If you saw the boys from Alton House*, perhaps out on a day pass, you would simply categorize them as "teenage boys" and move along. You wouldn't know that, by virtue of living in Alton House, they are all juvenile sex offenders. Alton House held the rapists and pedophiles. Residential care, an ironic name. It broke my heart to learn that these labels were being applied to boys age 12-17. Many of them had been sexually abused themselves. The fact that they were in residential care pointed to some hope, some belief that they can be rehabilitated.
I got to know some of these boys during the year I worked in residential care, incidentally my senior year of college. In some instances there were just 4 years between us. I worked at Horizon House with a group of juvenile delinquent female teenagers. They could make or break your day in a span of 5 seconds. Each day was unique. I might supervise school in the morning for those whose behaviors had not earned the right to attend public school. By afternoon, I might have meted out punishment- negative points- or called staff assist if someone was particularly unruly. On good days we might tend to the garden outside or play a game. We housed runaways, substance abusers, cutters, the depressed, the suicidal, the sexually promiscuous, the bullies. The abused, the raped, the downtrodden. I would read their files and think, no wonder they've turned out this way. Then pray that it was not too late.
A silent cheer of victory when one of my girls finally used the anger management tool I developed for her...and realized that it worked! Encouraging words when a girl would reach Silver or Gold status, another step closer to returning home. Hearing, in their own words, their life story, what reasons they attributed for their stay in residential care and their fervent desire to change. This made everything worthwhile.
Part of working at our residential care complex was helping out at the other cottages. This is how I came to know the Alton House boys. I admit I was nervous the first time I headed there to cover a staff member's absence for an hour. While I could logically point to the factors that may have influenced their crimes, I was still a 21 year old college girl. Even though other staff were always around, I went in feeling more vulnerable than I did at the other houses.
But then, these were just boys. Regular teenage boys. We played games, we watched tv, sometimes we chatted. They seemed so normal. They were so normal, trying to break cycles of abuse, trying to understand their behaviors and preventing them from happening again.
One night I headed back to Horizon House after a few hours covering at Alton, only to hear "Staff Assist Alton" come across my radio. I ran back over, wondering what could have changed during my few minute walk since I'd been there. One of the boys that I'd joked with earlier and helped with his homework had tried to kill himself once Alton House had gone lights out. Blood everywhere in his room because of a pen cap he had honed into his instrument of choice. Even though we monitored what went in and out of rooms, it was often pen caps, pop tabs, paperclips. So easy to sneak in when they were determined. This boy's pain jolted me. Did he fear he would never change? Did he not have hope? Did he feel damned? I never learned the answers to those questions, as he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, but it haunted me. Had I missed something? What if I had said the right words, would he have shared his plan before he attempted it? Could I have boldly shared my faith instead of waiting for an opening, as is the ritual of any secular job? Would it have made a difference?
When I received the September edition of Christianity Today and read the article "Sex Offenders in the Pew," my initial reaction was not the most Christlike. I felt scared, vulnerable, worried about those who are defenseless. Were there sex offenders at my church?
Then I thought of that boy and realized anew that he had needed the hope only Christ can offer. He could be the sex offender in the pew. If anyone needs the message of salvation, it is these. If anyone needs a community to walk beside them as they move through sanctification, it is these. If anyone needs to learn compassion for the least of these, it is us.
God detests sin, all of it. We in the evangelical church seem to have elevated sexual sin to the realm of Too Far Gone. It has become the unforgivable sin in the church, maybe because you're not just hurting yourself, you're hurting others. It's easy to become indignant and outraged about these sins. They're horrible. There's no getting around it. However, we conveniently forget that we too are sinners. We like to think that our sins aren't as bad. Except in God's eyes, sin is sin. I am so grateful that I do not remain this way, thanks to His grace. We must be conscientious in remembering that grace is for everyone, no matter what they've done. We might not like the idea that serial killers, rapists, cheaters, and swindlers will be in heaven if they've accepted Christ as their savior and confessed their sins. It might be tempting to think that they're getting away with it. We're marked by our sins though. When we confess them and accept Christ's grace, they no longer own us but we still face consequences. Our pasts inform our futures, after all.
The CT article doesn't advocate for blind acceptance when it comes to sex offenders within the church. There need to be rules and guidelines to protect those who need protection. This is especially important if victims of sexual abuse attend the same church- church must remain a safe place for them. Somehow we need to accommodate both needs. However, I fear that it is easy to fall into the trap of "yes, sex offenders (or any ostracized group) should go to church but not ours- they can go Church B" and then Church B echoes the same response, sending them onto Church C and so on.
Sex offenders can never escape the impact of their past but it should not prevent them from learning more about God and perhaps finally have the support and accountability around them that they need. Are we willing to do that for "society's most despised"? Am I willing to do that? This is not an easy tension but I think somehow we must. I pray that the boy from Alton House has found relief from his pain and satisfaction through Christ. Read the CT article for yourself (hopefully you're already a subscriber or know someone who is) and consider the church's role in offering grace to these fallen people. If you don't have access to CT, this Washington Post article raises interesting points as well.
*House names and identifying information has been changed.
This post was written for Walk with Him Wednesday at Ann Voskamp's Holy Experience. The community is answering this question: How Do You Care for the Least of These? Join us in prayerfully considering what it means to be Jesus' hands and heart to a hurting world ...