Since last August, when pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, Wheaton students have volunteered every week at the Warrenville Youth Correctional Facility, a juvenile detention center ten miles southwest of campus.
The students are part of the Juvenile Justice Ministry (JJM), founded in 1944 by the Christian organization Youth for Christ that ministers to young people in the juvenile criminal justice system in a “faith-based continuity of care.”
Students started a chapter of JJM at Wheaton in 2016 that began bringing students weekly to the Warrenville Youth Correctional Facility. After suspending their trips to the Warrenville facility for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry resumed its activities at the start of this school year.
Angel Lin, who graduated in fall 2022, began volunteering with JJM during her freshman year at Wheaton. Despite COVID-19 restricting access to the facility in her sophomore and junior years, she actively recruited people to join.
“Through [the pandemic] a lot of people were like ‘Oh my gosh, you did a good job revitalizing the ministry,’ but what I learned the most is that through God’s faithfulness, this ministry is not going to die,” Lin said.
During Lin’s final semester of college, the facility opened again and students were able to visit the juveniles.
“There were so many times that it was way beyond my control and way beyond my creativity that I could not have done it without God,” Lin said.
The coed facility houses 28 juveniles ages 13 to 20. Once they reach 21, depending on their security level or release date, they are transferred to various adult prisons throughout Illinois. Their sentences can vary anywhere from two months to 30 years.
Wheaton’s JJM chapter currently has 15 student volunteers going into the facility to minister each week. They play games with the inmates, strike up conversations with them, and present the gospel.
“We welcome everybody who is passionate about youth and about incarceration, and really about social justice and changing the system,” Lin said.
The ministry’s theme verse for 2023 is Matthew 25:34-40, in which Jesus explains to the disciples that by serving the “least” among them, they are serving him. The last two verses include the disciples’ question and Jesus’ response: “‘And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
The verse fits with the ministry’s mission statement, which reads, “Present messages of freedom and hope to the incarcerated juveniles by delivering regular creative Gospel presentations about the love and teachings of Jesus Christ while providing re-entry support using campus resources.”
For Anna Campbell, a sophomore applied health science major and the current chaplain of Wheaton JJM, she felt moved and called to action after hearing the verses.
“When I heard that I wept,” Campbell said, “because this is actively loving Jesus: going to this prison and loving these students, not coming in as a place of authority or condemnation but advocating for them and saying listen, ‘I’m a student, you’re a student. I’m forgiven, Jesus wants to forgive you and loves you.’”
Each Thursday night, volunteers go into the Warrenville facility to connect with the juveniles through ice breaker questions and group games. Following their volunteer time, students reconnect on Tuesday mornings at Wheaton to reflect back on the week and the facility visit. They also use this time to pray for the juveniles and one another.
“We’re just there to show them how much the Lord loves them,” Campbell said. “So when we walk out, our hearts are so full of joy but also lament because we get to hear their stories as well, and they’re really hard. Even though they’re kids, they’re not kid scenarios.”
Campbell recounted a Thursday night in October 2022 when she saw the effects of weekly ministry. After playing some games with the juveniles, some of the volunteers shared their favorite Bible verses while sitting in a circle. At one point, a high school-age boy moved closer to better hear the words being shared. At the end of the talk, he approached Campbell, expressing his hope for his life and his desire to have a Bible.
While some of the juveniles in the facility have Bibles, others do not. At the time, JJM was in the process of raising money to provide Bibles for Christmas. Campbell said she felt called to go through with her word and give the boy a more personalized Bible rather than make him wait until Christmas when funds came through.
That week Campbell searched for a Bible for him until, at the end of the week, she remembered a Bible her sister gave her. Campbell had written her personal prayers and notes throughout the book, but even with the vulnerability she expressed in that Bible, she said she felt the Lord tell her to give it to him. She said that despite the “awkward” prayers she knew she had written in that Bible, she felt it would help him see evidence of someone his age walking through Christianity with struggles and doubts.
“Picking up a Bible for the first time may be slightly overwhelming depending where you open up to, so I hoped that as he read through it, he would see that one, our prayers and thoughts are not perfect, we are messy but we come to a perfect God, and two, there is life in scripture,” Campbell said.
As president of the club, Hunter Benson, a senior studying Christian formation and ministry, has a specific passion for prison ministry, and during his time with JJM, he said, he has felt God move and perform miracles.
In one instance, a 19 year old named Zayvion, who received a sentence that lasted until 2030, applied for clemency to reduce his time, and Wheaton students prayed for him in solidarity. Benson said Zayvion went home five weeks ago with seven years taken off of his sentence.
While there are numerous opportunities for community ministry on campus including public school outreach and tutoring, Lin, Campbell and Benson each said that JJM is unique in its ability to take Wheaton students outside their comfort zone to minister like Jesus did.
“There’s something special about JJM,” Benson said. “God has really given [us] a heart to come and serve those whom he said in his word are the least of his. Like, man, we go to jail every week.”
Lin and Campbell said they see some of Wheaton’s ministries as focusing on students’ personal spiritual growth, and while they both acknowledged the importance of developing one’s spiritual life alongside other Christians, they felt that God was calling them to the juvenile prison to enrich their faith and that of others.
“I was really grateful for the opportunity for how students can practice the skill of doing ministry, and in return, gain growth and spirituality instead of just focusing on inward spirituality,”said Lin.