By Fred Comella
Let your eyes look straight ahead, And your eyelids look right before you. Ponder the path of your feet, And let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; Remove your foot from evil. Proverbs 4:25-27
As we head to the polls and vote in what is likely the most pivotal election in our nation’s history, I don’t know about you-all, but I’m pausing to reflect on the last nine months. I think many of you would agree, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of political and societal dilemma’s, complete with pandemics and violent social unrest. In the past, I’ve tried to convey through my writing, a sense of urgency if you will, about what in my eyes has been a steady (but now quickening) erosion of the value systems that made this country the “best arrangement for human-kind under God, bar none” for more than two hundred forty years. I’ve also tried to attach a Christian lens to my personal viewfinder, and vet the issues of our time through that lens. This publication has been a significant blessing to me during that time, in that all of the wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure to interview over the years concerning their missions and ministries, have opened my eyes to a nation (and a world) that NEED the Word of God now more than ever.
But more recently, and through all of the often mind-numbing back and forth, as well as ideological chaos gripping the country, I keep coming back to “the Book”, and how God has a plan for His people that doesn’t necessarily look like our own, but in the end, will be the only way forward. I do believe, to the extent we desire to fit into His plan, that is and must be up to us. And we all know that acknowledging and confessing our sin and accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior is the only way to do that. I also believe my experiences with the GNT have now laser focused my attention on what I’ve always felt was the single greatest issue we face today, our kids, all of them.
As you all know, I’ve written quite a bit about young people, and how our most important responsibility is to our posterity and their upbringing. And it’s true without question that when we fail our children, those failures are reflected and even magnified in their lives. Fatherless families, less than appropriate role models, peer pressure and bullying are just some of the things young people in this country and around the world face every day. Moreover, the net result for many troubled youth is often alcoholism, drugs, sexual abuse, crime and human trafficking, all things we the adults simply cannot and should never ignore. Mind you, I’m no disciple of the “It takes a village” doctrine, which to me was nothing more than a campaign talking point/trigger, and basically advocated for government solutions to personal problems. I’m much more from the school of personal responsibility and accountability to one’s self and family. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and I’m no perfect person. Therefore, I must and do acknowledge that no matter our best efforts, there are and will always be those who fall between the cracks and/or who are simply lost/abandoned and in search of a helping hand up.
In many cases they have already crossed the line, possibly incarcerated and desperately seeking a road back, back to the light, back to a future with promise. So when I have an opportunity to speak with another one of God’s army getting in the game to keep America’s kids pointed in the right direction, or even pull them back from the jagged precipice of ignorance and bad decision making, I’m anxious to hear their stories. In the end, it’s only through their eyes many will ever see the harsh reality and pitfalls in the world of a compromised young person or juvenile offender. I know this as someone who’s worn a uniform most of my adult life, and who has seen firsthand the consequences of a young life gone wrong. But there is hope. And there are Christ followers willing to do the heavy lifting of bringing that hope back into a young person’s life.
Having begun my career as a correctional officer I can remember the horrors of prison. I also remember the limited access to faith-based initiatives such as we have today. So picture for just a moment, how a young person, no matter their background or projected “toughness” must feel in confinement, locked away with limited prospects for the future. Enter “Straight Ahead Ministries”.
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:6
From Straight Ahead Ministries: “Straight Ahead Ministries exists to see Jesus Christ transform the lives of juvenile offenders. Over 1 million youth are arrested every year in the US, with 500,000 sent to one of nearly 1,200 detention centers across the country. On any given day, 57,000 youth are serving a sentence in a facility – (the juvenile justice equivalent of jail). Family relationships, community connections, education and employment are all interrupted and negatively impacted. Straight Ahead believes this time of crisis can become the first step towards a transformed life. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight however. Straight Ahead walks with youth through every step of their faith journey, providing ongoing support and resources for young people that begins while they are in lock-up, continues as they return to their communities, and follows through as they become self-sufficient and productive members of their communities. Since Straight Ahead was founded in 1987, their staff, volunteers and ministry partners have served over 75,000 young people in 40 states, 35 countries and 7 languages. Their intensive models of engagement and leadership development include programs that offer faith and character development, job readiness training and placement, educational support and service opportunities”.
Dr. Scott Larson, President and CEO of Straight Ahead Ministries, was kind enough to speak with me last month. Dr. Larson has brought strong leadership and oversight to Straight Ahead Ministries since co-founding the organization with his wife of 33 years Hanne, in 1987. They have two children, one a therapist/counselor, the other a nurse, both living in Chicago. Fresh off a virtual conference promoting the “Healing Communities” initiative, the former stockbroker from the Midwest told me of how he was called by God to work with troubled and incarcerated youth back in the early 80’s. He moved to Massachusetts with wife Hanne who wanted to start a Bible study in a MA detention center for youth. Scott was enrolled and studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at the time, and together they experienced all the political and other challenges to bringing Christ into the hearts and minds of young people detained by the state. But God does move the hearts and minds of those charged with their detainment as well. And those barriers would fall in July of 1987, as Hanne’s argument finally facilitated the first “Bible Study” in a MA youth detention center, with 12 of 15 incarcerated there attending. And thus, the proverbial ball was rolling.
In 1988 Straight Ahead brought on a “prayer coordinator” as their first staff member, and with God’s provisions, have been growing ever since. Moved by the loss of a young friend who was saved in one of the detention center Bible studies, but tragically and brutally murdered two weeks after his release, Scott and Hanne opened the first discipleship home to honor his memory in 1991. All throughout the 90’s and to the present, Straight Ahead has blossomed, with Institutional and aftercare ministry expansions into New England states with the development of the Maine office. State coordinators also oversee ministry in New Hampshire and Connecticut (1994), and Rhode Island (1995). 1995: National expansion began with Straight Ahead’s first affiliate in Evans, Georgia. Today, affiliate organizations are active in Littleton, Colorado (1998), Omaha, Nebraska (1999), St. Paul, Minnesota (2000), Zeeland, Michigan (2002), Cedar Park, Texas (2011), Westbrook, Maine (2016) and Colorado Springs, Colorado (2016).
Dr. Larson and I spoke of the challenges of transition, as many of the youth that Straight Ahead work with must stay the course after they are released. Straight Ahead has programs to assist churches in receiving and assisting these fragile Christ Followers, and have gone so far as to fully fund work programs like their very own landscaping company, a fully functioning light duty landscaping business, which teaches young people responsibility and commitment to their individual futures. This is one of many programs coming out of Straight Ahead’s “Straight to Work” initiative. And I agree whole heartedly with Dr. Larson’s philosophy regarding “Straight to Work”. Self-worth is always bolstered by work and feeling as though you are taking charge of your own life.
Some other Straight Ahead programs include:
Bible Discussion Groups – Straight Ahead’s Bible discussion programs are volunteer-led sessions with youth in juvenile detention centers.
Substance Abuse Recovery Discussion Groups – Straight Ahead’s PROMISE groups focus on helping youth who are dealing with substance abuse issues.
Ready4Life – Straight Ahead’s Ready4Life curriculum emphasizes character and leadership development for youth.
Gift of HOPE – And the holidays can be especially difficult for young people in detention facilities. During the Christmas season, Straight Ahead supporters and volunteers provide “Gifts of Hope”, along with handwritten notes, for every young person in lock-up.
Sadly, Scott gave me some sobering numbers for all of us to consider as well. Of about 1250 Juvenile facilities across the country, barely a third have any kind of faith-based initiatives at all for young people in lock up. Just the thought of so many young lives hanging in the balance is difficult to wrap one’s heart around. Now I know some would say, that for every action there is consequence, and I agree. But for a young person who’s known only dysfunction and heartache for their entire young life, those consequences can mean the difference between a life lost, and a life “saved”. Moreover, a study done some years back put the dollar figure on the cost of a child on the wrong path at between 1.9 and 2.1 million dollars through adolescence, when figuring for things like the cost of incarceration, tax revenue and a host of other factors. I would imagine that number is significantly higher today, which begs the question, how are we utilizing resources and spending the taxpayer’s money when it comes to juvenile offenders? Maybe, just maybe, we should be listening to and supporting the efforts of the Larson’s, and those like them. Maybe get God back in the equation? Hmmm…
To that end Straight Ahead Ministries continues to grow by working to connect churches and volunteers with detention facilities in order to build meaningful relationships that will facilitate a smoother and more successful reintegration into society. They are encouraging these churches to get involved and “Adopt a Facility”. And during these challenging times, incarceration is having an even more drastic effect on these teens in trouble, thus the need is even greater.
With the holidays approaching quickly, and with COVID restricting most access to, or visitation by family and friends, Straight Ahead is facing some of its greatest challenges. So, if you’re of the mind of Scott and Hanne, and you can understand that even in the best of times, (which these are not), God’s children will go astray, then consider helping out. Scott did acknowledge the difficulty in recruiting volunteers for what can only be described as a very difficult environment to do the work of the Gospel. But maybe you could help with a monetary donation to help bring a young life from the darkness, back to the light. Thank you Scott and Hanne Larson, for doing that “heavy lifting”. Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Go and vote your children’s future my friends in Christ and remember those in need this Thanksgiving. That need is greater than ever… God bless.
For more information about the extraordinary growth and mission of this critical outreach organization, please go to their website at: straightahead.org/mission.