Through meditation, a priest takes troubled teens on a healing tour of the Gospels

by Amy Durkee

To deepen their understanding of God and their relationship with inside-out-2Christ, every Jesuit novitiate is required to practice the Ignatian exercises, an intense 30-day experience of contemplation, spiritual conversation, and Scripture-based prayer. The exercises establish a foundation for the young priest-to-be, a root system which will allow him to thrive in difficult situations over a lifetime of service.

When Michael Kennedy joined the Jesuit order in 1966, he incorporated the Ignatian method into his daily life, journaling his experiences in contemplation as a way to deepen his understanding of them. The '60s were a tumultuous time, and while young Kennedy was a university student he became involved in both anti-war activism and serving the Appalachian poor. All the while, however, he remained constant in his contemplative life, discovering that the deeper he went within the more he was able to commit to the external work of God's kingdom.

But Kennedy didn't really get a chance to test his reliance upon contemplation until 1987, when he took a mission trip to El Salvador to bring supplies to those displaced by the civil war. While driving down the road, he and his team found themselves in the middle of crossfire. Suspected of subversion, Father Kennedy and his group were taken to the headquarters of the "Treasury Police" and thrown into a dark basement cell.

It was in that cell, as he listened to the screams of two young men being tortured nearby, that he began to taste more fully the fruit of his years of contemplation. Later he would write the following, in the introduction to his book Eyes On Jesus: "It was as if simultaneously I could both imagine and truly feel something of what Jesus experienced being jailed, knowing that his own death was near. I remember so vividly feeling a closeness to the Jesus who was persecuted and crucified. It was as if my own contemplation was suddenly turned on 'automatic pilot' and the power from this gave me strength to pass through the experience." In the midst of his suffering and fear, Kennedy was able to experience peace and even joy.

In 1996, Kennedy was living in yet another war zone— the streets of East Los Angeles—working with the people of the Dolores Mission parish. Day after day, Father Mike, as his parishioners call him,watched as his community lost its young people to hopelessness, destructive relationships, substance abuse, prison, and death. Good kids in tough situations were making bad choices and paying with their lives. He was desperate to find a way to reach them.

For years, the Dolores Mission parish had been sending priests to serve weekly mass at Central Juvenile Hall.As one of those visiting priests,Kennedy noticed that a steady stream of youth flowed directly from his Boyle Heights barrio to the iron cages of a children's prison. Mass wasn't enough to save these kids, some of whom were facing life sentences.

Drawing from his own experience,Kennedy decided that what they needed most was not instruction but contemplation. More specifically, they needed a method that would draw them into the Gospels where they could meet Christ.

Inside-OutSo six years ago, Father Mike entered Central Juvenile Hall armed with a Gospel passage and a contemplative heart. Meeting in a cramped cinder-block kitchen, he invited a group of convicted murderers, thieves, and drug dealers to meditate with him. He wasn't sure what would happen; he went simply to try to connect despairing kids to the source of hope.

Others had tried meditation with them in the past, and the teens were hesitant at first. But when they realized that what Father Mike wanted was not for them to sit in forced silence but to open themselves up to the presence of Jesus, they began to relax. The kids came back the next week, and the next. Kennedy soon found that these broken teenagers were meeting Jesus!

Years of working with Latinos have infused Kennedy's English with the lilt and silkiness of a native Spanish-speaker. "We Jesuits believe each person has the capacity to know God," he says."Our founder, Ignatius, taught that the way to God is by using our imagination."

While Father Mike affirms the importance of theological formation, he says it's not what really transforms people. "We need to touch people where they live," he urges. "These kids are just trying to breathe. Knowing that God enters into their lives keeps them alive." Father Mike simply wants to connect them to the One he calls the "master teacher who loves us just the way we are, but invites us to more."He is confident that, given this introduction, Jesus will make the transformation happen within.

Since his first visit to Central Juvenile Hall,Kennedy has returned every week to introduce another passage from the Gospels. While soft music plays, he reads the passage slowly, asking the kids to close their eyes and allow themselves to become absorbed in what is taking place in the story.He invites them to enter the story as a participant, suggesting who they might be and adding color, background, and dialogue. As Father Mike brings the meditation to a close, the teens write down their responses.They are then given the chance to share those thoughts with the group.

What happens, says Central Juvenile Hall Chaplain Janne Shirley, is truly miraculous."You even see boys crying in front of each other!" she exclaims. She marvels at how kids from rival gangs, who would never have spoken to each other on the outside, can be so vulnerable with each other here. In the midst of the experience, she explains,"We see bonds between us that we didn't know were there."

Chaplain Shirley will never forget the day when, following a meditation, one boy exclaimed, "Oh my God! I felt Jesus walking with me! I felt Jesus holding my hand!"

"You could see on his face that he'd had a religious experience," she remembers."Something had happened to him."

The kids say this place is different. It's the one place where they can be themselves and know that they're safe.Those involved agree to abide by this rule:What happens in this room stays in this room.

Shirley now offers the meditations at another detention facility."This method makes the Gospel so real that kids can develop a personal relationship with Jesus. It's a method they can take with them when they go back to the street or on to an adult prison. They just need a Bible and a good imagination."

In addition to his weekly visits to Central Juvenile Hall, Father Mike also offers spiritual retreats for those teens who move on to maximum-security prisons in the area."We keep track of where the kids end up. If there are enough of our kids at one facility, we offer to do a retreat," he explains. Some,while they are still inmates, are giving back by co-leading retreats with Father Mike. Others join the work of Dolores Mission upon their release. One former detainee is currently studying pre-law at Santa Clara University. Shirley says they frequently get letters from kids who have moved on, saying that if it weren't for Father Mike's meditations they don't know where they'd be now.

Kennedy's work with offenders gave him the impetus to share the method with his parish and eventually to write three books of meditations. While he has received a fair amount of publicity for his work, Father Mike seems unmoved by it. Try to pin Father Mike down for an interview, and you'll see for yourself.This is a man who would much rather act on his call than talk about it."Recognition doesn't really matter," he says. "What's important to me is that people are being empowered and are making a difference. Now that's exciting!"

The method of meditation that Father Mike espouses differs greatly from some of the more popular forms practiced today. This is more than a stress remedy or a means to get in touch with your inner self. "This is not meditation that's about you," he insists. "It puts you in touch with the heart of God. The goal is to allow God to transform us inside so that we can transform the world."

"It really draws you into community," he continues."It doesn't let you live in your head.When you go inside deeply and really meet the God that Jesus revealed to us as 'Abba' you'll come to see and value things the way Jesus does. Sometimes what you'll hear in meditation comes into direct conflict with your values and you realize you have no choice but to leave differently from when you came in."

He recounts the story of Elizabeth, a teen who was trapped in bitterness toward her stepfather, a man who had regularly both taken her to church and abused her.When she finally dared to tell her mother what had been happening, her mother called the police. Her stepfather took his own life as a result, blaming Elizabeth in his suicide note.Through contemplation Elizabeth was able to experience Christ's healing touch and to accept responsibility to forgive the man who had done her so much wrong. Today she speaks from her own experience in order to be a part of the healing of others.

Kennedy shows us that the deeper we go internally the more fully we can commit ourselves to God's work in the world around us. Since his early days in university, Kennedy has been immersed in this cycle of inward prayer and outward service.

"Without a strong inner life," he asks,"how can you be a disciple for the long run? When you make this kind of commitment, you have to have some type of inner life to sustain you for the long haul." That's certainly true for the priest of a large parish in a gang-ridden L.A. barrio or a teenager staring down a life sentence, but it is equally true for each of us struggling to work out a faith commitment in our day-to-day lives.

Through the books he writes and the retreats he leads, Father Mike now makes this method of contemplation available to people all over the socioeconomic landscape. Congressional members, eighth-grade students at the Dolores Mission School, and middle-class men and women around the country are among those being touched by his work.

And their responses vary surprisingly little, according to Kennedy, who believes that anyone can meet Jesus through this method and that anyone seeking transformation will be met by God."It's the act of being vulnerable that lets us into that place where we are all oppressed. Locked-up people and middle-class people can understand the same call.The poverty within you is the catalyst to hear the call outside."

Father Mike takes no credit for what he makes available. "This method has been going on since Ignatius and before. It's not magical—it's just letting yourself be open to ways God can speak."

Father Michael Kennedy is a priest at Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles. He has written three guides for contemplation, entitled Eyes on Jesus (1999), Eyes on the Cross (2001), and The Jesus Meditations (2002), all published by Crossroad/Herder & Herder.Watch this spring for his latest work, Experiencing Jesus. A freelance writer living in western New York, Amy Durkee is a regular contributor to PRISM.

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