Reimagining Your Youth and the Law

Posted by: DVULI | March 22, 2021

DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative

By Cynthia McGee Burton (San Diego 1999)

My husband and I served in youth ministry for over 35 years. In our home, we raised our three African American boys with specific expectations of living as Christians. My youngest son compromised his Christian values as a juvenile, which led to his arrest and incarceration until after his 18th birthday. It devastated me that he had become a part of the “system,” and I wondered what I could have done to prevent my son from going through this experience. I began to question what my son’s relationship with the police would look like for the rest of his life, and from a youth minister’s perspective, I thought about how I could help prevent other youth from making the same mistake. 

I considered the cognitive maturity and spiritual conviction of my son, who understood the depth of what it meant to break God’s law and man’s law. He knew there could be an eternal consequence through God’s judgment in addition to the loss of freedom he would face in the court of law. I pondered Romans 13:2, which says, “Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (ESV).

I asked my son, “What did you fear most after breaking the law?” He said, “The police.” I took comfort in knowing that he would ask God for forgiveness and be restored to a relationship with Him. What was unsettling was realizing that a negative record would follow him for years once he was in the system. I also feared that if his term was extended past the age of 18, he could be transferred to an adult facility and be in danger of losing his life.

It’s unfortunate, but some of the youth we serve in urban ministries are subject to the same misconduct as my son. Expecting youth to manage a spiritual relationship with God while managing a human experience in a society that’s rapidly losing its moral fiber is more difficult than ever. When we consider the uprise of racial injustice and civil unrest, it’s impossible to think our youth could engage in a meaningful relationship with the police. The occurrences in the past year have beamed a bright light on the critical need for strengthening police relations with youth within our urban communities.

I applaud the youth ministries who have been able to form partnerships with the police. They have opened the door for law enforcement to volunteer at events held at churches or in communities. As a result, some of the officers have come to know youth by name and their association to social groups (positive and negative), sports teams, and churches.

Regretfully, there are other ministries in communities of poverty that are not as fortunate. There may be a relationship with those in blue, but it can be rather questionable, especially when the police walk away from youth groups to patrol the neighborhoods. We’ve seen it play out when an officer knows a youth but will confront them on the street in such a harsh manner that it’s as if the healthy relationship never existed.

In reaction to my son’s arrest, I put more thought into community-based relationships and accountability systems. I have concluded there needs to be more dialog between our church-going youth and police. However, I believe law enforcement should also be proactive in building these relationships with urban youth ministries. The unwanted relationships that youth fall into with police should not be the most pervasive. If a school can have an assigned “resource officer,” why can’t a church or ministry have a “faith officer” scheduled to be on site?

Let’s reimagine youth ministry’s work to promote police and our youth in healthy relationships. Imagine a volunteer (or retired) police officer at your church teaching juvenile law or other principles centered around personal choice and its pros and cons. This could help to reduce young first-time offenders. The program might also include ride-a-longs, juvenile court hearings, court school visitations, and awareness of Christian counseling and restitution services. In addition to that, restorative practices (a social science practice to strengthen community relationships and prevent hurt or harm) and restorative justice (a restorative approach between the victim and the offender) can promote positive relationships with peers, adults, and law enforcement.

Reflecting on my many years in youth ministry, I missed opportunities for my son and many others who might have benefited from reimagining urban youth ministry, particularly in building sustainable relationships with local law enforcement. Youth ministry success is too often measured exclusively by the number of young people who come to accept Christ or by the number of students who attend weekly services or camps. We know the Bible is filled with teaching and guidance about the distinction between right and wrong, and we do a great job of preaching it. I happen to believe there is another level of enhancing and measuring the youth ministry experience, even if it means building the right relationships with the ones we may deem adversarial in our urban communities.