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By Pepper Pratt, Ph.D.

On their first day, many of the boys who are new admissions to Youth Town believe with all of their heart that it is the worst day of their life. Sometimes, their mamas feel the same way. What they often forget is that there was usually a prayer that was sent up in the middle of a moment when a boy was being loaded into a police car or when a mama was in the middle of the fourth hour of not knowing of her son’s whereabouts. “Lord, please help…if you’ll get me out of this, I’ll do….”

Truth is, we want to work it out ourselves. When we are hurting, we just want the pain to end. However, the help that sometimes comes from the Lord is in the form of discipline and structure. There is a purpose, though. We often hear the following Scripture quoted: those I love I discipline, so be earnest and repent. Unfortunately, we mistakenly allow a misinformed image of a mean-old-man-god just looking for an opportunity to take wayward humans to a celestial woodshed. We associate this kind of discipline with punishment. God’s discipline is His way of providing an environment for us to receive His love. Hebrews tells us that we don’t like God’s structure when He brings it, but is it for our good and His glory!

What is the result? Well, the verse- those i love I discipline, so be earnest and repent actually comes from Revelation 3:19. It was a few years ago I realized a connection between two verses I often heard quoted, but not together. Yes! God disciplines those He loves, but look at what comes next in Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person and they with me.

Did you catch that? God structures us so he can have intimate fellowship with us! It’s no wonder that the structure of residential treatment ploughs up the ground for the seeds of the gospel to be planted. The wildness of substance abuse and chemical dependency must be addressed, lassoed and brought under control. When this begins, God begins to speak softly to Youth Town boys and families, reminding them of His unconditional, matchless, amazing love!

So, in the past six years, we have seen hundreds of boys believe that their first day at Youth Town was the worst day of their lives. (Youth Town has been here since 1962, but we have tracked spiritual decision more closely in the past six years.) Once adjusting to the new structure of their lives, over 500 boys have given their hearts to Christ, followed in baptism and have enjoyed a new fellowship with the God who made them and saved them and called them according to His purpose. Upon discharge, many more of our boys see that the first day at Youth Town was indeed one of the best days of their lives.

Pepper Pratt, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Youth Town of Tennessee, husband of Karen and dad to two boys who are both chasing after God.

As a child, many of us were told that if we were ever in the city and got lost, find a police officer. He would help. Jackson’s finest go to work every day to serve and protect, laying their lives on the line, living with the constant tension between serving law abiding citizens and protecting them from those who want what they want when they want it.

Many children today grow up with the belief that officers of the law are people to avoid. The word “cop” has Scottish roots going back to “nabbing, catching or arresting.” So, to avoid the cops means to many kids that they should avoid getting caught. Thus, from this operating system, many youngsters see police officers as an enemy, perhaps dehumanizing them, almost like a video game.

In order to survive emotionally, many police officers compartmentalize those whom they arrest in such a way that depersonalizes them into similar categories. If they are not careful, cynicism can creep in and they can see nearly all people as untrustworthy and possibly up to no good.

Investigators Glenn Buckley and Rusty Ballentine are officers who see beyond the perpetration of crime and have hope that people can change, especially with early intervention. Buckley says, “Rusty and I have always had a passion for helping people take their next step.

Even as Investigators we try to invest in the lives of not only the victims in our cases but also the offenders. We as Christians realize that we mess up every day and that only by God’s grace are we where we are today. Rusty and I have a desire to love people the same way Jesus loves people and that is to meet them where they are and to love them where they are; but to also love them enough to not leave them there.“

The two groups, law enforcement and those in trouble, came together at Youth Town last weekend. These two JPD officers, not so hardened of heart, had a vision to build a bridge with those who have been in trouble. The bridge was made of three days in the woods, teaching boys who are in treatment for substance abuse how to survive in the wild with only the things they possessed on their person.

Both officers identify with the Christ centered mission of Youth Town to help boys out of the captivity of substances through irreversible life change. What they may not have known is the very intentional desire of Youth Town to move more toward a gender responsive approach to treating boys that includes life skills that are unique to (but not limited to) men. Boys thrive on accomplishment and affirmation. The smallest of successes can go a long way toward building confidence that ultimately leads to the hope of a drug-free lifestyle.

So as the Boys in Blue locked arms with Youth Town’s staff, they led the young men, who are residents at Youth Town over the hills, through the woods and by the lake on the property that has been Youth Town’s home since 1962. During the time together, the residents — who are from different parts of West Tennessee and some from Middle Tennessee—learned to build and extinguish a proper campfire.

Although Kumbaya was not sung, there is something about men and campfires and cooking over an open flame that makes for discussion that does not happen in the counseling room. “It was almost more therapeutic than an actual therapy session. The kids talked about their life experiences leading up to where they are. They talked about important occurrences in their life and even how they had hit rock bottom,” said Nathan Judd, Youth Town therapist who participated in the weekend.

The officers taught the boys how to create a shelter from nature—branches, leaves and mud and even live off the land. Surprisingly, even kids from rural towns may not get outside much. But, kids are kids and every kid has a story. “We didn’t know the individual stories of the young men selected to participate and that didn’t matter to us as we hoped that us being police officers wouldn’t matter to them. I would say that it took that first day to build that trust between us and the young men. Once that trust was there you could see the shock on their face, “hey some cops are cool” I heard one of them say”, said Buckley.

Whether it was a first fish caught or simply being in the dark, the boys began to view these officers in a different light. They weren’t cops, but leaders, teachers and potentially, friends. As the officers saw the eagerness of the boys to learn, they quickly became kids in the eyes of the law. Not perpetrators, addicts or even juveniles. Just young men. One of the officers summed it up, “They (the boys participating) were away from their families and friends, had been kicked out of school, and at the beginning of the weekend though not many people cared. At the end of the day they know that there are people that love them exactly where they are right now.”