Signs on the outside point to choices on the inside

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Manuel has two tattoos, one on each shoulder. He pulls aside his orange jumpsuit to show us the words, which are written in a looping script.

“Cielo,” reads one shoulder.

“Inferno,” says the other.

“Cool,” someone in the group says. We’re sitting in our customary Wednesday morning circle in the juvenile detention center. Four boys, two girls, ages 15-17, all in orange jumpsuits. Orange is one level above red. Kids in red are on “security” and not allowed to attend the group.

The look on Manuel’s face is hard to read. It’s not pride, I realize. He’s not showing off for the group. No, there’s something deeper etched into the lines around his mouth as he looks at me.

I might call it reverence. On his shoulders Manuel has outlined the battle for his soul.

“Why did you choose those words?” I ask him.

Some of the kids in the group smile. Like, isn’t it obvious, you know, heaven, hell, angels, devils, life, death?

But Manuel respects the question.

“Because they remind me,” he says, looking down at the floor. His shoes have Velcro ties — no shoelaces allowed in the detention center.

“Of what?” I ask.

“Of what is inside me.”

“What is inside you?”

I know the questions sound stupid, because the answers seem so obvious. But I don’t want to assume anything. This is his story, after all.

“Good,” he says solemnly. “And evil.”

The other kids are leaning forward in their chairs. Good and evil are subjects worthy of attention.

Manuel smiles and softly pats one shoulder, then the other. “I know I have a choice,” he says. “I can choose to be good. Or I can choose to be evil.”

That’s a profound thought, and it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes.

“Somewhere in each of us we’re a mixture of light and of darkness, of love and of hate, of trust and of fear,” said Jean Vanier.

Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an organization of 133 communities in 35 countries where people with and without developmental disabilities share their lives.

“Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weaknesses,” hey says. For “life is a succession of crises and moments when we have to rediscover who we are and what we really want.”

I look around the group and realize that is what we do on these Wednesday mornings when the kids in orange jumpsuits talk about their lives and their “disabilities” — their drug use, their traumas, their fears, their pains. We acknowledge the existence of good and evil. We accept our own weaknesses. And we connect at the broken places.

Not one of us is completely whole. Not one of us can claim heaven without admitting that we’ve been through some hell — even caused some hell — in our lives. No one in the group is all good or all bad. we are both.

And that recognition, it seems to me, contains the seeds of change. For within each of us, and within our communities, we are weak and strong, whole and fractured, hopeful and despairing.

The challenge — and it is a mighty one — is to “lean toward the good.” We all make mistakes. We are human, after all. But if we lean toward the good — if we strive, always, to do the next right thing — we keep moving forward, one step at a time.

And that reminds me of a story.

A preacher put this question to his Sunday school class.

“If all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green,” he asked, “what color would you be?”

One little girl stared at her desk, wrestling with the question. Then her face brightened and she raised her hand.

“I know the answer, Reverend — I’d be streaky!”

Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.

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