Youth For Christ’s Juvenile Justice Ministry inspires communities toward action in walking with justice-involved youth

YFC leader: ‘I’m a firm believer that the juvenile justice system wouldn’t have to exist if we all responded the way Jesus calls us to’

October 3, 2022

DENVER In any given year in America, there are approximately 740,000 teens referred to the juvenile justice system, some of whom will be confined to a corrections facility, others who will be diverted into a community-based alternative, and many who will be court sanctioned to probation. The sad fact is that for young people who are actively incarcerated, a detention center may be the only place they feel safe, have reliable meals, are sober, or are not facing constant trauma. For justice-involved young people who continue to stay in their communities, many continue to face adverse experiences such as relational trauma, racial trauma, community violence, and lack of access to basic needs.

It is during these moments of crisis that justice-involved young people are most open to hearing the transformational message of Jesus Christ. That is why Youth For Christ’s (YFC, www.yfc.net) Juvenile Justice Ministry (JJM) works to create a care model geared toward fostering holistic connections and secure relationships with young people during any point of contact with the juvenile justice system. YFC’s strategy is to come alongside young people and walk alongside them on their journey with Jesus, balancing the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. YFC JJM staff and volunteers build relationships that are sustained through ongoing involvement as young people navigate the different pillars encompassing the juvenile justice system: community, courts, and corrections.

YFC National Juvenile Justice Ministry Specialist Chelsie Coleman has extensive experience working with justice-involved youth in juvenile corrections facilities and residential programs as a mental health counselor. She also is a degreed specialist in trauma and substance use disorders.

“Trauma is our mission field right now,” Coleman stated. “We’re seeing a generation where every young person has been impacted by trauma, whether that is an individual trauma or collective trauma, such as a global pandemic.

“For many adults in America, the perception they have of young people involved in the juvenile justice system is based on the stories they hear on the news. It could be something like a teenager taking part in a serious crime such as carjacking or a shooting of some kind. Often, people make assumptions that they are bad kids that just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make better choices.”

Coleman continued, “However, think of a country overseas being impacted by the trauma of war, where survivors are experiencing PTSD, and we hear stories in the news of kids stealing to survive or being forced to make really hard decisions so they can make it through their day. Our responses are not that those kids need to make better choices. We typically say, ‘Wow, you’ve experienced so much trauma — how can we help you with that?’

“Why can’t we have that mentality for our youth here? When we consider factors such as gun violence or domestic abuse, we begin to realize that war is also happening in our own neighborhoods and in our own homes — that our youth in the system have experienced just as much trauma.”

Coleman said, “What would it look like for the Church to reclaim and reimagine Matthew 25 when Jesus commends those who ‘visited’ Him while He was sick and in prison? What is really compelling about that verse is that Jesus is actually talking about Himself being in prison, not the other way around. We need to consider this paradigm shift when it comes to juvenile justice. I am not going inside a detention center to bring Jesus to the kids — Jesus is already there because our youth are made in the image of God.

Dominique Gilliard explained that we’re all called to go into prisons to be present with Jesus there. Gillard said, ‘Some communities and congregations will be called and best equipped to focus on ministering within the walls of prisons, while others will focus on walking alongside families with incarcerated loved ones. Still others will focus on prevention, and others will prioritize reentry and resourcing returning citizens. We are not all called to the same thing, but we are all called to something. Every congregation has a role to play.’

“This is why JJM exists — to create this faith-based continuity of a care model geared toward fostering holistic connection and secure relationships with young people during any point of contact with the juvenile justice system. We all have a role to play. I’m a firm believer that the juvenile justice system wouldn’t have to exist if we all responded the way Jesus calls us to.”

YFC chapters impact thousands of communities across the nation, seeking out and serving youth from all walks of life. Young people are silently struggling through a wide variety of challenging issues—and through the YFC ministry God empowers them and they see the living power of a loving God. YFC trains its leaders in a proven, relational ministry model called 3Story®, which encourages staff and volunteers to be good news while also sharing the stories of the Good News of Jesus. It involves building relationships through the ups and downs of everyday life to lead people to Christ. 

YFC has been a pillar of missional ministry since 1944, when Dr. Billy Graham served as YFC’s first full-time staff member. Since then, Youth For Christ has continued to be both a rural and urban ministry on mission, and it is always about the message of Jesus. YFC reaches young people everywhere, working together with the local church and other like-minded partners to raise up lifelong followers of Jesus who lead by their godliness in lifestyle, devotion to the Word of God and prayer, passion for sharing the love of Christ, and commitment to social involvement. Youth For Christ operates in over 100 nations and has over 130 chapters that impact communities across America. 

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