Bible Behind Bars: Locked-up youths often turn to God


St. Paul Pioneer Press; July 17, 1997©

Mauricio doesn’t think God’s ignoring him. But after a week behind bars and a court date the next afternoon, he’s anxious for an answer to his prayers.

So as 11 other teen-agers shuffle from a classroom at the Ramsey County juvenile detention center, Mauricio stays behind, hoping the seminary student who led the night’s Bible study session can tell him what God hasn’t.

“They want me to plead guilty,” Mauricio, 17, says as his face turns red, tears touching his round cheeks.

“If I take the deal, they’ll keep me here maybe nine or 10 months,” he says. “But I didn’t do what they think I did, and I don’t want to plead guilty to something I didn’t do. I mean, that would be like a lie, right? I know I didn’t do nothing. But if I don’t plead guilty, they’ll try to take me to court as an adult. They’re talking about eight or nine years in prison.”

Seminary studies haven’t prepared Naa-Abashie Mensah for this particular problem. She thinks for a moment, then reaches for Mauricio’s hand.

“The Bible tells us the truth will set you free,” she tells Mauricio. “And there are many people in jail who told the truth, but they’re free on the inside. Your body may be imprisoned, but if you trust in God, your spirit is free.”

Mauricio’s brow curls slightly as he listens. The words haven’t solved his puzzle: What should he do?

“We can pray for you and ask God to guide you, but it all comes back to you and the choices you can make,” Mensah says. “Either way, you’re going to need a miracle.”

Not every locked-up teen-ager goes to Bible study to find miracles. Some want to focus on something positive and upbeat during an otherwise depressing ordeal. Others want God’s forgiveness for their sins on the street. Some merely welcome the diversion — any change in the routine behind bars — and a few simply like talking to someone they trust. Most, though, see God as an avenue of hope at a time when they can’t afford another wrong turn.

Like some of these kids, 15-year-old Christine grew up with God, but a lot has happened to her since she left East St. Paul Lutheran School.

Crank became a daily mission, pulling her away from school, church, friends and family. Christine’s mom tried cleansing her of the addiction through church and treatment centers. When that didn’t work, her parents stuffed all her clothes into trash bags, put them on the porch and kicked Christine out of the house. When she snuck back in to take a shower, her parents called police and had her arrested for assault and drug possession.

Now, behind bars, she goes to Bible study and Sunday morning services, placing all the faith and trust she has left in God’s hands.

“I always learned that God would forgive you of everything bad that you did,” Christine says quietly, her eyes rimmed with red. “It’s like God is seeing past all the bad things and giving me another chance.”

Christine keeps three bibles in her small cell. One came from Sunday school and her grandfather gave her another when she was Baptized. Her “Adventure Bible,” though, is her favorite, resting on the nightstand next to her bed.

“I don’t like it here at all, but I focus better in here. I read the Bible every day, and I honestly wouldn’t go to Bible study if I were outside. There are too many distractions,” she says. “But now, I think about what my purpose in life is. Is it to be here? Is it to be a druggie? I don’t know yet. But when I don’t have hope in anything else, God gives me hope.”

Christine’s outlook has inspired 14-year-old Kristen, two cells away, to make a habit of the midweek Bible study.

“I pray to God to help me get out of here and to change my attitude toward life, because it sucks right now,” says Kristen, whose says her mom, just like Christine’s, booted her from the house and filed her as a runaway.

“It’s so boring in my room,” she says of her other motivation for going to the Tuesday and Thursday night Bible study sessions.

“I don’t know if God will help me,” she says, “but I can’t think of anything else that will.”

Like many here, 16-year-old Jarmel goes to Bible study more to socialize than spiritualize. Still, since attending Bible study, he’s speaks more openly with his family. At the very least, he can now tell anyone the story of Cain and Able.

“I ain’t got nothing to do on Sunday, anyway,” Jarmel says. “Might as well go to church and learn something.”

That indifference doesn’t bother Roger Koskinen, who has fostered all levels of faith during 20 years as a chaplain in youth detention centers throughout the Twin Cities.

Working exclusively with people behind the bars, Koskinen gives inmates a Bible called “Free on the Inside,” which couples scripture with stories from inmates who have made life changes through spiritual faith.

“Sometimes I’m there to listen and sometimes I’m there to comfort. But in some small way, and sometimes in a very direct way, I try to give hope,” Koskinen says. “And I know there’s hope, because I’ve seen it.”

Kids in the lock-up come to Koskinen as if walking through revolving doors of redemption. Faces often become a blur, but the stories are startlingly similar, he says.

These teens generally want immediate results from their prayers, Koskinen says, and often have trouble accepting the concept of faith as a long-term investment, not as a quick-fix. Still, he adds, they’re often more inspired — possibly from senses of fear or urgency — to consider religion, for lack of other options, that could pry them from the lifestyles that led them behind bars.

Koskinen regularly hears from people he first met as locked-up teen-agers, many now clean, responsible adults. Others, Koskinen says, don’t have the discipline to carry their newfound faith to their lives on the outside. Some, he’s sad to say, died before changing their lifestyles.

“Twenty years ago, the worst offense (for a teen-ager) was maybe auto theft. But even though the kids are hardened and the circumstances of why they’re here are different, the heart of a teen-ager is still the same,” Koskinen says.

“Kids are still looking for the same basics they always have — love, care, understanding — and they’re at an age where they can still make changes. I try to impress upon them that they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them, that it’s not too late to make dramatic changes.”

Mauricio, the 17-year-old who stayed late in this night’s Bible study, is typical of the teens Koskinen comes to know more personally.

“I gotta have faith, a lot of faith, because if I don’t go straight, I’ll go where I don’t want to be,” Mauricio says, pointing to the floor.

For the moment, though, state prison is a much more tangible hell. So Mauricio continues asking God for an answer to the only question that matters to him: Should I plead “guilty,” do easy time and live with my conscience, or should I plead “not guilty” and leave my fate in God’s hands?

The night before his hearing, long after the lights go out, Mauricio sits on his bed, hands clasped, eyes closed, and whispers his desperate prayers. He wonders: Is God listening? Maybe, in his heart, he already knows the answer. Mauricio begins crying, wondering if he’s making the right choice.

In court the next afternoon, despite his attorney’s advice, Mauricio pleads “not guilty.” The judge transfers Mauricio to the Ramsey County jail, and he spends the next three weeks there before the district attorney offers another deal. For Mauricio’s testimony, all charges against him are dismissed.

Now living with his girlfriend, Mauricio believes God set him free.

“If I didn’t have God, I don’t know if I would have made it. Now I have to pay Him back by getting my life straight,” he says. “Going to church won’t bring me to heaven. Doing what I’m supposed to do will bring me there.”