Gift of Caring : For Juvenile Hall Chaplain, Making a Difference is Work's Reward

Times Staff Writer

"Let's pray together," Chaplain Priscilla Davis says. "Put your arms around her, God, and hold her close to you."

A girl sits beside Davis at a small Formica table, her white fingers clutching the chaplain's hand. Beyond their bowed heads, the window in the Central Juvenile Hall ward frames a heavy sheet of sullen gray sky.

The girl's abdomen is swollen beneath the gray sweat shirt and she is crying silently as Davis continues her prayer.

"We pray for her unborn child, Lord, for the child will be a great blessing," Davis says as she lifts her head slowly, looking into the girl's pale, round face. They lean across the corner of the small table in a fervent embrace. The girl is depending on Davis to help her get through the next two months: In April, as soon as her baby is born, she goes on trial for murder.

13 Years

Davis, who lives alone in a small Glendale apartment, has spent the last 13 years counseling and consoling young people in three of Los Angeles County's juvenile detention facilities. She has been called to Central in the middle of the night. She has been in the center of gang riots. She has comforted murderers, rapists, suicidal teen-agers. And she works for no pay and few rewards, other than the knowledge of having made a difference in someone's life.

As the supervising chaplain of Christian Chaplain Services, a nondenominational, nonprofit ministry, Davis works with about 200 volunteers who serve in juvenile facilities of the county Probation Department--Los Padrinos in Downey, Kirby Center in City of Commerce and Central in Los Angeles.

Central is the county's largest juvenile detention center, with an average daily population of 837 children and teen-agers. The squat, mustard-colored building just east of downtown Los Angeles is a holding area for children as young as 7 who have been accused of crimes ranging from petty drug deals to multiple murders, armed robbery and rape.

Christian Chaplain Services offers special programs, rap sessions, religious services and one-on-one counseling. During a typical month, Davis and other volunteers may counsel as many as 600 minors in Central alone. Davis works at least 40 hours a week, often on Saturdays and evenings, strictly on a volunteer basis. She lives on a pension from her previous work for the county Department of Public Social Services and on a personal savings account. The county pays only her mileage.

"It's a privilege for me to be doing what I'm doing," Davis said. "I've learned that the purpose of life is to give all you can give during the time you're here."

Davis said she decided at an early age to be a minister, not through any process of analysis and deliberation, but through a gut instinct that told her, "this is where you belong." It was not a conscious choice; it was just something she knew she had to do, she said.

'Always Had Full House'

Her earliest memories are of a sprawling house in Hollywood swarming with relatives and children. "Our home was the center of all the family gatherings," she said. "We always had a full house, especially on holidays. I remember there was just so much love there."

In spite of her memories of a large, loving family, she never married or had children.

"I always felt that my time here was to give my life to the ministry," Davis said. "I didn't say 'I'll never get married.' I just didn't feel the need. The ministry is a total commitment and so is marriage. It's hard to have both."

Davis graduated from USC with a degree in social work. She worked for the Department of Public Social Services, training undergraduate university students, teaching classes in Spanish and acting as a supervisor for the division for the blind. She worked for the county for 25 years.

She received certification as a lay minister from Commissioning of the Laity of Hollywood.

At the same time, she served as a deacon for Hollywood First Presbyterian Church, taught Sunday school, counseled junior high and high school students, and ran a home in Hollywood for unwed mothers. It was while she served as a deacon that she first became involved with Christian Chaplain Services.

"One of the chaplains from Juvenile Hall came to the church to tell about these kids who were deeply troubled," Davis said. "I went down to Central to see what their needs were. And I saw a tremendous opportunity to help these kids while they were young and could still be helped."

Davis thinks that the purpose of Christian Chaplain Services is to offer unconditional love without judging or censuring and to bolster the confidence and fragile self-esteem of children and teen-agers in the detention center.

'Not There to Blame'

"We're not there to blame," she said. "We're not there to condemn. We're there to listen and share. We aren't judges. We only want the kids to be able to face themselves and to like themselves.

"It doesn't matter what they've done," she said. "Usually we don't even know what they've done. That's not important. What is important is that they have the freedom to talk without being punished or judged, knowing that what they say is kept in confidence, knowing that they can be honest and that there is a person who for no reason cares about them and accepts them."

Despite her concern, Davis said she has to allow herself to let go of the burden and resist the impulse to worry about the youths.

"I don't carry the responsibilities home with me," she said. "I can't live and breathe the burden of these kids 24 hours a day--no one can. You burn out way too fast. I have to have other areas in my life."

A piano dominates the living room of her apartment on North Central Avenue. She plays regularly at church services in Glendale and accompanies the men's chorus of the Glendale Kiwanis Club.

"I invest my life in many areas," she said. "I think the ministry should be a special calling, but it's still a question of balance."

Encouraging Words

At Central, as Davis walks down the halls of the girls' dorm, teen-age girls swarm to her for a hug and a word of encouragement. In one room, a girl is crying loudly. Davis enters the room and sits with her on the edge of the narrow iron bed. The girl clings to Davis, sobbing that no one comes to visit her, no one cares. Davis comforts her, promising to be her foster parent on visitors' day.

"So many of these girls don't have anyone," she said, leaving the girl's room. "Most kids in normal families grew up being able to trust their parents. When they can't trust their parents, how can they be expected to trust anyone?"

Across the broad lawn separating the girls' ward from the boys', an energetic volleyball game is in progress. One of the detention officers is cooking hamburgers on a grill as a group of teen-age boys, dressed in gray sweats, sits on the front steps of the dormitory, playing Monopoly and watching the volleyball game. The scene could be any after-school gathering of high school students except for a long line of boys snaking along the building wall, waiting to be searched before they can re-enter the dorm.

Boys smile and wave as Davis approaches. She looks out of place in a bright red dress among the swarming mass of gray sweat suit-clad teen-agers. Her dress is the only spot of red inside Central's walls. In a juvenile detention center where most of the youths are involved with gangs, the colors red and blue are strictly forbidden.

Inside the boys' dorm, a sign on the wall lists what is forbidden: Plastic bags, aluminum, metal, glass, alcohol, medication, glue, guns, knives, electronic cassettes, tattoo equipment or extra clothing. Gang, race, sex or mother talk. Red or blue.

Gang-Related Crime

Davis said she thinks that nearly two-thirds of the youths in Central are there for gang-related crimes, especially younger children who get caught up in the gang activities of older siblings.

The older brothers or sisters "get the young kids to peddle the dope or carry weapons" because they know that if the younger ones are caught, it will result in a lesser sentence, she said. "These kids don't realize that life's going to end sooner than it should if they don't get off the streets."

While other youths their age are concerned with softball games and movie dates, youngsters in Central are waiting to be tried for drug-dealing, armed robbery, rape or murder. Davis blames what she calls society's lax moral standards and a breakdown of the family structure.

"I think one of the main causes is a dysfunctional family," she said. "A lot of them come from families where there is a history of substance abuse and alcoholism. A lot of their parents left, and they have no sense of identity. They have no stability, no family structure."

Davis acknowledged that her work can be depressing and frightening, but she said she has never had second thoughts or regrets.

"I've never felt that I should be doing anything else," she said. "And I've never really been afraid. If you get past fear, you realize that everyone is the same underneath their skin. Everyone has the same fears of being rejected, judged, misunderstood."

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