A few lines of the poem “In Heaven” by Jeremy Blackwater
“We all know Hell.
Not a place,
But a fetid smell
Draining into our veins,
Filling our eyes
Like a rotten crow
Filled with maggots.
I hear it behind my eyes,
The old words
Of judgment, of prediction.
“You messed up,
You going to hell,
You never get out,
You just like your father.”
When I started working with the youth, we had a pack of cards with questions serving as an ice breaker. One of the cards asks “What did you think would send you to hell when you were a child?” I didn’t expect any responses.
One of the girls said that her mother told her that she would go to hell if she lied.
“So, what happened?” asks one of the kids.
“Oh, I lied all the time,” she says. “I figured that I was going to hell anyway.”
With that, the other youth started listing all the things that condemns them.
They don’t come from a Church background so I didn’t know where these images of hell came from.
As we talked, I discover that heaven, or awesome God, or being blessed had no content for them. But they all knew about hell. One of the common taunts directed at them is “You so bad not even hell will accept you.”
A common conversation in van talks consist of “Will I go to hell if I…” “Will I go to hell if I hit my mom?” “Will I go to hell if I have sex in the church?” “Will I go to hell if I hurt someone bad?” “Will I go to hell if I become a drunk?” The questions were endless.
These were not ethical questions on how to live a godly life. These questions were about being bad to the core and what punishments they can expect for being a total waste.
“You are not going to hell,” I would assert.
“You can’t know that,” one of the teens say back to me.
For me, hell and heaven are outdated metaphors for those needing a black/white world of clear cut judgments. So we sorted out their misdeeds into poor judgments, ignorance, innocent explorations, and malicious acts out of drunkenness and/or perceived threats. We put their actions on a continuum of mistakes to hard core bad. They wanted me to replace “hard core bad” with evil. I refused since evil has a supernatural smell to it.
They didn’t have a problem on next steps of apologizing, making the situation right, or promising to do something different next time.
What they did believe is that they were stained with evil that could not be erased.
We explored the different traditional ceremonies available (especially for those who had been in war or in violent circumstances). They admitted that these Native ceremonies would remove the stain so they could start over again as one who is re-centered in beauty.
Then I told them story of the prostitute who was about to be stoned to death and the thief who was crucified with Jesus and the passage from Paul that says that nothing can separate them from the love of God. They were interested but it did not shake their judgment that they were rotten.
I ask if anyone has a story about being judged okay even when he or she has messed up.
Several youth respond to this. One young adult tells this story. “We went to the same church several times on a mission trip. One year I was caught smoking weed in the church and really was told off about my disrespect and my inability to focus because I was so mellowed out. The next year I was asked to go on the mission trip again. That totally knocked me down. I didn’t deserve it. When we arrived at the church people treated me like I was their lost son. Everyone, even those who knew what I did the year before, greeted me with such happiness. That’s when I decided that maybe I wasn’t a lost cause, that I really had a clean slate.”
This is still an on-going discussion. It is very difficult to believe that you are a cherished person, loved for who you are unless you have profound and repeated experiences where that is demonstrated and not just talked about.
Yet this is a foundational belief that has transformed many of the youth. It continues to be an image that has to be reinforced by those they meet. It makes a difference if they are welcomed with joy.
For those who are not accepted as having a precious and cherished life, they continue with hell as their backdrop.
As always it is up to us to make the difference.