Unlikely – The Sequel

by DanWolgemuth on October 27, 2017

It was a week ago that I confessed openly the unlikeliness of my being on the platform at Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem, New York for a panel discussion on the mass incarceration of youth. http://www.yfc.net/friday-fragments/unlikely

So here’s what happened. An amazing spontaneous unanimous standing ovation happened. In fact, over the 24-hour conference, this standing ovation was the only unanimous standing ovation. But that’s really not the full story.

I was halfway through my time allocation for the 25-minute panel discussion. The countdown clock in front of me was unrelenting and absolutely clear. Ruben Austria and Daniel Sanabria sat beside me, the capable recipients of the questions I pointed their way. Both men have remarkable and beautiful stories. Both men are engaged with juveniles in the criminal justice system. Ruben has been involved for 19 years and now leads his own non-profit. Community Connections for Youth thoughtfully connects with juvenile offenders when they first enter the system. The mission of Ruben’s organization is to mobilize indigenous faith and neighborhood organizations to develop effective community-based alternative-to-incarceration programs for youth.

Daniel is our Youth For Christ Executive Director in New York City. Our mission in NYC is to relationally connect with young people in the juvenile justice system to effectively and authentically share the love, grace and hope of Jesus. We journey with these young people in and out of the incarceration process with a vision for transformation through the message of Christ.

And then me… unlikely, but available.

The first 15 minutes were filled with compelling and staggering data. We had fully engaged the minds of most of the folks in the room, but then, at the halfway point I turned to Ruben and asked him to share a story about a young person that was a part of the system. Ruben was ready. His words poured from his heart. He talked deeply and personally about Nicholas. A young man without a criminal past, but trapped in a desperate personal situation that propelled him into the streets. Ruben talked about this young man with tenderness and clarity. In and out of the system twice. A young man who Ruben had personally advocated for. A young man for whom incarceration would have been a tragic death sentence. Without being gratuitous in his detail, Ruben told us enough. And then… he paused. Slowly and quietly he said, “I asked Nicholas for permission to share his story today, in fact, he’s sitting to my right.”

A moment later Nicholas rose from his front row seat. Tentatively he straightened in a room full of strangers… except for Ruben.

In an instant the crowd rose to their feet. Thoughtful applause escalated. Nicholas twisted his head back and forth to fully capture the picture. Applause persisted. Tears swelled in my eyes.

Unlikely. A young man. Trapped but not abandoned. Guilty but not hopeless.

A room, 1000 strong, all on their feet applauding the beauty of grace. Applauding the power of transformation. Applauding a vision of hope.

“I was in prison and you visited me…” Jesus.

While we stood to our feet for a young man in the front row of Bethel Gospel Assembly, we rose to our feet for Jesus. The liberator.

As the applause faded, and the witnesses to mercy returned to their seats… I looked straight into the eyes of Nicholas. I spoke the words of Ephesians 2 over his life.

  • “We were dead in our sin.” – I told Nicholas that this applied to everyone sitting in the room.
  • “But God who is rich in mercy, loved us, even while we were dead.” – each of us, rescued by God.
  • And “we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” – A masterpiece. Not expendable, but precious.

Unlikely. The sequel.

Redeemed. Applauded.

A standing ovation.

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