They're not thugs...they're Jesus.

May 6th, 2015

These young men in the streets…

They’re thugs, people say.

They’re senseless and scary, people say.

They’re tearing everything down, people say.

These past days, I have been watching Baltimore and the unrest on the streets there. I’ve been moved by the words of Baltimore natives David Simon and Ta-Nehisi Coates who have narrated in interviews and articles the long history there — as in our nation — of mistreatment and failed policies, of brutality and prejudice and of the despair and disaffection of entire generations of young men on the streets. And I’ve heard how these angry young men are described by elected officials and pundits, and by casual observers a thousand miles away.

They’re thugs, people say.

They should be locked up, people say.

For my entire adult life, I have been working with young men in the juvenile justice system. I am the CEO of a faith based nonprofit called Houston: reVision that connects adults who are members of faith communities with disaffected young people who are system involved. reVision has 240 volunteers who work with more than 300 young people. I have spent countless thousands of hours talking with young men in detention centers, juvenile placement facilities, treatment centers, jails and prisons. Today I spent some time with Samuel, whose story is prototypical of these young men.

Samuel is 15 years old today. His mother is a prostitute. He doesn’t know his father…has never met him. Samuel spent the early part of his life in a revolving door, living with aunts, uncles, family friends and his mom’s boyfriends. He never felt safe. He never felt loved.

Samuel liked school, and did well in his studies. But the older he got, the harder he found it to act like the other kids in school. Some nights Samuel didn’t sleep in a bed or even in a home, so he wasn’t able to take a shower or put on clean clothes. Some days Samuel didn’t get anything to eat so he went to school hungry and irritable. Since his mom was not staying in the same place every night, some mornings Samuel couldn’t get to school at all.

Samuel started getting suspended from school in fifth grade. He wasn’t like all the other kids, and the school definitely took notice. Getting suspended put Samuel even further behind in his classes, and it made him feel like the school didn’t want him. Since his mom didn’t want him either, Samuel began to give up on himself.

So Samuel started hanging out with some older guys on the street, doing the same things they were doing because they showed him acceptance and encouragement, which he had found in short supply up to that point. They smoked, they drank, they fought, they stole stuff…and so did Samuel. Nobody noticed. Nobody asked Samuel to stop doing these things. Samuel was waiting for someone to care, but nobody showed up.

At age 12, Samuel was locked up for the first time for shoplifting from a corner store. Normally such a thing wouldn’t get a person locked up the first time, but Samuel’s mother didn’t answer the phone and didn’t come pick him up. So the judge sent Samuel to a juvenile placement facility, where he stayed for six months and met a lot of kids older than him, who had done worse things than him, and who challenged Samuel to join them.

When Samuel went back to school, all the teachers and students talked about him as the kid who just came from juvie. They asked him what it was like. They marveled at his ability to survive it. But what Samuel heard when people asked him questions was judgment…disdain…fear. Samuel was now different than everyone else. He was the bad kid. Samuel had become a thug.

Samuel has now been locked up two more times, not for new offenses but for technical violations of his probation. He has spent the past two Christmases and birthdays behind bars, away from everyone he knows, and apart from anyone who might care about him. He knows how to do time. But he feels all alone. He believes to his core that nobody cares about him. He hoped for visits from his family or friends. Nobody showed up.

Samuel got out of detention for the third time a couple of weeks ago. He’s back in school — in the eighth grade — but again people are asking him questions about juvie and paying too much attention to his past. He’s two years behind the other kids in his grade, and he feels lost in his classes. He can’t see how he can possibly graduate from high school since he’s not even there yet. He doesn’t know where he will be sleeping tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Samuel feels today like a boat cut from its anchor, spinning wilding in an ever more turbulent sea.

In Matthew 25:36, Jesus invites us to enter the kingdom of God because:

 “I was hungry and you fed me.

  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

  I was homeless and you gave me a room,

  I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

  I was sick and you stopped to visit,

  I was in prison and you came to me.”

Samuel is not a thug. He is Jesus. He is hungry and thirsty. He is homeless and shivering. Samuel is in prison. Samuel needs you.

We as Christians are called into relationship with these young men, to embrace them rather than reject them, and to go to them wherever they are, whether that is in Baltimore or in our own community. We have to be the ones who show up. We have to be the ones who care.

Every community has a juvenile probation department, and every juvenile probation department is looking for volunteers to visit young men. They are waiting for you. So is Samuel.

Jesus is already there.

Charles Rotramel discusses topics like this on his podcast, Reclaimed: Dialogues on Justice and Kinship, at


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