LA Times Magazine

January 2, 2022

Being a Roman Catholic priest is tough enough. But priests and nuns who devote their lives to work in detention ministry have selected a heavier cross to carry.

Hopelessness haunts the incarcerated and their families, not as a passing emotion but as a life sentence. Guilt and shame gnaw at the souls of parents. Faith becomes a light for some, a lost cause for the rest.

Father Michael Kennedy, pastor of Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles, oversees a parish of low-income, predominantly Latino families living and praying in the midst of drug violence and gang warfare. Those lured by gangs usually pay the price, losing their lives or their freedom.

In fact, prison has affected so many families at the church that Kennedy often spends three or four nights a week at Central Juvenile Hall ministering to young offenders who were once members of his congregation. So many parents at the church have children in prison that Kennedy began a monthly support group for mothers of incarcerated youths.

In his new book, “Eyes on the Cross: A Guide for Contemplation,” Kennedy offers a poignant and powerful look inside the souls of incarcerated youths as they face the consequences of their actions and struggle to find comfort in God. The book is Kennedy’s second, and uses the same method employed in his first book, “Eyes on Jesus: A Guide for Contemplation.”

The book is essentially a series of short stories or scenes recalled from Kennedy’s real-life experiences ministering to youths in juvenile hall. Each story is followed by a passage from the Bible relating the experience to a scene from the   Scriptures.  After that, there is a poetic meditation written by Kennedy. Using dialogue in which Jesus talks with the writer, the meditations are designed to bring the Gospels to life. Each chapter ends with reflection questions on the theme. This type of prayer is based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

In the introduction, Kennedy explains that while listening to some of these young people speak he is “able to travel back through time to a certain hill where a mother stood with her criminal son.” He says the book can function as either a tool for group meditation or a guide for individual reflection.

Several stories focus on desperation and loneliness inside the prison system. In the chapter “Cure of Sarah,” Kennedy recounts spending Christmas with young men at juvenile hall and inviting them to pray out loud the names of their wives and children. “Suddenly the chapel seems full of laughing children and loving wives. God does not want us to be isolated, alone and separated. Never,” Kennedy writes.

Other chapters are more frustrating. In “Trial,” Kennedy recalls attending the sentencing of a young man who accidentally shot his best friend in the head. The judge handed Jose the severest sentence, 39 years, then turned to his mother, Camila, and berated her with: “Where were you during those years? What kind of mother have you been?”

Kennedy writes: “The judge gave out two life sentences that afternoon, one to Jose and the other to his mother. If that judge only knew what he had done that afternoon to both of them. What hope do they have now?”

But there are also glimmers of hope. In “Impossible,” a youth named Marlon, charged with armed robbery, is transformed by Kennedy’s visits. He had taken a sentencing deal for nine years, but after Kennedy spoke on his behalf the sentence was cut to five years, something that rarely happens. Marlon served his time and received a full scholarship to Santa Clara University. He is now a youth minister at Dolores Mission Church, working with Kennedy.

Interlaced with illustrations by Bernardo Gantier Zelada, the book offers a captivating and personal portrait for those intrigued about Los Angeles youths and the juvenile justice system. Even so, a warning is in order. While readers interested in meditation and deepening their Christian faith may enjoy the poetic ruminations, others might find them repetitive and overbearing.

For those who work or volunteer in detention ministry, the book can serve as a useful guide for breaking the emotional barriers built by young inmates. But the true beauty of the book is that it provides something for each part of us: the harsh realities of the streets, the beauty and relevance of Scripture, contemporary poetry, and points to reflect on.

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