Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cheetos and Bible

We sat in Justin’s car devouring delicious chocolate chip cookies and sipping sweet mint lemonade. Justin had bought us a mid-afternoon snack on our way to the Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Houston. Justin loves to drive his interns around the city, definitely because he is the only one adept enough with Houston traffic to navigate the streets, but also because he wants to raise as us as ‘community doctors’ who know the area in they live and practice. He chauffeurs us, feeds us delectable goodies, mentors us about the ins and outs of ministry. Justin is not just wise; he is hospitable, on a scale rarely seen in American Christians. Hospitality is something you feel around him. It is one of his spiritual gifts. He makes you feel at home.

The three of us, Justin, another Duke Divinity intern named Michelle, and myself were on our way to make a pastoral visit in the Detention Center. Justin debriefed us in the car. The young man we were to about to meet, who for now we may call Adam, was 16-years-young and a member of a gang in one of the hoods of Houston. Justin did not know Adam’s crime, but he had been told that Adam was ‘certified.’ Certification is reserved for child offenders of violent crimes. When the district judge places an adolescent in detention and ‘certifies’ them, it means that the youth may be charged as an adult when their court date finally arrives. Until then, they are kids in cages waiting in the Detention Center for their big day in court, hoping beyond hope for months on end, dreading and praying for the one day that will decide their fate. We in the church just hope that the judge will not hammer the last nail in that child’s childhood. I guess we were going to visit Adam that day to hope alongside him.

Gangs organize in the parts of Houston that are most forgotten. They surround our youth with alternative communities of second identity and brotherly support. They are a family in places where ‘family’ is a jaded word, harkening to memories of fathers long gone and siblings shot dead in the streets. Adam is a young man with a sickeningly familiar story. Crime is the pastime of his adopted family, an outlet for their anger toward a world that has abandoned them, a way for them to say, “we’re still here.”

Justin parked his car outside the Detention Center and we climbed the steps toward the front door (what if we practiced justice in the small places rather than the high places?). We walked through the metal detector and checked in at the visitors’ desk. We passed through the doors leading to the visitation rooms, which are small enclosed spaces with plastic, dull-edged table and chairs, with windows for walls so that the security guards can supervise the visitors and the visited. This was my first time in any type of prison, much less a jail for the young. I remember feeling uncomfortable with how sterile and colorless everything was. Life does not thrive in places like this. It suffocates.

Now, before we entered our designated visitation room, Justin stopped at a vending machine and bought our new friend some spicy Cheetos. I guess Justin figured that some small change could buy Adam a few minutes worth of respite from the rest of his gloomy world. Justin carried something else with him into the visitation room: a Bible printed in Spanish. Oh, did I forget to mention? Our friend is a member of a Hispanic gang and requested that we bring a Bible to him.

The guards brought Adam into the small room and I instantly thought, ‘what a nice kid!’ He shook our hands and greeted us with ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ He was timid at first, probably wondering why two white people and a black pastor were the ones visiting him today. But soon, thanks to Justin’s never failing ability to make you feel at home, Adam opened up to us and shared more about himself. This was his fifth time in prison (remember: he is sixteen). He was arrested for armed robbery. He does not want his younger brother to make the same mistakes he has. He loves the Bible. He even pressed me about my Bible courses at Duke. I shared with him some bits of wisdom from Romans and James and he ate it up. He even asked us, ‘what wisdom do you have for me today?’ We left that one up to Justin.

He munched on his spicy Cheetos and gleefully opened his new Bible. As our time together drew to an end, I realized that these two gifts served as tangible pieces of hope for Adam. He was a young man finding himself in the world, discovering the possibility of a new life outside of a gang mentality, and all he needed was to get out of this miserable place to start anew. Cheetos and Bible. That is all Adam needed to have hope for the rest of the day. And maybe, just maybe, he needed us to hang out with him, too.

Jesus obligates us to five tasks lest we stand in shame before Him. We are called to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. Certainly a common theme in these Kingdom agendas is love. Jesus bids us to love those without love and those who cannot love us in return.

But another oft-neglected theme in Jesus’ commandments is hospitality. Jesus welcomed the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the forgotten. He even invited them to dinner. And when the poor felt too ashamed to enter the King’s household, he sent messengers out to the people and met them where they were. He opened his arms wide and hugged the untouchable. He created spaces of hospitality that transcended our sinful markers of stigma and class. Jesus knew that genuine love requires radical hospitality. Indeed, to love the stranger and the prisoner is to practice the art of hospitality. Jesus the Savior is also the Master Host: He teaches us how to invite the poor and forgotten into spaces of love so that the soul might feel its worth.

As much as hospitality is about love, it is also about hope. Indeed, hospitality is the servant of hope. When Jesus was suffering on the cross, He strained his neck and looked over his shoulder to the one suffering beside him and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even on the cross Jesus practices hospitality. With outstretched arms He welcomed the man beside him into the beautiful beyond. But this time, Jesus the Host offers the crucified a taste of hope. His warm word of welcome was a message of hope to the dying in despair. Hospitality given to the sick, the dying, and the prisoner is a gift of hope that brightens their darkness. Hospitality creates spaces of hope away from the dark shadows. When we lay a table for the forgotten and welcome them without price, we invite them into spaces where they are free from darkness and free to hope.

For Adam, spicy Cheetos and a new Bible were enough hope for him. Justin knew that simple gifts, things like cookies and lemonade and even snacks out of the vending machine, can set a table that Jesus is pleased to host.

Just as we were leaving the table and wishing Adam well, the security guards who were keeping watch outside confiscated Adam’s new Bible because it had not passed through the appropriate channels for gifts to prisoners. I almost drowned in the horrid irony. The guards were forbidding the new Bible because it was potentially dangerous material. I knew the guards were doing their jobs, and I knew that Adam knew that, too. Still, I watched evil strike in front of my very eyes.

Evil wants to stop hospitality at all costs. When our hospitality to the oppressed and forgotten is extinguished, the evil in this world grows a little stronger and holds a little tighter onto the hearts that need hope the most. But when a welcome embrace finds eager arms, if a simple gift meets thankful hands, if the poor and the prisoner feel the love of the visitor, then hope bursts forth into this broken world and offers us a taste of God’s dream from creation. Discipleship means nothing less than setting tables that Jesus would be pleased to host. Let hope follow our love, and our love reflect the inviting heart of God.