It probably happens more often than you realize. A student you are connected to is arrested for some offense—or multiple offenses—and faces a court appearance. The odds are, they and their family are trying to keep it quiet. Maybe you hear through the grapevine, maybe they actually tell you. Either way, it’s time to be assertive. Don’t wait to be asked, instead offer, repeatedly if needed, to be present, to come to the case, to write a letter to the judge asking for leniency, to help in any way they need. If they weren’t the ones to tell you directly, let them know you heard about it and want to be available in any or all those ways.
For the student and their family, this is a months long process of fearful waiting interspersed with moments of terrifying court appearances. They will have meetings with lawyers who paint hopeful outcomes and worst possible scenarios. It literally consumes all their thoughts and will keep them awake at night. There is shame, embarrassment, anxiety, anger—a whole mix of emotions boiling throughout the entire family, not just the student being charged. And for the most part, during this time when they most desperately need others, they are probably going it alone.
Over the last decade, I have sat through a number of courtroom appearances. In almost every occasion, whether it’s a teen from a broken family on the wrong side of town, or someone from a family that seems to have everything going for them, they are always alone. They are afraid to ask for someone to be present, and most of the people in their lives are afraid or too uncomfortable to offer. For the student in the midst of all that, there is nothing more powerful you can do for them, no need more urgent, then to just sit there quietly waiting with them. To have others with them is a comfort and encouragement, and will impact them far more than any lesson or retreat. When we are at our most tense, our greatest levels of stress, the people that show up and stand with us are burned into our memories for the rest of our lives.
Don’t try to preach, being silently there will be a far more powerful message than your words could ever be. Resist the urge to tell them how they should have handled whatever the situation was – trust me, they’ve already had that internal conversation a thousand times, and the judge is going to remind them. Just listen, pray for them, the judge, the parents, and the future.
Practically speaking, even though it’s against some sort of youth pastor dress code, if you’re appearing on behalf of someone it’s a good idea to at the very least be wearing a tie, if not a suit. You probably won’t be allowed to bring your phone, snacks, or anything else into the courthouse other than a book, which is a must. Trust me, it’s not being rude, and there’s no guarantee that you will even be able to sit next to the family, so you’ll want something to pass the time.
Don’t shy away from this critical part of our ministry to young people and their families. If a student in your life is going through this, they need your presence more than you realize.
(part one in a three part series)