by DanWolgemuth on October 9, 2020

It was in May of 2019 that my heart was moved beyond expectation. A heart tattooed. Marked indelibly by an experience in juvenile detention. An experience with Jesus. Now, roughly eighteen months later… I still wake in the middle of the night and think about KB. I wonder. I ache. I pray. The story of that first encounter follows…

I completely underestimated what would happen in 26 hours of incarceration. I invited this. At an important level, I wanted this. I just didn’t know what would happen.

Most specifically, KB happened.

I was clothed in the same clothes, but I was decades apart, more specifically, I was a lifetime apart. Perhaps that’s why my heart was pounding like a college senior going to his first post-graduation job interview.

I walked into the “pod” with a group of complete strangers. I was there to immerse myself in the deep end of life for the 13 to 18 year olds in juvenile detention. Nineteen of them. This wasn’t about sleeping on the same slab of concrete, or hearing the sound of prison doors locking shut, or choking down the same dreadful food. This was about the 19 faces that occupied the cells on BPod.

Immediately my eyes raced to a table of two young men. Boys. If I grabbed a seat quickly, I could avoid awkwardly walking around the room. So, I grabbed, quickly.

Thirteen years old. Yet I knew well that the experiential odometer on these two young men had progressed at an outrageous rate. They were growing up much too quickly.

To my complete surprise, they seemed to welcome me without hesitation. No fanfare, mind you, but no overt resistance either.

I tried to be stealth. To act like I belonged there. Like I was just hanging with these guys… right? After a short while I pressed in with questions. Fortunately, they didn’t push back. Talk about neighborhoods and families began to build a conversational bridge. It was KB who entered in most naturally. He spoke about his Dad and his Mom. Two adults living disconnected lives, but very intertwined inside KB. His Dad had celebrated a birthday last week, and his Mom would celebrate hers on Sunday. The transparency of KB’s angst over missing both celebrations was evident. Painful.

Then, in the most natural of ways KB looked at me and said, “I have a Grandpa. I call him Papa Leroy.” Then a reflective moment… and the fruit of his thought emerged, “You remind me of my Papa Leroy.” A smile oozed across his face as the words floated to my ears, “That’s a good thing.” KB reassured me. “A really good thing.”

I wasn’t sure how something this profound could have happened this quickly, but I whispered a prayer of gratitude. Why would I ever doubt what the Holy Spirit could do in a moment? In that moment.

For the next day, KB opened his heart and life to me. Not in what he said to me, but in how he treated me. In the six times of group interaction, each lasting about an hour, KB had a vacant seat at his side… for me. I couldn’t understand it, but I relished it. Deeply.

Picture it. A 13-year-old African American young man, with a 64-year-old white guy at his side, among his peers, by choice. Like I said, only the Holy Spirit.

From time to time KB would smile at me and whisper something about Papa Leroy. I loved it. I think he loved it too.

During a time of casual and candid interaction with a smaller group of young men, I noticed that KB had pulled his chair to the side, and more specifically, he had pointed it away from the group. On a quick glance in his direction, I watched as he used his thumbs like squeegees across his cheeks. It was invisible to his peers, but painfully clear to me. Real tears. Remorse filled, resolve inducing tears. I never asked, but I knew.

In one day, God knit KB to my heart. More accurately, He tattooed him there. That bright and beautiful face. Those thoughtful and winsome exchanges. That authentic and unvarnished pain. Marked indelibly on my heart.

In the closing hour of our time together, we pressed into the words of Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding.”

“Was God trustworthy?” Without a moment of hesitation, KB responded, “He’s trustworthy. I just read in the Bible I’m borrowing that He created everything.”

Trustworthy. Powerful. Beautiful. God. Even in juvenile detention.

As my time in detention wound to a close, I looked back into the face of the young man who had captured my heart. “KB, do I still remind you of your Papa Leroy?”

There was a thoughtful and appropriate delay in his response. And then with words that I will never forget, he said… “No, you are my Papa Leroy.”

“I was in prison and you came to me…”

Papa Leroy.

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