By The Rev. Terri Stewart, Director of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition

Earlier this month, a youth in juvenile detention experienced one of the most difficult realities incarcerated people face: the death of a loved one. His grief was amplified by his family being overseas, and being a part of a minoritized culture in the US—he is of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim. Of course, his grief is complicated further by COVID-19 preventing spiritual providers from being physically present in detention with youth.

Meeting with incarcerated youth during COVID-19 has been challenging. Three weeks ago, I assembled a coalition of chaplain providers for a fruitful meeting with staff at juvenile detention. We found ways to make immediate changes allowing for greater connectivity between youth and chaplain providers. This meeting was fortuitously timed, as it readied us to provide services to this Muslim youth soon after, and to better allow him to grieve and begin journeying forward in a culturally appropriate way.

Chaplain Robert Blanton, a Muslim Chaplain who has a long history of serving incarcerated men, joined the loose coalition of chaplains that I have been organizing in 2019. I have been trying to get him into juvenile detention for years when he finally relented! Through his gracious education regarding Muslim grieving traditions, we were able to connect the youth with Chaplain Blanton for 1:1 spiritual conversations and coordinate a repast meal for the youth and his hall.  We brought in chicken and beef shawarma as those are culturally appropriate flavors for this particular youth. It was a great joy to join Chaplain Robert and the youth who participated on a zoom call and hear their gratitude. The young man told us that he ate 3 meals as two of our American youth did not care for the flavor of shawarma but he was quite happy to eat all of the food for them! I had worried that the food would not be good enough but when I heard that, I knew it was the right choice.

Without creating the possibility of change in our initial meeting three weeks ago, we would not have been able to provide a presence to our grieving youth. Change in the justice system comes slowly but each success creates the possibility for more success. In this case, it is creating the possibility for culture-centered practices that uplift the unique culture and identity of each young person.

With staff at detention, we are now imaging a way to bring intercultural development and awareness to all the youth by holding space for the sacred and holy days across a variety of religions and practices.

I am grateful for Chaplain Blanton and the staff at juvenile detention who allowed space to be created to meet this youth’s spiritual and emotional needs in a creative and culturally competent way. It is ever a journey forward.


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