out of the juvenile justice system, with an emphasis on catechesis. In my book Keep Your Head Up, Wheaton College professor Vincent Bacote argues that one of the lost transformative resources in the black community is the practice of structured and intentional catechesis. To the surprise of some, the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession Faith provides an extremely helpful framework for what struggling youth need to hear and how they need to hear it.
Here are some facts: In 2010, juvenile courts in the United States handled nearly 1.4 million delinquency cases that involved juveniles charged with criminal law violations. From 1985 through 1997, the number of delinquency cases climbed steadily (61%) then fell 27% from 1997 through 2010. Juvenile courts handled 17% more cases in 2010 than in 1985.
I recently watched a PBS Frontline documentary called "Locked Up In America" that featured the tragic story of America's exploding mass incarceration rates due to failed policies like the "War on Drugs" and our tendency to use jail as a means of handling social problems. In that program, viewers will come across a troubled young woman named Christel who shared this gut-wrenching prayer on the eve of facing yet another run-in with the juvenile court system:
CHRISTEL TRIBBLE: My life’s messed up. I’m in a school full of bad people, full of bad kids. I’m 15, I’m in the court system, and I probably got, like, six charges right now. I’m going to be locked up. And I can’t do it! I have a lot of problems. Life is not perfect. It’s not perfect.
I wrote a prayer. It’s my prayer to God. “I pray to you, God, just please help me. I don’t know who I am anymore. I need your help. I’m tired and I just want some rest. I just want to sleep. I’m just tired, period. I’m ready to give my life up. I am ready die. I want to do it myself. That’s why I need you, so I know where I belong.”
NARRATOR: Three nights before her court hearing, Christel overdoses on pills she stole from her mother.
CHRISTEL TRIBBLE: “I’m a lying, evil, crazy, pathetic problem child. I have nothing to live for, or nothing to become. I’m useless. And I’m so ready to go. And if I shall go to hell, then that’s where I was meant to me. I don’t deserve your love or mercy, or life in general. Just please, I beg you, just help me. Amen.”
ROSE TRIBBLE[Her mother]: When I went in to see Christel, Christel was still laying in the bed. She’s been crying a lot and she’s red around the eyes. So I just sat on the— we both sat on the bed with her, you know, and I just talked to her. I felt bad seeing her in there like that, responsible, sort of like I failed her. And I wanted her to be out, too. [weeps]
After hearing this I thought to myself, "if were speaking to an audience of Christel and her friends what would I tell them and in what order?" Her prayer raises many issues to which we could apply the gospel. Christel believes herself be a disgusting and worthless individual so the first thing I am not going to tell her is that she is totally depraved worm who should be thankful that God has not killed her as an object of wrath. Absolutely not!! No way. Instead, I'm going to follow the order of the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith because Christel needs to hear about the scope of redemption and what salvation is for--what her humanity is for.
I would begin by telling her first what God created her to be and do (Q1). Second, I would tell Christel who God is and how he communicates to us (Q2-16). Third, I'd tell her that she is first and foremost made in the image and likeness of God and is placed in his creation for wonderful reasons (Q17-20). I would probably sit here, especially Q17, for a long, long while given her deep sense of worthlessness. Fourth, I would move on to explaining why her life's so messed up in terms of omission and commission (Q21-29) and how God has covenantally bound himself to free her through the work and person of Christ so that she may experience what it means to be truly human (Q30-61), and so on. The Catechism is not exhaustive by any means but it does provide a dynamic framework to know where to begin.
God's covenantal promises to restore the whole creation, including our humanity, is the structure of hope needed for Christel to know that God is not only interested in redeeming her individual soul, but also her entire family, the whole of her life (relationships, vocations, etc.), her household, her housing project, her neighborhood, her city, the criminal justice system, the family, and so one. Christel needs to hear that God wants her to be a whole person. Throwing TULIP at her situation won't address the holistic redemption of all things that she needs to hear so she can understand that she has cosmic purpose because God wants to use her as a full collaborator in the redemption of all things, right here and right now, in union with Christ. God has a purpose for saving her soul and her body.
Christel doesn't know who she is but the covenant story of redemption not only answers that question but also tells her what salvation is actually for, here and now, if she receives the work and person of Christ by faith.
Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.
Q. 17. How did God create man?
A. After God had made all other creatures, he created man male and female, formed the body of the man of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of the man, endued them with living, reasonable, and immortal souls; made them after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it, and dominion over the creatures; yet subject to fall.
(Hmm, in fact, we could use the same approach for programs with adults.)