My 17-year-old daughter and I recently visited a youth detention center in rural El Salvador. We were invited to the graduation ceremony for a group of incarcerated gang members who were finishing a 22-week-long writing workshop. The goal of the course was to find healing and reconciliation through writing their own story.
When we arrived at the center, we were immediately invited into small rooms where tables surrounded the periphery. Behind each table stood a nervous young man; each completely covered in gang tattoos. Each had a similar look: hair was buzzed short on the sides and spiked on the top with baggy ‘gang style’ clothing. At first glance, they are the image we are taught to fear and avoid. However, looking more closely into their eyes reflected a different reality. Each one of them was eager, yet anxious, to have someone take interest in their writing.
For the next two hours, my daughter and I would roam the rooms reading the artistic expressions these young men created, while they shared their experience of the process. All of them spoke about the difficulty of being vulnerable, the healing power of sharing, and their newfound pride in creating something that was completely their own. Although each story was unique, there was a similar thread throughout each one of abandonment at an early age due to violence and death. By the end of the morning, we had fallen in love with these young men’s authenticity and generosity in spirit.
“These kids, they are just like us – they have hidden talents and they want to share them with the world. And it was so sweet because just like what happens to all of us, they were frightened and they were so nervous.” (My daughter describing the experience to her dad.)
These are the young men whom society deems worthless. They are the ‘cancers’ of our world and are called to be eliminated for the atrocities they have committed. These are the stones that have been rejected. They serve no one. They are defects. They produce hate and promote revenge. They are the crop that yields no harvest.
Yet, those who had the courage to offer this writing workshop had a different response to these young men. They saw them as children of God, victims themselves to a culture of violence. They saw them as worthy of healing and redemption. Worthy of God’s love. That is precisely what we experienced that morning; God’s expansive, inclusive, and radical love.
The invitation is ours. Do we treat the ‘outcast of the world’ as the elders and chief priests wanted to treat the tenants? Do we put these wretched men to a wretched death? Or do we follow the path of Jesus and look at these men as the key to our salvation, the cornerstone of our faith?
Kevin Yonkers-Talz and Trena, his wife, were co-founders and co-directors of Casa de la Solidaridad, Santa Clara University’s study abroad program in El Salvador. With over 22 years of experience living and working in Central America, they recently co-founded UCA’s new Centro Ignacio Ellacuría, which develops academic and formation programs that integrate the exploration of faith and the promotion of justice through a praxis-based pedagogy rooted in the Ignatian tradition. They are proud parents of 4 daughters: Sophia, Grace, Hannah, and Emma. Kevin holds an M.S. degree in college student development from Miami University, a M.Ed. degree in religious education from Boston College, and an Ed.D. degree in international and multicultural education from the University of San Francisco.
Trena y Kevin Yonkers-Talz son cofundadores y codirectores de la Casa de a Solidaridad, programa de estudios, basado en una experiencia de praxis en el extranjero de la Universidad de Santa Clara. Ellos han estado viviendo en San Salvador con sus 4 hijas durante los últimos 18 años.