The “Outcast of the World”

Sunday’s Readings

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?

11 replies
  1. Yoli
    Yoli says:

    Beautiful, thank you for this Trena. Such a good reminder of why we engage in work that can often be heartbreaking and slow. Grateful for the formation Casa gave me to see in this way.

  2. Ella Guimond
    Ella Guimond says:

    Incredible testimony Trena (and Sophia!) Thank you for sharing your words, and sharing this experience with your daughter. It’s amazing what happens when we peel back the “image we are taught to fear” and learn to love the incredible humans and their stories. You inspired me to do that more in my own life and work.

  3. Adam Mescher
    Adam Mescher says:

    Thank you Trena. I appreciated what you shared, “this is the image we are taught to fear and avoid.” I hear you saying that the key to our salvation is being vulnerable enough to welcome in those we’re convinced are so different than ourselves. Much love to you and to your family.

  4. Erin
    Erin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this experience and your thoughts. The reminder of the equality of all people and the power of stepping beyond the barrier of our expectations and fears is incredibly impactful. Thank you for demonstrating, once again, impact of love and vulnerability. Your words are truly inspiring.

  5. Christina Kraus
    Christina Kraus says:

    Sounds like yet another wonderful experience you were able to share! I am constantly amazed by how just leaving behind our judgements and preconcieved notions can allow us to see the good in everyone. Thanks for a reminder of this goodness.

  6. Elen
    Elen says:

    I have recently connected with a young Salvadoran–born at the beginning of his country’s civil war, raised with no father and an absent mother by alcoholic uncles, sent to find his way alone, across Guatemala and Mexico to Seattle at the age of 15, and arrested here at 19 because the people who were supposed to help him were too busy to notice that the gangs that had offered him the only sense of family he had ever known in his home country, had found him in Seattle and offered him again, a place to belong. I, who have been raised with privilege cannot imagine such a hard life for a child!

    Serving his time at Monroe Prison in Washington, gave my young friend time to reflect on the direction his life had taken and ask questions about what he wanted for his future. He chose to reject the hatred and violence of gang culture and find a better way. Manuel took advantage of every educational opportunity he had. Got his GED, took college level classes. Earned his A+ Certification as a computer technician. Took enrichment classes when there were no more college level classes offered–becoming proficient enough in calligraphy to become a tattoo artist for fellow inmates. He also took public speaking classes and ESL classes to improve his English.

    But after serving his time, Manuel was released in the age of Trump. ICE was waiting to bring my friend from Monroe to NWDC, the detention center for undocumented immigrants in Tacoma. This is where he is right now and where I finally met him after being his pen pal for the past few months. What a treasure he is! Not only has he changed direction, he knows that is only by God’s grace that he has hope for a future. While at Monroe, Manuel was involved in the prison ministry, KAIROS and began using his gifts to comfort new inmates and help those seeking parole with their paperwork. His goal, whether he is sent back to El Salvador or allowed to stay, is to help young people lured by the same false promises that betrayed him, to chose to be part of the gangs that threaten all our young people, to recognize and reject the lies and emptiness of that life.

    I will be there Friday with Manuel and am praying with all my heart that a compassionate judge in an age where compassion is so rare in our justice system–especially as it relates to immigrants, grants him the legal status to stay here. We both know and trust that the outcome is in God’s gracious hands and that he will end up in the place God wants him to be.

    I am honored and grateful to know Manuel Abrego. And I thank you for this beautiful article that speaks the truth in words so clear and true–true about the young people in the Salvadoran writing program and true about Manuel, “They are just like us.” I would only add, except for the opportunity we do not deserve, but have received. God grant us the wisdom to understand that like all his gifts, the privilege we have known is not meant to be hoarded, but to be shared in Jesus’ name.

  7. Megan Donovan
    Megan Donovan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Trena. This is a beautiful example of what solidarity and love look like in action. I truly believe (and the Casa instilled this lesson in me) in the goodness and God present in every person. In our world today, it can be scary and difficult to consider this reality in the midst of violence and chaos. But as we come to see and know others, we can come to believe in the humanity and dignity present in every person. Like Sophie so eloquently put, we have more in common that we sometimes think– we all desire to be seen, known, and loved.

  8. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Human beings are made in the image and the likeness of the divine – declare Holy Scriptures.

  9. Grace Salceanu
    Grace Salceanu says:

    I’m so moved by this humbling reminder to be attentive to those who bear the Gospel to us, found in the most unexpected places. Thank you, Trena and Sophia, for this invitation into deeper faith.


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