During the first Wednesday dinner in Lent, a freshmen reported his excitement about hosting his first "kickback" (defined as a laid back, relaxed party). The report sounded benign to most people present, but I curiously inquired with the student about the planned location for his event. When the young man didn't have a clear answer, my internal alarms immediately went off. I knew that most kickbacks involve drinking alcoholic beverages (thus helping people more easily "kickback"), and I also knew that he had access to the student center after hours. Suspecting that the freshmen had plans to host his kickback in the Center, I gave him clear instructions, "Wade**, do not have a party in this building. Again, do not have a party here." I then turned to my graduate intern and said, "Please swing by here on Friday night if you have time. If there is a party happening call Atlanta Police Department and then call me."
That Friday night, Wade did indeed host a kickback in the Center, and the Atlanta police were summoned. While experiencing a confluence of conflicting emotions, I authorized the arrest of two students. Wade, the primary offender, spent 5 nights in jail for criminal trespassing and underage possession of alcohol.
A few days after Wade's release from the City detention center, I took Wade out for lunch. Over gyros and lemonade I invited Wade to share with me his experiences in jail, and to talk about why he disobeyed my instructions. Wade was humble and sincere. Contrite in heart, he expressed deep sorrow for his actions and shared stories of his encounters with other young black men in the Atlanta City jail. He asked me to pray for his cellmate, and he expressed gratitude for his freedom. Our conversation continued as Wade struggled to explain that he really just wanted to host a party. It was important to him and to his emerging adult identity to host his friends, and to show off the Absalom Jones Center - a place that he considered "home."
Then came the hard part of the conversation - the part where I said, "We are all deeply grieved and frustrated by your actions. The image of the two of you leaving our Center in handcuffs continues to haunt us. I honestly don't know how we are going to be reconciled to one another, but I want us to figure this out." The silence that ensued was filled with grief and angst. Finally Wade blurted out, "I don't know how to make this better! Can't you just punish me? Just ban me from the Center forever!"
The word forever hung in the air between us, and my heart broke as I heard the shame and guilt reverberate in his voice. The pain, his and mine, was so palpable that I had to resist the urge to leave the conversation. With a deep and prayerful sigh, I explained to Wade that he is always welcome to worship at the Center. He is always welcome in God’s house.
Not quite sure how to continue, I invited Wade to spend a few days thinking and praying about how we might walk together down a path of reconciliation. In preparation for our next meeting, I read several works about restorative discipline and the rite of reconciliation. Perhaps because we were in the midst of Lent, I had a very clear sense of the importance of creating space for Wade to be restored to the fellowship. Additionally, since the party and subsequent arrests were witnessed by several students, I was clear that certain elements of this healing process would necessarily involve the entire Absalom Jones community.
Still visibly guilt-ridden, Wade met me in my office two weeks after the incident. In response to my invitation to offer ideas for our next steps, Wade accused me of pulling a “Bill Cosby,” because of my refusal to explore more conventional methods of punishment. He was clearly thrown off by my language of restorative justice, and he didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure either, so we just started talking. He told me stories about his childhood and we exchanged stories about getting into trouble during elementary school. As we shared our stories, the tension and nervousness that we both felt began to melt away. Then, suddenly, in a God-inspired moment of clarity, I asked Wade, “Would you host a party here for our confirmands? Would you share with us your gifts and skills in party planning and hosting?”
Wade spent the remainder of Lent planning and preparing for what became known as the Confirmation/Reconciliation Kickback. We were transparent with the Absalom Jones community about why Wade was hosting the party, and I took time during Eucharist to teach them about models of restorative justice. Wade also did the important work of rebuilding relationships with students at the Center. So on the first Friday of Easter, Wade, with the help of many students from the Center, hosted an “authorized” and alcohol-free kickback. We had a great time together as we celebrated our confirmands and welcomed Wade back into the fellowship of the Church.
(Ash Wednesday, Book of Common Prayer, 264)