By Ian Peoples, SJ
In my ministry as chaplain at Wagner’s Youth Facility (WYF), a part of Belize Central Prison, I often speak one-on-one with the young men. Shortly after I began my work in November of last year, I had a conversation that I still think about often.
One of the young men, whom I’ll refer to as Paul, had recently arrived at WYF and was having a rough transition. As I was speaking with Paul, I noticed what looked like a cut above his eye. I asked him about it. It turns out the “cut” was in fact a scar – one of many that marks Paul’s body. The 16-year-old then went on to point out the host of other scars, mostly stab wounds and multiple entry and exit wounds from gunshots.
Then Paul told me a story about one of the scars left by a machete. Another teenager in the city threatened Paul, then actually cut him with the machete. Paul thought he was going to die before his little brother managed to take the machete from Paul’s attacker. Then Paul became the aggressor.
“I went to chop him, and he put his hand out, so I chopped down his hand,” Paul described the confrontation. “Then his girl got in front of me, so I chopped her. Then I chopped the boy in his head. Then my brother and I ran off,” Paul said, before going quiet.
After a long pause, he asked me, “Have you ever done anything like that, Mr. Peoples?”
The reason I think about that story so often is not because of the graphic violence – there’s plenty of that in the stories of the other boys – but that question to me at the end: “Have you ever done anything like that, Mr. Peoples?”
That question signals the norm of life on the streets of Belize City. This story, which would make headlines in the United States, is just part of life for these young men.
“Have you ever done anything like that” echoes in my mind. The young men I meet in the prison were born into violent neighborhoods. Most, if not all, have severe childhood trauma from sexual, emotional or physical abuse, as well as regularly witnessing violent crime and its aftermath, like shooting victims lying dead in the streets.
In the face of these harsh realities, I sometimes wonder what I am doing here. I don’t have training to provide the therapy these boys need, nor am I by any means an expert in working with gang-involved people.
Fortunately, God uses these boys to pull my feet back to the ground, like when one of them asked during a group Bible study session, “Mr. Peoples, isn’t it true that you’re going to hell if you kill somebody?”
It’s that question that helps me remember what my mission is at the prison: to proclaim the loving mercy of God. I get to work to dispel the darkness of hopeless despair. I get to tell these boys that God is always ready to forgive; his arms are always open to receive them.
A document from the Society of Jesus’ 34th General Congregation says, “The mission of the reconciled sinner is the mission of reconciliation: the work of faith doing justice. A Jesuit freely gives what he has freely received: the gift of Christ’s redeeming love.”
I get to proclaim that love every day at the prison. Among the other aspects of my ministry at WYF – literacy work, recreational activities, etc. – nothing is more important than sharing God’s relentless love.
My ministry at WYF allows me to live out the Society of Jesus’ Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) in a unique way. Guiding youth to a hope-filled future, one of the four UAPs, is central to my work at the prison.
I am humbled to stand in the place of Jesuits before me who have spent years in ministry at the prison, including our provincial, Fr. Tom Greene. It was his work that originally inspired me to consider doing my regency in Belize. During a province gathering a few years back, we sat together at one of the suppers. He was superior of our community in Belize at that time, and I could tell he loved the people of Belize by the way he shared stories about his work. That’s when I realized, “Oh wow, Belize is part of our province! What might a regency there look like?”
Following the advice of Fr. Greene, I visited Belize during the summer of 2019 to get a sense of the place. During a brief two-week stay, I was able to put on a small soccer camp in one of the Mayan villages, do ministry with hospice patients in Belize City, lead communion services at our parish on the small island of Caye Caulker and visit WYF. The thing that excited me the most during that visit was the sense of possibility. The possibilities for ministry in Belize are endless.
After being in Belize for almost eight months, that original excitement remains, though now it has been tempered by the sobering reality of the suffering so many people experience. That suffering, and the immense need for consolation and healing, is exactly why Belize is the right place for me, and the Society, to be.